Mazda 3 1.6 MZ-CD

Is three the magic number for Mazda?

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

There’s no denying the 3 offers a dynamic driving experience to rival the class-leaders. It sticks to the road like glue, the feelsome steering inspires bags confidence in corners and the range of powerful but frugal engines are fantastic. It’s just a shame that the cluttered interior can’t do the sharp handling or the crisp design any justice. An excellent car that’s unlikely to ever get the attention it deserves.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this car for the Japanese manufacturer – not only is it the firm’s best-selling model worldwide, but it’s entering the ring with UK favourites like the Ford Focus and classy MkVI Golf.

As with its predecessor, the 3 shares its underpinnings with the Focus – known for its sublime chassis. Mazda has also achieved what other manufacturers find so difficult. Just like the latest 2 and 6, this incarnation weighs less than the last – up to 15kg to be exact – while still offering more generous dimensions, better interior space and more standard kit for your money.

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

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It looks good too. Most significant changes have occurred at the front of the car, where a new, more expressive face smiles back at you. RX-8 style lights, as well as the larger side air intakes with neatly integrated fog lamps, give the car a sportier look than its predecessor.

Elsewhere the creased body panels resemble the Mazda6’s styling, but distilled into a hatchback shape. Overall, it’s an eye-catching design, but considering the platform is little more than a tightened and stiffened version of the old car’s underpinnings, it could have been more adventurous to make it stand out from the crowd.

Mazda has never been shy about the fact that driving dynamics, or the ‘Zoom-Zoom’ philosophy, are high of its list of priorities. And it shines through the moment you get behind the wheel. The steering is crisp and loads up nicely under cornering - offering feedback from the front wheels – while it feels grippy and composed in the bends. Changing gear is notchy and precise, as we’ve come to expect from Mazda and every engine has been tuned to offer a sporty soundtrack, too.

But the real surprise is the level of refinement and comfort, despite the agile character of the car. Mazda claim a six to eleven per cent reduction in road noise, and it’s true. Wind flutter and road roar are virtually non-existent, while the suspension absorbs bumps like a sponge and offers decent body-control on the move.

It’s a shame that the interior can’t live up to the quality of the driving experience though. A lot of thought has gone into the cabin layout – positioning the tiny navigation and trip computer screen high on the dash Honda Civic-style, so your eyes don’t have to stray far from the road – but it’s a button-fest that feels old-fashioned already, and the quality of the new Golf’s interior puts it to shame.

There’s a new range of more powerful and economical direct-injection petrol and diesel engines to choose from. Our test car was fitted with 1.6-diesel producing 107bhp and 240Nm of torque, while emitting 119g/km of CO2 and returning 63mpg. And on the winding roads of our test-route it was no slouch, delivering its torque low down in the rev range for effortless progress.

The Mazda3 has always been somewhat anonymous in the UK, despite being a genuinely entertaining car to drive. Lets hope Mazda has done enough to ensure this talented all-rounder gets the recognition it deserves.

Rival: VW Golf Picking up where the old model left off, the new Golf offers polished dynamics, but has upped its game significantly in terms of build quality and luxury. Innovative TSI petrol engines, economical diesels and the option of a DSG gearbox make the Golf more desirable than ever.

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