Mazda 3

TESTED 23.1.19, LOS ANGELES, USA ON SALE APRIL PRICE £21,000 (EST)

The 3 has just upped its game. The new one ploughs its own aesthetic, premium-aping  furrow and drives with panache

Driving position, seat comfort and control ergonomics impress, as does the overall ambience inside

If you were a salesperson tasked with shifting the new Mazda 3, what would your elevator pitch be to prospective customers? It’s a question that the bosses at Mazda have attempted to answer with the fourth-generation 3.

For years a car that was on the sidelines, like the shy child hiding at the back of the class, Mazda’s updated family hatchback has to come out of its skin and make itself noticed if it’s to make a positive contribution to the firm’s success.

It arrives at a time when competition is moving on at a relentless pace. The Volkswagen Golf is the hatchback for all reasons with an upmarket vibe and these days as good as sells itself on the strength of its reputation. The Ford Focus offers a class-leading driving experience at the sort of competitive cost that any household or company car user finds difficult to ignore. And since the 3, and formerly 323, has been around, the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes have muscled in on its patch, bringing the allure of posh showrooms, robust residual values and the opportunity to drop brand names at the dinner table. And let’s not get started on the rise of the SUV…

In our 2.0-litre test car,  it appears to have a surfeit of ability over power

So what’s new? What’s going to help the 3 be relevant? Kota Beppu, the engineer who led the development of the 3, says the
new model will appeal to free spirits. It isn’t hard to imagine such people saving up for an MX-5, or indeed an RX-7 once upon a time, but whether individuals have a burning desire to express themselves with their choice of hatchback is debatable. Just ask Alfa Romeo, which struggled to achieve much the same objective with its Giulietta.

There’s a new platform with the option of all-wheel drive, an evolution of Mazda’s Skyactiv engine range, the new Skyactiv-X petrol motor, which uses compression ignition, and design that, says Mazda, stands out from the crowd. In other words, this isn’t a makeover.

The car’s look is certainly a talking point. An evolution of Mazda’s Kodo design language, it has a remarkably low nose, elegant panel forms and a sloped roofline that tails off neatly into the rear window. It’s distinct from the chiselled appearance of Volkswagen Group hatchbacks and more comfortably able to hold its own in the presence of BMW’s 1 Series and the Mercedes A-Class.

Anyone who has owned a Japanese car in the past won’t have to cast their mind too far back to reach a time when the interiors had all the desirability of a plastic loo seat. The 3 moves the game on for Mazda. There is a clear visual identity and a feeling that this can stand comparison with the benchmark car in this market, the Golf, for fit and finish.

The design has a delicate minimalism to it, with a slender dashboard that’s broken up by attractive creases that run its full length and flow into the doors. The materials have a premium feel and the controls for the infotainment, audio system and climate control have the same, satisfying action.

There’s a new, 8.8in display on top of the dashboard, angled toward the driver. Don’t expect to find touch control, though. Research showed that touchscreens promote gross motor movements – in other words, they make the driver lean – and that in turn means the driver unwittingly applies torque to the steering wheel and can wander out of lane. Meanwhile, the same research demonstrated that the eye focuses quicker when such screens are further away. So Mazda, a company that’s never afraid to buck the trend, did away with touchscreen tech and set the screen some way back in the dashboard. The main interfaces are an intuitive rotary wheel or voice control.

It doesn’t just look the part or feel the part. The driving position is excellent, the redesigned seats are first rate and the weighting of the pedals and steering feels consistent. The downside is that over-the-shoulder visibility is pretty poor, because of the wide C-pillar and shallow rear windows.

There are no claims made for class-leading interior space. This is not a big hatchback: in the back seats, adults approaching six foot will find their head rubs that sloping roof, high-backed booster seats are likely to be a squeeze, and the boot has lost a little luggage capacity, now holding 295 litres.

