Mazda 3 1.6 S

Hatchback mixes quality, versatility and fun in top-value package

You'll struggle to find more ‘average’ models than in the family hatchback sector. To attract the broadest possible range of buyers, firms generally play safe with styling and driving dynamics. And while these cars are often attractively priced and well equipped, they’re designed to appeal to the head, not the heart. But that’s not the case with the Mazda 3.

Launched last year, the hatchback combines an eye-catching exterior with the firm’s trademark sharp chassis. Better still, the five-door packs a versatile cabin and a decent kit count. An entry-level 1.6-litre S will set you back £14,230. And while this figure just busts our £14,000 budget, the 3 undercuts many of its family hatchback rivals, and is more desirable than most of them.

Some buyers will be happy to pay that for the head-turning looks alone. With its aggressive nose, swept-back headlamps and bold flanks, the 3 stands out from the hatchback herd. The car in our pictures is a mid-spec TS model, but the S looks exactly the same, and even gets the sporty rear spoiler. In fact, the only visual clue to its entry-level status are the plastic trims covering the 15-inch steel wheels rather than a set of pretty alloy rims.

Inside, it’s not hard to be impressed by the standard of fit and finish. The attractively styled dashboard is covered with soft-touch materials, while all the switches and buttons operate precisely. You get a lot of kit for your money, too. Air-conditioning, electric front windows and mirrors, stability control and a comprehensive trip computer all come as standard.

Practicality impresses, too – there’s room for five adults, a large glovebox and deep door bins. And if carrying capacity is a priority, this less expensive Mazda is a better bet than more costly versions. Higher-spec cars get a Bose sound system, complete with a boot-mounted sub-woofer, which restricts load space to a cramped 300 litres. In contrast, our model has a competitive 340 litres.

On the move, it’s clear the 3 shares the same mechanical DNA as the firm’s sporty MX-5 roadster. The steering is sharp, which helps the nose to turn in eagerly, while strong body control and decent grip boost agility further.

Adding to the involving driving dynamics are progressive brakes and a crisp action for the five-speed gearbox. The smooth 104bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine responds keenly and sounds sporty as the revs rise. Yet when you want to relax, the 3 serves up a quiet and composed ride, which helps take the strain out of long journeys. Add all these strengths together and you have an entertaining and stylish family hatch. Only the price is average.

In detail * Price: £14,230 * Residual value (after 3yrs/30,000): £6,133/43.1% * Benefit in kind tax bracket: 18% * Annual tax liability (std/higher rate): £512/£1,025 * Road tax band/cost: F/£125 * Insurance group: 12 * Driver Power position (manufacturer/dealer): 14th/19th * Euro NCAP (adult/child/ped/overall): 86/84/51/5 stars * Engine: 1.6-litre 4cyl petrol * Power/torque: 104bhp at 6,000rpm/145Nm at 4,000rpm  * 0-60mph/top speed: 12.2 seconds/114mph * CO2: 149g/km * Urban/extra urban/combined econ: 34.0/54.3/44.8mpg * Length/width: 4,460mm/1,755mm * Wheelbase/height: 2,640mm/1,470mm  * Kerbweight: 1,257kg  Boot capacity: 340/1,360 litres * Standard equipment: Air-con, aux-in, electric heated mirrors, six airbags, traction control, trip computer

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