UK Drive: The Mazda 3 has premium rivals in its sights
What is it?
Mazda has been on a hot streak of late. There’s been the 6, the CX-3 and CX-5 SUVs and, of course, the ever-present MX-5. But while those cars have been successfully updated – and made their mark in their respective segments – the firm hasn’t actually had an all-new model in quite some time.
That’s where this – the all-new Mazda 3 – steps up. It’s a proper hatchback brought to market when many others are flooding the market with crossovers. We’ve driven the 3 on foreign soil, but this is the first time we’ve got behind the wheel in the UK. So let’s see what it’s like.
The new 3 is the first car to use Mazda’s updated Skyactiv-Vehicle Architecture, which is destined to underpin the firm’s future models. Its engines too are more efficient than those found in the car it replaces, with its petrol engine – the one we’re driving today – featuring cylinder deactivation and mild-hybrid technology.
The exterior looks have been given a sharp, edgy appeal as well – though it’s perfectly in keeping with the rest of the range. Though Mazda may have been targeting more mass-produced rivals previously, it makes no bones about its desire to draw people away from premium brands such as BMW and Audi into its cars – and the 3 has been designed to do just that.
What’s under the bonnet?
Our test car featured Mazda’s Skyactiv-G, 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. Despite that engine capacity, and because of the lack of a turbocharger strapped to it, the 2.0-litre only pushes out 120bhp and 213Nm of torque – not much for a unit of this size. Here, it’s driven to the front wheels through a six-speed manual.
Mazda claims 0-60mph in 10.2 seconds and a top speed of 122mph – both figures you’d usually associate with a smaller, turbocharged powertrain. Economy-wise, the brand believes it’ll return 44.8mpg combined, while emitting 119g/km CO2.
The big arrival engine-wise is Mazda’s new Skyactiv-X; this uses petrol as a fuel but uses diesel-style compression for a leaner burn, bringing with it better economy but far lower emissions than traditional combustion units. It’s definitely one to watch out for when it arrives later this year.
What’s it like to drive?
The hatchback market is packed with serious contenders, and there’s one key model – the Ford Focus. It’s one of the best-driving cars in the segment, and it’s one the Mazda 3 has to beat in order to become top dog. Fortunately, it more than delivers on the driving front.
The steering weight is spot-on, while there’s plenty of grip generated through the corners. Chassis balance overall is excellent, and it feels more planted than you’d expect a car of this type to be. Likewise, the six-speed manual is a joy to use, and is beautifully precise.
The only real letdown is that engine; to make consistent progress, you need to keep the revs high, and it can often feel lethargic – even in lower gears. Overtaking requires commitment and plenty of forward planning.
The ride feels a touch on the firm side too, and road imperfections are sent quite abruptly through to the cabin. This could be helped by optioning smaller wheels, of course – our test car rode on 18-inch units.
How does it look?
The Mazda 3 uses the firm’s latest representation of its ‘Kodo’ design language, and in the metal it’s a very impressive thing to look at. Certainly, against the rounded and bulbous offerings found elsewhere, it’s a sleek and agile-looking design. The front grille is sharp and angular, while the rear of the car has more than a hint of Alfa Romeo about it – and we’re not complaining.
Mazda’s go-to ‘Soul Red’ exterior colour choice looks fantastic on the 3, but likewise shades of grey and black suit it too. We’d perhaps like a few brighter colours to choose from, but the initial selection should be more than enough for most buyers.
What’s it like inside?
Mazda has been keen to point out that it’s gone with a ‘less is more’ approach to the 3’s cabin. It’s not overcrowded with buttons or displays in attempt to make it a calmer, more relaxing place to be. And though this is true, the biggest factor here is build quality – it’s very good. During our time with the car there was barely a squeak or rattle to speak of, while all of the materials used throughout the interior were of a very high quality.
The front seats are comfortable, and though we’d like to be able to drop the drivers’ seat a little lower, it’s a place where you’d be quite happy spending many hours in. Rear seat legroom is decent, but as a result of that sloping roofline headroom is compromised, particularly for taller passengers.
What’s the spec like?
Standard equipment levels have been kept high in the Mazda 3 range, from base specification SE-L cars right the way up to GT Sport Tech cars. All cars get a full infotainment system with satellite navigation and media functions, and every grade gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration systems too. It’s accessed via an 8.8-inch central display, which is clear and easy to read. Its operation isn’t quite so simple, with the central rotary controller a little tricky to get to grips with – especially while on the move.
All cars also get a seven-inch TFT display in the centre of the dials ahead of the driver. This relays information such as speed and traffic signs back to whoever is behind the wheel; it’s a simple touch but one which gives each specification of car a premium feel.
The Mazda 3 had its work cut out arriving in the hatchback segment. Certainly, with such accomplished rivals, it could have quite easily fallen foul. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. Owing to an involving drive and a high build quality, it feels like a very well-rounded product. When the new Skyactiv-X engine arrives, this will be a serious contender and one which could easily attract buyers out of premium brands and straight towards the Mazda showroom.