Mazda 3 2.2D Sport

Sharp-driving Japanese hatch is a major step forward.

Mazda is going from strength to strength. It has just overtaken Nissan to become the third best-selling Japanese brand in the UK, and its sporty and well built cars have a unique style.

The new 3 follows the family trait for bold, athletic and well proportioned design. Parked by the Golf, our Sport model seems far more dynamic. While there’s no denying the VW’s understated solidity, the Mazda is one of the best-looking cars in the class.

Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the Mazda 3

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Unfortunately, you don’t get the same sense of style inside the 3. Or, for that matter, the ergonomic attention to detail and material quality that you find in the Golf. Yet compared to the outgoing model, Mazda has done a good job. The plastics are more appealing and the design is modern. You even get trendy footwell lighting and soft-touch dash materials. The driving position is reasonable, but there’s not as much reach adjustment on the wheel as in the VW, so some drivers will need to compromise.

Also, despite having a longer wheelbase than its German rival, there is less space for rear passengers, and the boot is 5o litres smaller than the VW’s. But crucially, from behind the wheel, the Mazda doesn’t disappoint. After only a few hundred metres you can tell it is more dynamically focused than the Golf. There’s less body roll and through tight corners the front tyres hold their line for longer before letting go. The steering is also very precise.

There is a trade-off for this sharpness, however. On bumpy roads, the Mazda’s firmer suspension fidgets over surfaces which the Golf – complete with optional adaptive damping – irons out. On smoother tarmac, the 3’s ride is comfortable, but it can’t match the VW’s refinement at speed.

The latest Golf’s ability to isolate road and wind noise from the cabin is still unmatched in this class, and our sound meter showed the Mazda was 4dB louder at 70mph. This is partly the fault of the 3’s shorter sixth gear, which means the engine runs 200rpm higher than the VW’s at 70mph.

The 3’s 2.2-litre diesel is very smooth, however, and its free-revving nature gives it the character of a petrol model. There’s a bit of clatter at idle and under load, though through the revs it’s really silky. Acceleration is good, too, but despite more capacity, a 10bhp power advantage and 40Nm of extra torque, its performance is almost matched by the Golf’s. The 3 also pays the price with higher emissions than the VW.

Where it can’t be beaten is in terms of kit. Following Mazda’s formula of providing generous standard equipment, the 2.2D Sport includes heated seats, auto climate control, power folding mirrors and parking sensors – all are optional on the VW. Add the fact that it’s £195 cheaper, and the Mazda looks very attractive. But can it beat our reigning champ?

In detail: * Price: £18,440 * Engine: 2.2-litre 4cyl, 148bhp * 0-60mph: 8.9 seconds * Claimed economy: 52.3mpg * CO2: 144g/km * Euro NCAP rating: TBA

Details

Chart position: 2WHY: Smart styling, a sharp chassis and strong engine make it a contender for class honours.

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