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Mazda's SkyActiv revolution hits the family hatchback class with a desirable blend of brisk performance and energetic handling

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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, third album, 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.

'Fastback' and five-door hatch variants are offered, the former being slightly more aerodynamic

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-gen 3 arrives.

We might think of it as only the second full generation of the car, however, because the so-called second-gen Mazda 3 of 2009-2013 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. For 2017, Mazda has plans to give the 3 a mild facelift to keep the mid-sized hatchback in touch with its European contemporaries - the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra, Seat Leon, Skoda Octavia and the Volkswagen Golf

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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.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Mazda 3 bi-xenon headlights
Bi-xenon headlights are fitted to SE-L spec cars, complete with LED running lights

This car is meaningfully no larger than the old Mazda 3 – which will come as a surprise to no one – but rarely has there been such a stark contrast in design between an outgoing model and its successor.

Flowing curves, sculpted surfaces and shrink-wrapped body volumes replace the bluff and ungainly looks of old. Even the 2017 facelift has done very little to disturb the 3's handsome, if divisive, looks. The updates to the exterior include a new front grille and the integration of LED headlights, something which is available on all its closest rivals. Underneath the bodywork, the Mazda 3 gains G-Vectoring Control system, which is found on the bigger Mazda 6, and the engine range has been tweaked to produce lower emissions.

The Mazda 3 features independent suspension all round

Our testers all agreed that a marked improvement has been made in styling terms, turning the 3 into one of the hatchback class’s more handsome representatives.

The car is also handsome regardless of which version you choose, for there are now two. The 3 hatchback is just 5mm longer than the previous one, and 40mm wider, but its roofline is 20mm lower than before, contributing to a relatively low drag coefficient of 0.275. Meanwhile, the car’s wheelbase has been stretched by 60mm, to 2700mm.

Those who’d rather not have another typical five-door hatch have the option of buying the ‘fastback’ instead. It has a 120mm longer rear overhang, a slightly larger but flatter boot under its tailgate and a silhouette much more akin to a four-door notchback than anything else. Prices for each body style are identical.

Mazda's SkyActiv platform brings an all-steel monocoque construction, 60 per cent of which is either high or ultra-high strength, and makes for a 30 per cent improvement in torsional stiffness.

British buyers get a choice of 99bhp 1.5, 118bhp 2.0 and 163bhp 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engines – all running Mazda’s very high (for a petrol engine) 14:1 compression ratio – or the 148bhp twin-turbo 2.2-litre diesel.

Impressively, the oil-burner matches a Volkswagen Golf 2.0 TDI on CO2 emissions, but eclipses it on peak torque by almost 20 per cent. We’ll see how much difference that makes against the clock later on.

For 2017, the engine range stays predominantly the same, although the entry-level 1.5-litre petrol unit has been dropped in favour of the higher capacity 2.0-litre blocks.

Mazda claims its 2.2-litre SkyActiv-D engine has the lowest compression ratio of any mass-production diesel car engine in the world. And with it boasting a figure of 14:1, we wouldn’t argue; most similar-sized units run a compression ratio of more than 16:1, with indirectly injected diesels higher still.

With a compression ignition engine, there are large gains to be made on fuel efficiency with this approach – but the engine doesn’t run this way without the application of some clever technology.

The SkyActiv-D engine has valve timing designed to make for the best expansion ratio inside the cylinder. Egg-shaped pistons distribute injected fuel throughout the chamber efficiently, and the engine’s injection system itself is capable of delivering nine injections per cycle. These measures ensure a good spread of fuel throughout the combustion chamber and optimal torque production.

Since it operates at a lower compression ratio and therefore with less in the way of associated mechanical stresses, Mazda was able to use lightweight materials and manufacturing principles in the engine’s construction, including aluminium for the engine block, thinned-down cylinder head and piston walls and a lighter crankshaft.

INTERIOR

Mazda 3 dashboard
The driving position isn't particularly low or sporting, but occupant space and control ergonomics are good

The new Mazda 3’s driving position isn’t a particularly low one, which seems a missed opportunity for a brand so wedded to a sporting image, but it’s comfortable.

You stare down the barrel of a trio of instrument cowls: a clear, classic speedometer flanked by digital screens showing engine speed and a fuel gauge. It can be no coincidence that both the digital screens are harder to read than the speedo, though, with the rev counter seeming particularly small.

The Mazda's cabin could do with a little more colour and life

The cabin is spacious, with plenty of legroom and quite a long boot. The fly in the ointment for those looking for class-leading practicality is a result of the lowered roofline.

It doesn’t impact on headroom in either row, but the Mazda 3’s boot is a bit shallower than the class average from floor to roof, by about 50mm. At least it’s the dimension you’re least likely to fill on a regular basis.

Much as we found of both the Mazda CX-5 and the Mazda 6, the 3’s cabin quality is good for the most part. The roll-top dash and upper parts of the doors are slush-moulded, but the plastics get hard and scratchy below the gloss black trim that bisects the fascia laterally.

The parts of the cabin you routinely touch – heater controls, door handles, gearlever, steering wheel – feel solid and well finished, but there’s too much variability in the quality of materials and switchgear elsewhere to call this a particularly classy driving environment.

You wouldn’t call it an especially attractive one, either. There’s a functional simplicity to the interior that seems quite unpretentious and likeable, but Mazda could do with at least one or two ‘surprise and delight’ showpiece features to stick in the memory.

On the equipment front, the MZD Connect media system is introduced in the 3 and it goes beyond offering Bluetooth functionality. Download the ‘Aha’ app for your smartphone and the car integrates with it, says Mazda, giving access to internet radio, podcasts and social media, delivered in an in-car-appropriate format.

