Long-term tests

Mazda 3

Our five-door comes head-to-head with its legendary sporting cousin at 24-hour race

  • LOTS of cars wear Sport badging, but they don’t all live up to their racy billing in the way our Mazda does. It’s fun to drive and looks great. So if you want a practical family hatchback that mixes sharp handling,decent performance, communicative controls and lots of grip, the 3 merits careful consideration.
  • A Bose surround sound stereo comes as standard in Sport trim. It sounds great, but the large subwoofer, mounted under the boot floor, reduces luggage space by 40 litres. And because the load bay isn’t the most generous to begin with, at 340 litres, this is a real drawback.

Our Mazda 3 has been showing its sporty side lately. Since joining the Auto Express fleet back in June, it has been earning its keep as spacious transport for news and features editor Julie Sinclair and her baby daughter. But just because it’s well suited to family life doesn’t mean the car can’t be fun as well.

As with nearly every other model in the Mazda line-up, the 3 mixes everyday usability with plenty of driver involvement. And the economical but punchy 2.2-litre diesel engine made it the perfect choice for me to use as transport to and from the race track, as I took part in the Britcar 24 Hour race behind the wheel of a specially prepared MX-5.

At first sight, you wouldn’t think our five-door has much in common with its roadster cousin. But the spirit of the MX-5 is alive and kicking in the 3. The two cars share the same positive steering and keen responses, while the hatchback’s six-speed manual gearbox has a snappy and slick-shifting action, similar to that of the two-seater.

In fact, all the 3’s controls are perfectly judged, and it involves the driver enough to raise a smile along a twisty road. It looks the part, too. I think the optional metallic blue paint highlights the car’s sharp styling, and in Sport trim you get unique bumpers, side skirts and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Inside, the sports seats are supportive yet comfortable on long trips, plus they’re heated. The maker’s simple sales strategy means there’s very little you can add to the exceptionally well equipped flagship.

Bluetooth, cruise control and a six-CD multichanger are all standard on Sport models like ours.

The cabin is also solid and straightforward. A decent range of adjustment on the steering wheel and seat means the driving position is spot-on and the multifunction wheel places phone, cruise control and audio functions within easy reach. And while I don’t have the paraphernalia of parenthood to carry around with me, the Mazda proved more than capable of swallowing a car full of team mechanics on trips to and from the track.

Even when the cabin is fully loaded, the 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel has enough torque to deliver excellent performance. It’s refined as well, and returned very respectable average fuel economy of 37.8mpg during the course of my long race weekend. Equally impressive is the car’s motorway refinement.

On the track, the MX-5 can rival far more expensive machinery, thanks to its agile chassis, superb handling and lightweight construction. And the 3 also provides the impression that you are getting a lot for your money. It’s great to drive, spacious, generously equipped, and comfortable – and when the chequered flag fell on my time with the hatch, I really didn’t want to give back the keys.

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