For Mazda, the prologue is over. As important and credible as they undoubtedly are, both the CX-5 and the 6 were warm-up acts for this: the new, SkyActiv-generation Mazda 3.

This is the Japanese car maker’s great white hope to win back the market share it has haemorrhaged over the past five years, in the wake of Lehman Brothers, the global financial crisis and the terrible disasters that have befallen Japan and its car industry.

While Mazda has enjoyed better fortunes elsewhere, its European market share has shrunk by almost 50 per cent from a high of over 320,000 units in 2008 and 2009, down to just 180,000 in 2012. It's into that context that this third-generation 3 arrives.

We might think of it as only the second full generation of the car, however, because the so-called second-gen car was in fact a heavy facelift of the 2003 original, and used the same Ford platform. Prior to the 3, Mazda's compact hatchback was the 323.

To Europeans, this is Mazda’s entrant in the biggest market segment of all, and its shadow is equally large elsewhere. One in every three Mazdas sold anywhere on the planet at the moment is a 3.

So this car will be the acid test of the firm’s bold new product revolution. More than any other model, the 3’s competitiveness will determine exactly how quick and transformative the company’s recovery will be.

Quite the yolk for a five-door family hatchback. The Mazda 3 meets the challenge, as we’ll go on to explain, with practicality, efficiency, value, style and the latest multimedia technology on its side, along with Mazda’s usual generous helping of bang for your buck.

Top 5 Family hatchbacks

  • More than 29 million Golfs have been sold since 1974

    Volkswagen Golf

    1
  • The standout component of the Ford Focus has always been its handling

    Ford Focus

    2
  • Leon
    Seat offers five engines for the Leon, ranging from a 104bhp 1.2 petrol to a 181bhp 2.0 diesel

    Seat Leon

    3
  • Mazda 3
    The SkyActiv platform used in the 3 features more high and ultra-high-strength steel, offering greater strength and less weight

    Mazda 3

    4
  • Peugeot 308
    The 308 marks the first time a carry-over name has been applied to an all-new Peugeot

    Peugeot 308

    5

First drives

Videos

Find an Autocar car review

Explore the Mazda range

Driven this week

  • First Drive
    24 April 2015
    Space and practicality has never been an issue for the Seat Leon ST, and thanks to a Cupra 280 engine it's now fast, too - but does it gel as a package?
  • First Drive
    24 April 2015
    Ariel's third model is the best yet - in fact, it's one of the best driving experiences we've ever had
  • Car review
    23 April 2015
    Mazda's Skyactiv tech revolution transforms its cheapest model
  • The new Espace is a seven seater and described by the company as a 'crossover'.
    First Drive
    23 April 2015
    Renault replaces its classic flagship MPV with a new take on the seven-seat utility vehicle, but it's not for sale in the UK
  • First Drive
    23 April 2015
    You won't find another premium, all-wheel-drive, seven-seat compact MPV like BMW's xDrive 2 Series Gran Tourer, but is there a reason for that?