Just as the exterior looks stylish and the interior has a premium feel, the way the 3 goes down a road feels much more grown-up. Key to this behaviour is a new, stiffer platform, which has a longer wheelbase and wider front and rear track. It uses torsion beam rear suspension, MacPherson struts and rack and pinion steering. And, boy, does it all gel together nicely.

Around the craggy surroundings of West Los Angeles, the 3 rides rippled and cracked roads impressively. Out of the city and
onto the concrete freeway, noise levels are subdued and the smooth ride continues to impress. By the time we get to stretch the car’s legs in the hills of the Angeles National Forest, that supple ride becomes all the more remarkable because it hasn’t been achieved at the expense of stability, steering response or handling.

Engineers have played around with the tyres, ultimately opting for a softer sidewall to absorb the impact and then tuning the suspension bushes to ensure a precise response to the driver’s commands. The benefits of the softer tyre are myriad: as well as helping to improve ride comfort, it gives a better contact patch when cornering and braking.

The clutch, throttle and gearchange work with a nice harmony to their weighting. A bit more feel through the steering wouldn’t go amiss, and the top of the brake pedal’s travel is dead, but this is about as long as the list of niggles gets. Working the little Mazda hard through the twists and turns, it remains level, never gets upset by lumps or dips and spreads the load evenly between the front and rear axles. In our 2.0-litre test car, at least, it appears to have a surfeit of ability over power.

In the UK, drivers will be able to choose from a petrol 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit, now with a mild-hybrid system, a 1.8-litre
diesel and, for the first time, Mazda’s interesting Skyactiv-X unit (see separate story, below).

The 2.0-litre petrol (which will be the UK’s best-selling version) is smooth until around 4500rpm but then grows a bit gruff. It now comes with cylinder deactivation and packs mild-hybrid tech, making for figures of 44.8mpg and 119g/km of CO2. Performance is nothing special, as you’d expect in a car with 120bhp and weighing the best part of 1350kg, but you can forgive that for the way the 3 has such a poised and polished feel about it.

Finally, then, the 3 feels as though it has a reason to exist. This is more than a numbers car for fleet drivers. It’s easy on the eye, has an aesthetic inside that’s rarely found in Japanese cars and drives with panache.

If you work in a Mazda showroom, your job just got a little easier.

JAMES MILLS

 

TESTER’S NOTE

For European-spec cars (as reviewed here), Mazda says the ideal tyre for our roads ended up having a sidewall that’s 14% softer than those fitted to Japanese- and US-spec cars. JM

 

COMBUSTION ENGINE GETS SECOND WIND
Some commentators have suggested the combustion engine is set to go the way of the dinosaurs. But Mazda disagrees. It has reservations about the true emissions of electric cars and thinks the petrol engine can remain relevant in the coming decades.

Its stay of execution is the new Skyactiv-X engine. The supercharged unit runs on petrol but uses a combination of both spark ignition and compression ignition to create an engine that, Mazda claims, delivers the driver appeal of petrol together with the fuel efficiency and torque of diesel.

The 3 will be the first model to use it, when it goes on sale later this year. The 180bhp, 220Ib ft engine is able to switch from compression ignition, which is ideal for 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.

If it delivers against the Japanese car maker’s general claims – the company is still to reveal economy and emissions figures for the engine – it could just be the holy grail of engines, delivering low CO2 and NOx emissions, impressive fuel efficiency and a satisfyingly sporty side to its delivery when desired.

Set to join the 3 line-up in the autumn, it will be paired with all-wheel drive for UK cars and offered with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes. But the cost of the technology means it will be priced as a flagship model.

 

MAZDA 3 2.0 SKYACTIV-G
The 3 feels like a polished, premium product. Pricing will be key here, but the first signs are promising

 

Price £21,000 (est)
Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, petrol
Power 120bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 157Ib ft at 4000rpm
Gearbox 6-spd manual
Kerb weight 1350kg (est)
0-62mph tbc
Top speed tbc
Economy 44.8mpg
CO2, tax band 119g/km, 27%
Rivals Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf