First drive: Mazda 3

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First drive: Mazda 3

Mazda is readying its latest 3 family hatchback for launch early next year, and is looking to steal European sales from the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf. It is the third model in the Japanese manufacturer's range to feature its fuel-saving Skyactiv technologies and also wears its new design theme. We headed to Germany to drive a pre-production prototype.

What is it?

A pleasingly non European hatchback. Where even the Korean marques such as Kia have somewhat conformed to the styling conventions of the dominant German manufacturers, the Mazda 3 is different. Penned using Mazda's 'Kodo' design language, it features the same stretched bonnet and face as the larger Mazda 6 saloon, making for a handsome sight on the road. Unlike rivals, which have all largely followed the turbocharged route to engine downsizing, Mazda is instead offering larger normally aspirated engines, which are competitive in the fuel economy and emissions stakes thanks to the company's SKYACTIV tech, which features detail engineering revisions along with brake energy recovery and other systems to make big efficiency gains.

What's under the bonnet?

These naturally aspirated engines are a 98bhp 1.5-litre and a 2.0-litre available in 118bhp and 163bhp guises. The 2.0-litre is quiet and cultured, though if you're used to the near immediate punch of a turbo engine, its lack of torque and need to be revved may prove frustrating. The 1.5-litre merely emphasises this lack of grunt doesn't offer a huge economy advantage. A 2.2-litre turbodiesel is also offered and is the surprise of the range. Developing usefully more torque, and with a petrol-like ability to rev, it makes for a more effortless driving experience. It's astonishingly refined too, with nary a hint of vibration or clatter finding its way into the cabin. On top of that, it will return 72mpg and emit just 104g/km of CO2.

What's the spec like?

Price and full specifications details have yet to be confirmed, though the 3 is likely to be offered in SE, SE-L and Sport trim levels. Sport models will get subtle interior modifications and a jazzy set of instruments, while a heads-up display is also available. Amongst the technological highlights is smartphone driven Internet connectivity, displayed on a seven-inch high definition display driven by a dashboard-de cluttering rotary wheel situated in front of the driver's armrest. More conventional options will include a full leather interior and a BOSE stereo.

Any rivals?

Plenty – the mid-sized hatch market is one of the most fiercely contested in Europe. The Mazda 3 will appeal more to those who value serenity and comfort of driver-engaging dynamics, so if you're looking to be entertained on your morning commute you're better off with rivals like the SEAT Leon and Ford Focus. The Mazda does make a case for itself, offering VW Golf-rivalling levels of refinement and calm. However, whether you'd buy one will largely be decided by its price, which is due to be announced in September.

What's it like to drive?

Mazda has purposefully honed the new 3 to be as predictable and linear as possible. Glide it around busy city centres and you'll be glad of this approach, as the car feels light and effortless, with all of the controls well matched in weight and feel. Up the pace a bit, however, and you may wish for a bit more directness from the steering in faster corners. The engines display a willing verve, though none are firecrackers, with the most powerful 2.0-litre model taking 8.2 seconds to get from 0-62mph. More impressive is the capacious, cosseting cabin, which, combined with the predictable, light-on-its-feet handling, makes the Mazda 3 a lovely, relaxing place to cover the miles.

The AOL Cars verdict

Mazda has gone its own way the new 3. Its Skyactiv technology and distinctly Japanese design make it a unique proposition in a crowded marketplace. Even in our not-quite-finished test model, material and construction quality was high and the diesel engine is amongst the best we've driven in this type of car. We can't say for sure whether you should buy one until Mazda reveals the price, but from this first impression we wouldn't discount it for a second.

The knowledge

Model: Mazda 3 2.0 GE six-speed manual
Price: TBC
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
Power: 120bhp 210NM
Max speed: 123 mph
0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
MPG: 55.4mpg (combined)
Emissions: 119g/km CO2

New Mazda 3

New Mazda 3