Mazda hatches never used to be particularly accomplished. This fourth 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 fourth generation Mazda3, is a whole lot more accomplished. 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 1.8-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 saloon forms. There's the same smart family face that's sported by the Mazda6 and the CX-5, with a low nose, elegant panel shaping and a sloping roof line that flows neatly into the rear screen.
I was keen though, to see what changes Mazda had made to the interior, which felt a little plasticky in the previous generation model. The answer is that a step forward has been made, smart materials crafted with interesting design, plus button clutter has been well and truly banished. There's a big, clear 8.8-inch display on top of the dash nicely angled towards the driver. And there's a lower rotary controller for it so you don't have to stab away at inexact touchscreen functionality in the kind of way that's necessary with many rival set-ups. I wasn't quite so impressed by the level of interior space. There are much bigger rear seats in this class and the boot is smaller than before, offering just 295-litres of space - not much for a car in this class. 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 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 three engine options, all of which are designed around Mazda's SkyActiv technology. Most sales will be based around either a 122PS 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol unit (now a mild hybrid) or a conventional 1.8-litre 116ps Skyactiv-D diesel. The third option is the brand's more advanced Skyactiv-X Spark Controlled Compression Ignition engine, a 182PS supercharged unit which runs on petrol but uses a combination of spark ignition and compression ignition to deliver, Mazda claims, the driver appeal of a petrol unit along with the fuel efficiency and torque of a diesel. This Skyactiv-X powerplant is able to switch from compression ignition, which best suits day-to-day driving, to a form of spark ignition, generally when the engine is started from cold or the driver demands maximum power at high revs. The 'X' engine comes paired with four wheel drive for our market, but as you might expect, the cost of all this technology makes it a pricey choice.
Value For Money
Pricing sits mainly in the £21,000 to £28,000 bracket and the Mazda3 is offered as a five-door hatchback or a four-door saloon. Conquest sales will largely come from mainstream marques, with the Ford Focus, the Vauxhall Astra, the Renault Megane and the Peugeot 308 being most comparable.
Buyers choose between five trim levels - 'SE-L', 'SE-L Lux', 'Sport Lux', 'GT Sport' and 'GT Sport Tech'. All are generously equipped, with features like a windscreen projecting colour head-up display with Traffic Sign Recognition, Mazda Radar Cruise Control and LED headlights. Every model in the line-up also features navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and an eight speaker audio system.
From 'SE-L Lux' trim onwards, highlights include a reversing camera, smart keyless entry and heated front seats, while 'Sport Lux'-spec sees the cabin enhanced with additional chrome detailing, a frameless rear view mirror and rear privacy glass. 'GT Sport' trim sees the introduction of black leather seats with power adjustment, a heated steering wheel and a Bose audio set-up, while the range-topping 'GT Sport Tech' variants feature a suite of additional active safety equipment, including a 360o camera and Driver Attention Alert with an interior camera.
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 2.0-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.