Mazda hatches never used to be particularly accomplished. This improved third generation Mazda3 is different. June Neary reports
Will It Suit Me?
Back in the eighties, Mazda hatches used to be the automotive equivalent of white goods. You bought a 323 if you had no interest in motoring but wanted a reliable scoot that your friends wouldn't laugh at. These days, those sort of tactics aren't anything like enough to cut the mustard in the cut-throat family hatch sector and Mazda's current foray into this market, the third generation Mazda3, is a whole lot more accomplished, especially in recently improved form. I even caught a few passers by giving it the rubber neck treatment, such is its sleek styling. The car I looked at was a 2.2-litre diesel model and it seemed very well built. It's the sort of car I like - good looking but not showy, with five door practicality, promising keen reliability and not averse to showing its playful side.
If you've ever driven the current generation Mazda6, you'll feel at home in the 3, as many of the design themes seem quite similar. From the outside, this car is certainly very sharp-looking in either five-door hatch or 'Fastback' saloon forms. There's the same beaky family face that's sported by the Mazda6 and the CX-5, with a longer bonnet than before to lend the car a more dynamic, muscular look. I was keen though, to see what changes Mazda had made to the interior, which felt a little plasticky in the original version of this MK3 model. The answer is that a step forward has been made, though you wouldn't finger this car amongst the class leaders in this respect. The changes made are welcome though, with, for example, an enhanced 'Active Driving Display' featuring a high quality full-colour screen. It eases communicating information to drivers without any need for them to take their eyes off the road. Mazda has also improved steering wheel ergonomics too. Otherwise, things are much as before, with strong standards of interior space and a decently-sized 350-litre boot. The metallic inserts around the cabin are nice, the three dial instrument pack is neat and I like the way that most of the minor controls have been tidied into a touch screen controller. My passengers were pleased to find the cabin very spacious too - and it was easy to get childseats in and out. The seat fabric also seemed hard wearing - and resistant to chocolate stains!
Behind the Wheel
Mazda has paid great attention to the 3's chassis rigidity and electro-hydraulic power steering in pursuit of a sporty driving experience. The Mazda3 has always been a fun car to drive, its outright talent perhaps a little masked by heavily-assisted steering, but it now has more feedback and feels less like a PlayStation game. The gearbox snicks from cog to cog with a slicker action. And refinement has taken a useful step forward. There are four engine options, all of which are designed around Mazda's SkyActiv technology. You're probably used to such nonsense buzzwords, but bear with this one because there's real merit behind it. SkyActiv aims to improve efficiency by reducing weight and utilising smart functions such as capturing waste energy to power things like the air-conditioning when the car is stationary. It even extends to functions like an active shutter front grille which closes for better aerodynamics when the engine isn't in immediate need of cooling. The engines comprise an entry-level 1.5-litre petrol and two 2.0-litre petrol units, as well as 1.5 and 2.2-litre diesels. The 1.5-litre engine produces 99bhp and will go from rest to 62mph in 10.8 seconds, while the 2.2-litre diesel I tried will cover the benchmark sprint in 8.1 seconds, thanks to its punchy 148bhp engine. The 2.0-litre petrol engine is offered in two distinct flavours; one packing 118bhp and the other with 165bhp. Performance? Think rest to 62mph in 8.9 seconds for the standard version and 8.2 seconds for the higher power version. Buyers of the 118bhp 2.0-litre petrol and the 2.2-litre diesel are also offered the option of a six-speed automatic.
Value For Money
Pricing sits mainly in the £17,500 to £24,000 bracket and the Mazda3 is offered as a five-door hatchback or a four-door 'Fastback' saloon, the latter bodystyle rivalling cars like the Volkswagen Golf and the Audi A3 saloon. Those aren't the key targets in Mazda's crosshairs though. Those conquest sales will largely come from mainstream marques, with the Ford Focus, the Vauxhall Astra, the Renault Megane and the Peugeot 308 being more comparable. Buyers choose between SE, SE-L and Sport trim levels, with or without sat nav. Even the base SE comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, power-folding heated mirrors, a leather steering wheel, a trip computer, a radio/CD with six speaker audio system, a 7-inch TFT colour touch screen, USB/iPod connectivity and a Bluetooth hands-free system. All models also come with Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) which helps to reduce or prevent low-speed collisions by automatically applying the brakes if the driver fails to act, plus there's Hill Hold Assist (HHA) to prevent roll back.
Could I Live With One?
It would be difficult to find anybody who'd have an issue with this Mazda3. It's a very versatile, all-things-to-all-people sort of car that never lapses into blandness. If I was delving into my own pocket, I'd probably choose the 1.5-litre petrol car as it offers a competitive upfront price versus the diesel model. Having said that, if you're planning to keep your Mazda3 for a very long time or rack up interstellar mileages, the diesel option may work out more cost effective. Whichever model you choose, it's hard to pick a meaningful Achilles heel.