Mazda 3 1.6 TS

Eager handling and solid build make the 3 a strong contender here.

You can see from our pictures how similar the Mazda 3 and Impreza are. From the headlights and grille through to the upswept rear quarter glass and even the back end, they are a very close match.

However, that’s not necessarily a good thing for Subaru, as the 3 looks rather bland and dated. There isn’t much to grab the attention, and it wouldn’t exactly be our first port of call as inspiration for a new car design. There are some appealing touches, such as the black surround on the tail-lights and the honeycomb grille but, on the whole, it’s far from exciting.

And inside, the design does little to alter our opinion. Despite revisions last year, the cabin lacks inspiration and the styling is ordinary. All the same, build quality is good, and the red lights that flash when you turn on the stereo add interest. The interior is more modern than the Subaru’s, and the layout of the switchgear is better than in the Astra, even if the thin-rimmed steering wheel is not particularly pleasant to hold.

There are lots of storage options, including a pair of large cup-holders, along with useful door pockets. And the driving position is the best here, with plenty of adjustment in the steering column.

The seats provide decent lateral support and are the most comfortable. This is particularly noticeable in the back, especially since the 3 has the most legroom of our test trio at 710mm, compared with 670mm in the Subaru and 690mm in the Astra. While head space isn’t as generous as in the Impreza, the Mazda is more roomy overall.

On the road, the 3 is the only car that really impresses. Although the Subaru has a more supple ride and the Astra feels composed, the Mazda delivers taut body control and turns in precisely. Even though it has a softer damper set-up than the Astra, potholes are still quite noticeable from inside the cabin, and the 3 tends to fidget over small bumps.

But it still lacks the refinement of the class leaders. The 1.6-litre petrol powerplant is smooth, responsive and much less intrusive than the Vauxhall engine, particularly at high revs. This was illustrated by our noise meter tests. The 3 posted lower readings on the move and at idle, where it was 4dB quieter than the Astra both outside and in, at 52dB and 38dB respectively.

The Mazda’s 104bhp output is the lowest here, but in practice, the car is far less sluggish than the all-wheel-drive Subaru. And the 3 is much easier to drive at low speed, helped by the light action of the five-speed gearbox. At the test track, it couldn’t match the Vauxhall, completing the 0-60mph sprint in 10.9 seconds, thanks to lower gearing. It was also slower from 30-70mph, but proved quicker in both third and fifth gear, and outpaced the Impreza on all other fronts.

The Mazda arguably represents the best value for money. While it costs more to buy than the Subaru, it’s cheaper to run and returns better economy. Standard kit is generous, too; our base TS has climate control, alloys and a multifunction steering wheel (a lower-spec S model is available, but only with a 1.4-litre petrol engine).

However, stability control can’t be specified, and luxuries such as sat-nav, a powered sunroof and a CD multichanger aren’t offered even as optional extras. You will have to upgrade to a TS2 or Sport version to get them!

Details

Price: £13,340
Model tested: Mazda 3 1.6 TS
Chart position: 1
WHY: Sharing its underpinnings with the Ford Focus, the Mazda is well equipped and good to drive.

Economy

Both front-wheel-drive cars were more frugal than the Impreza. The aerodynamic shape enabled the Mazda to achieve a respectable 34.0mpg, although the 3 is heavier than the Astra, and so could not match its figure.

Residuals

If you want a safe place for your money, the Mazda 3 is the best choice in this test. It retains 39.2 per cent of its original cost so, after three years, it’s worth £5,229. But compared to the class leaders, that’s not a great figure.

Servicing

In our latest Driver Power poll, Mazda’s showrooms were voted a respectable 14th, and they scored very well for value. As if to prove the point, the first three services for the 3 come to an impressive grand total of only £445.

Tax

Producing 162g/km of CO2, the 3 sits one tax bracket higher than the Vauxhall. However, it’s a better choice for business users than the Subaru, and lower-band owners will have to pay the Treasury £558 annually.

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