Mazda 3 review
The new Mazda 3 is a stylish hatchback that's fun to drive and cheap to run
Despite its bold looks, sharp handling and solid build quality, Mazda’s outgoing 3 didn’t stamp its authority on the fiercely fought compact family hatchback market. But the all-new third-generation model, which rivals the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra. promises to finally take the brand to the top of the class.
Not only is it bigger and more efficient, the new 3 also has an upmarket interior with a long list of standard kit. Plus, it offers sleek styling, and promises strong performance and engaging driving dynamics.
Mazda’s excellent SkyActiv engines are one of the latest hatch’s key selling points – the range includes everything from a smooth 98bhp 1.5-litre petrol to the muscular 2.2-litre diesel tested here. Plus, buyers have a choice of SE, SE-L and Sport Nav trims, and unusually for this class there’s also the option of a four-door saloon alongside the five-door hatch.
Our choice: Mazda 3 2.2D Sport
Mazda has built a strong reputation for designing eye-catching cars – and the latest 3 upholds this. With its mix of swooping curves and sharp creases, the newcomer clearly takes its cues from the sleek 6 saloon. Factor in the low roof and steeply rising waistline, and it has the sober-suited VW Golf beaten for kerb appeal. All versions get alloy wheels and body-coloured door handles and mirrors, while the SE-L model is identified by its bi-xenon headlamps and LED running lights. Top-spec Sport models benefit from 18-inch rims.
The design flair continues inside, with an attractively styled dashboard that’s packed with novel touches, including digital displays for the rev counter and fuel gauge. Quality is excellent: the cabin uses soft-touch materials and all switchgear works precisely – the metal-finished air-con controls are a real highlight.
All versions also a get a seven-inch tablet-style touchscreen for the infotainment and £750 optional sat-nav. The set-up features clear graphics and can also be accessed using a rotary controller on the centre console. And while it can be a little frustrating to use – you have to enter various sub menus just to get to radio presets – this is only a minor gripe, and owners will soon get to grips with the system.
From the moment you climb behind the wheel and settle into the low-slung seat, it’s clear that the Mazda has been designed with keen drivers in mind. The leather-trimmed steering wheel is light and direct, the six-speed gearbox has a precise action and short throw and the brake pedal offers a perfectly progressive action. This first impression is reinforced when you head down a twisting back road, as the Mazda 3 has agile handling, strong grip and excellent body control. Better still, the direct steering delivers positive turn-in, and the neutral balance inspires huge confidence.
The 3 is fast, too, especially with the 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel. Its 8.2-second time in the sprint from 0-60mph is impressive, but thanks to its muscular 380Nm torque output, it feels strong in-gear as well. But what really impresses is the petrol-like throttle response and smoothness of this diesel family car – it encourages you to use all the available performance.
The predicted best-seller is a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol with 118bhp, which takes some getting used to if you normally drive a turbocharged family hatch. Most of the torque sits at the top of the rev range, rather than in the middle so you’ll probably have to be in a gear lower than you’d expect.
Happily, this hot hatch pace and crisp handling don’t come at the expense of refinement. At idle, the 2.2-litre diesel is almost silent, wind noise is virtually absent at speed and the ride smooths out most bumps. It’s not all good news, though, as potholes can send a shudder through the cabin, plus there’s more road noise than in the whisper-quiet VW Golf.
Mazda has a strong reputation for building durable cars, and was voted fourth best manufacturer in our Driver Power 2013 satisfaction survey. Better still, the all-new 3 shares engines and components with the brilliant CX-5 SUV, which finished fifth in Driver Power.
Euro NCAP gave the 3 a five-star crash test rating - all models get six airbags, stability control and city safe low-speed collision avoidance as standard, while SE-L versions upwards add automatic lights and wipers, plus rear parking sensors. Top-spec Sport Navs can be specified with lane departure warning and Mazda’s rear vehicle monitoring system for £700.
Given its rakish exterior styling, we weren’t surprised to find that the Mazda can’t match the VW Golf for interior space. For instance, rear passengers don’t get quite as much legroom, while our tape measure revealed that the 3 had 80mm less headroom than the VW. These more cramped conditions are exaggerated by the car’s small side windows and dark trim, which combine to create a claustrophobic feel.
It’s not just passengers who suffer; the Mazda also trails on luggage capacity, with its 364-litre boot 16 litres behind the Golf’s, plus there are no handy shopping bag hooks or even a 12V power supply. Still, the 3 closes the gap on space when you fold the rear seats flat, offering 1,263 litres to the VW’s 1,270 litres.
There’s loads of useful storage elsewhere in the Mazda, including deep door bins, a large, air-conditioned glovebox and a deep, lidded cubby between the front seats. And as in the Golf, there are plenty of cup-holders, including two hidden in the fold out rear armrest.
The best for running costs will be the 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel, which manages 72.4mpg and 104g/km of CO2. There are also two petrol choices, though, with a 1.5-litre and a 2.0-litre. The former manages 56.4mpg but feels a little slow so we’d say go for the 118bhp 2.0-litre if you can – it’s not too far behind with 55mpg. There is also a 162bhp version of this engine, but that brings economy down to 50mpg.
It's unusual that Mazda has gone for relatively large naturally aspirated engines rather than the small turbocharged units found in the Golf and the Focus but Mazda claims they’re more efficient for more of the time. That means you’ll be able to get closer to the claimed economy figures in the real world, and as an example we drove the 55mpg model 1,000 miles and managed to achieve a little over 40mpg.
Our experts predict the Mazda will hold on to just 40.5 per cent of its value after three years. Private buyers will also be sad to hear there’s no pre-paid service pack