Mazda 3

Whoever coined the phrase "less is more" obviously struck a chord at Mazda. A decade ago, the company was aiming high in the numbers game with its 323 - a car I proudly run in my spare time. These days, Mazda is shooting much lower, courtesy of its more modestly named 3.

  • Styling, comfortable driving position, spacious rear, sporty to drive, decent performance, bright Winning Blue paint finish
  • Gearstick is too close to front passenger chair, irritating seatbelt alert, engine can be noisy

Whoever coined the phrase "less is more" obviously struck a chord at Mazda. A decade ago, the company was aiming high in the numbers game with its 323 - a car I proudly run in my spare time. These days, Mazda is shooting much lower, courtesy of its more modestly named 3.

The question is, has the move from 323 to 3 added up to a winner? Having had the opportunity to try the four-door 2.0 Sport version of the 3 on our long-term fleet, I'd say it most definitely has.

The most obvious improvement is in the build quality. Our model feels much more solid than the old car, and the cabin is far better thought out. With lots of storage, a decent glovebox, neat cup-holders and a six-disc CD changer - similar to those in the Ford Focus and Volvo V50 - it's a significant step forward. It's given my wife's Chas'n'Dave CDs a whole new lease of life! However, I was surprised to discover that the control for the electric mirrors doesn't seem to have changed in nine years. It's identical to the one in my car, and positioned in exactly the same place. Time for Mazda's switchgear boffins to get their thinking caps on!

Handling wise, I've been impressed. On the road, the 3 offers a sportier drive than many of its rivals, delivering plenty of grip and positive steering. And although I've been in smoother-riding cars, overall it absorbs bumps well. I'm not so sure the engine is a massive advance over my 323's, though. The 3's 2.0-litre unit offers more torque low-down than the 323's V6, but it can be noisy at speed, and the lack of a sixth gear is frustrating. I'd love to try a 3 fitted with a V6, or even the rotary engine from the firm's RX-8. Still, I've no complaints with the new Mazda's performance - although it's pretty thirsty, with the economy figure currently at 26mpg.

In terms of comfort, the 3 is far superior. With plenty of legroom, its driving position is certainly better than the cramped 323. However, a recent trip threw up one quibble - just how close the gearlever is sited to the front passenger seat. When someone is sat next to you, it's pretty easy to hit their right knee with your hand when finding first gear.

That's not my only gripe. The beeping alert which indicates you're not wearing the seatbelt is a commendable safety feature, but does it have to be so loud? I'm sure Mazda might consider this progress, but I think I prefer the silence of my old-timer!

There's not much else I'd trade, though... 3's certainly the magic number in this head-to-head.

Second opinion

While the 3's abilities on the road are clear, its screenwash warning light continues to perplex. Having previously lit for six weeks before a refill was required, it has now taken to flashing on randomly - although when the brakes are applied seems to be a favourite. Hopefully, another top-up will have it back on its best behaviour.Graham Hope, managing editor

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