Mazda 3 review
The new Mazda 3 is a stylish, well-built hatchback that's fun to drive and cheap to run
The Mazda 3 has continued the rich vein of form Mazda is in right now, producing a range of cars that are good-looking, great fun to drive and well-priced. The 3 hatchback is one of the best of the bunch, feeling more fun to drive than a Ford Focus or VW Golf and more than a match for other family favourites like the Vauxhall Astra and Kia Cee'd. There’s even a saloon-bodied Fastback version that offers a cheaper alternative to the VW Jetta and Audi A3 Saloon.
Three main trim grade split the Mazda 3 range: kicking off at SE, then SE-L, the top-spec is Sport, while adding sat-nav to your car upgrades it to a ‘Nav’ variant, i.e. an SE-L with sat-nav becomes a SE-L Nav, in Mazda-speak. Four engines are available: a 1.5-litre petrol, a 2.2-litre diesel, and a 2.0-litre petrol offering either 119bhp or 163bhp. There’s no true hot hatch version, nor a super-eco rival for VW’s Bluemotion range, however.
Underpinning the 3 and all of Mazda’s recent successes is its ‘SkyActiv’ engineering technology, which focuses on high-tech manufacturing methods and reduced numbers of components to save weight and improve efficiency and agility. The 3 is a great example of the SkyActiv thinking in action, as it’s lighter, more frugal and better to drive than the old 3. Quality is up too, though the rakish shape does mean the 3 isn’t as roomy in the back, and the rear window’s narrow shape inhibits visibility.
Our choice: Mazda 3 2.2D Sport
Over the years, Mazda has forged itself a strong name for building good-looking, affordable cars and the latest Mazda3 is no exception.
Undoubtedly influenced by the sleek and swoopy Mazda6 saloon, the Mazda3 has the much more understated looking Volkswagen Golf beaten in the styling department. This is especially true when you factor in that low roof and steeply rising waistline. Thankfully, the design transfers nicely over to the saloon-styled Fastback model, which ends up looking a little like a shrunken Mazda 6 – and that's a good thing.
From the entry level SE model upwards, all models get alloy wheels, colour-coded door handles and mirrors as standard, while the SE-L gets bi-Xenon headlamps and LED running lights thrown into the deal. Top-spec Mazda3 Sport models also benefit from all of this kit, plus 18-inch alloy wheels.
Mazda’s design flair continues inside, with an attractively styled dash packed with neat touches, such as the digital displays for the rev counter and fuel gauge. Quality is good, too. The cabin is packed with robust materials and all switchgear works precisely.
Just as it hasn't scrimped on exterior kit, Mazda fits the 3 with a seven-inch tablet-style touchscreen as standard across the range, but does charge for it to be fitted with sat-nav. The system can be accessed by a rotary controller (similar to that found in any new Audi) on the centre console and features clear graphics.
However, a minor criticism with the system would be that accessing small things such as radio presets requires the user to go through various sub menus.
Just as the styling hints, the Mazda3 has been conceived and the real highlight is its agile handling.
The Mazda 3 is one of the best-handling front-drive family hatches on sale. A twisty backroad is where the Mazda 3's nimble handling, strong grip and excellent chassis control really come to the fore. To inspire even more confidence, the Mazda3 offers neutral balance and steering with positive turn-in.
The precise steering is light, direct and delivers positive turn-in, plus the brake pedal offers a perfectly progressive action.
When in the driver's seat, you're faced with a light, leather-trimmed steering wheel which offers engaging steering feel, a precise short-throw six-speed gearbox and a brake pedal which offers progressive stopping power.
The Mazda3 is also fast, especially the range topping 2.2-litre diesel Sport, which packs 148bhp and has a 0-60 time of 8.2 seconds. The SkyActiv diesel engine also feels strong in-gear as a result of its muscular 380Nm torque level, but what's most impressive, is the petrol-like throttle response and smoothness of the engine.
The 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated 118bhp petrol Mazda3 is expected to be the bestseller, but it'll take some getting used to if you normally drive a turbocharged family hatch. Rather than being in the middle, most of torque on this Mazda 3 sits at the higher end of the rev range so you'll most likely have to be in a gear lower than you'd expect.
A six-speed automatic gearbox is available as option, though only consider it if you really are adverse to changing gear manually as the six-speed manual effort is a delight. Mazda says it set up the shift action to replicate the sensation of a Mazda MX-5’s, and it shows. That said, the six-speed automatic affair is a good transmission. It’s uses a torque-convertor rather than dual-clutches, so while it’s not quite as snappy when driving quickly as, say, a VW-Group DSG ’box, it’s actually smoother when you’re making relaxed progress.
Surprisingly, Mazda hasn't compromised the pace of the Mazda3 for refinement and at idle, the 2.2-litre diesel is almost silent. Wind noise is virtually zero and the ride smooths out most bumps. However, it's not all perfect as potholes can send a shudder through the cabin and while it's quiet, there's still more road noise than in the Volkswagen Golf.
Mazda has a reputation for building durable cars, and the 3 bagged a top 25 finish in our 2014 Driver Power satisfaction survey, with owners reserving particular praise for reliability and build quality.
The 3 was also awarded a five-star rating in the Euro NCAP tests. All models get six airbags, stability control and low-speed collision avoidance as standard, but you'll have to select a higher spec SE-L model if you want automatic lights and wipers, and rear parking sensors.
Lane departure warning and rear vehicle monitoring (£700) are only available on flagship Sport Nav cars.
Rear passengers don’t get quite as much leg or headroom, while the small side windows add to the slightly claustrophobic feel. It’s not only passengers who suffer, because the Mazda's bootspace is small, too.
Its 364-litre boot is 106 litres behind the 308’s, plus there are no useful shopping bag hooks or even a 12-volt power supply. The Fastback does have a slightly more spacious 419-litre boot and there's a nice wide opening to make loading big items easy.
On the plus side, there’s lots of storage elsewhere in the Mazda, including deep door bins, a lidded cubby between the front seats and a large, air-conditioned glovebox.
Surprisingly, the most economical Mazda3 in the range is the one with the biggest engine, the 2.2-litre diesel. It returns a combined economy of 68.9mpg and has CO2 emissions of 107g/km. If you choose the same engine with the automatic gearbox, its combined cycle drops to 58.9mpg with CO2 levels rising to 129g/km.
The 98bhp 1.5-litre petrol manages a combined economy of 55.4mpg and 119g/km of CO2, but it feels a little sluggish. Therefore, we'd opt for the 2.0-litre petrol with 118bhp, the same combined cycle and emission levels of 129g/km CO2. There is also a 162bhp version of the 2.0-litre petrol engine, but the combined cycle drops to 48.7mpg with CO2 emissions of 129g/km. Going for the Fastback model will end up shaving a gram of CO2/km from the figures because of its more aerodynamic design.
Compared to the smaller turbocharged units found in the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus, Mazda has gone in the opposite direction by fitting the Mazda3 with mid-sized naturally aspirated engines. It claims they are more efficient, and you'll be able to get closer to the claimed economy figures in the real world.
Although the Mazda has a decent standard kit list, it’s not as generously specified as a SEAT Leon or Peugeot 308. A limited options line-up means you’ll have to trade up to the pricier SE-L or Sport models if you want desirable additions such as cruise control, parking sensors and auto lights and wipers.
Private buyers will be heartened by the predicted residuals of 42.8 per cent, but no pre-paid servicing deal is available.