Mazda’s model range consists of three trims, which include SE, SE-L Nav and Sport Nav. The entry-level models for 2017 will come with air conditioning, electric windows, 16in alloys, a dual chrome exhaust system, and hill-hold assist. Inside the 3 SE gets a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity, while upgrading to SE Nav means the addition of sat nav and three year's worth of map updates. 

The 163bhp naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre engine can only be had with the range-topping Sport Nav trim, which includes luxuries such as cruise control, 18in alloys, LED headlights, day running lights and rear lights, rear parking sensors and a reversing camera.

 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mazda 3 rear quarter
The Mazda's four-cylinder engines are mounted transversely and drive the front wheels only

The Mazda 3 is available with a suite of SkyActiv powertrains including two petrols that start and conclude with a pair of 2.0-litre units with either 118bhp or 163bhp. There’s also a single 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel. Because the 3 will predominantly be bought by private buyers it’s the 118bhp petrol that’s expected to be the biggest seller, followed by the 2.2-litre oil-burner.

The base 2.0-litre petrol delivers pretty brisk on-paper performance and a 8.9sec 0-62mph time, but on the road it disappoints somewhat, needing a fair bit of slightly thrashy revving to deliver decent pace. But it certainly cruises with civility.

The Mazda's gearshift is excellent: short of action, weighty, precise and mechanical. Not one to rush, though

The 162bhp version of the same unit is an altogether more engaging experience. It makes the Mazda feeling considerably more lively and eager, with 62mph strikable in 8.2sec. It’s also more civilised at the top end of the rev range.

This engine features Mazda's intriguing (and oddly named) i-ELOOP system, which is effectively KERS for road cars. It uses a capacitor to harvest kinetic energy which can then power the electrical systems for as long as a minute, improving urban economy by up to 10 per cent as well as prolonging battery life. It uses no precious metals either, in contrast to hybrids.

Quickest of this bunch, however, is the 148bhp diesel. This is the business end of the buying argument for a Mazda. You get two turbochargers and almost 2.2 litres of cubic capacity for less than the price of one turbo and 2.0 litres in most rival hatches – and, crucially, with no added tax liability and no poorer fuel economy. Consequently, you also get a punchier drive than from your typical 2.0-litre turbodiesel.

The streaming wet conditions in which we figured the car gave it a shortage of grip and plenty of blustery wind to contend with, but it still hit 60mph six-tenths of a second sooner than the Golf 2.0 TDI we figured last year.

Leave the engine to rev close to its limiter and you can pick the sprint off more quickly still; we recorded 8.6sec on one run. All you’re doing is deferring a gearchange rather than making the car any faster beyond 60mph – but at least that gives Mazda's acceleration claim (8.0sec dead to 62mph) a hint of credibility.

The engine is responsive and flexible as well as torquey, coming up with pulling power across the full breadth of its rev range very promptly indeed. Pulling from 30 to 70mph in fourth gear happens more than two seconds sooner than it would in the Volkswagen Golf. The engine is economical, too, bettering the aforementioned Volkswagen on both our touring and overall fuel economy test benchmarks.

The 3 produces a little bit more mechanical noise than the class norm. It’s not the best at isolating occupants from road noise, either, and owners can expect a couple of decibels more background hum than they might in certain other hatchbacks. But still, you wouldn’t call the 3 decidedly noisy or coarse, and the resulting compromise is entirely acceptable.

Shift quality is good, too: quite heavy and mechanical in its feel, but pleasingly substantial. The car’s brake pedal feel is also good, with neither grab nor mush at the top of the travel and with a sensible quantity of power assistance.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mazda 3 cornering
The 3 grips and steers well despite its relatively tall, narrow tyres

Normal hatchbacks don’t handle much better than this. It’s a credit to Mazda's development team that, despite carrying up to 64 per cent of its mass over its front wheels and wearing squidgy-looking tyres on relatively small alloys in standard spec, the new 3 has such crisp steering and such a sweet chassis underneath it.

This is an honest, old-fashioned, quiet kind of driver’s car with a clean, coherent, uncorrupted agility about it. There are no tricks in its armoury; it doesn’t manipulate your perception of its handling with darting directness, sudden changes in the rate of response or excess control weight.

The Mazda's dampers could be better tuned for UK roads

It has taut but progressive body control and medium, well balanced grip levels, and it’s unerringly consistent in its replies to your inputs.

So you can familiarise yourself with it in an instant, know immediately where its limits are and guide it from corner to corner instinctively, smoothly and precisely – and quickly, if you want to.

On handling alone, the Mazda 3 absolutely deserves consideration alongside a Ford Focus or a Volkswagen Golf – but it doesn’t quite have the suppleness and rough-road composure of the Ford or Volkswagen. It’s zesty and energetic to the last, however, like it or not.

The 3 is balanced, predictable and benign and does all you can ask of a hatch when it runs out of grip: it remains controllable. In fact, the Mazda does more than that, because it gives you options. Its stability control system stays in the background until a developing slide becomes unrecoverable, and its accelerator pedal and steering remain consistent, trustworthy and communicative, often allowing you to manage momentary losses of lateral grip quickly and intuitively.

Dry-weather grip is unexceptional, but it flags up its limits well. In the wet, the 205-section tyres cut through standing water and find strong purchase. There are still one or two things you’d change about it if you could, though.

Mazda's decision to offer just two sets of alloy wheels for the whole range does seem a bit limiting, for example. If we’d tested an 18in-wheel-clad Sport-spec model, you might not be reading this, but we do wonder if a 17in rim with a wider tyre wouldn’t combine a better ride with a smidgen more steering weight and dry-weather grip.

As it is, the 3’s secondary ride is a bit excitable over some surfaces and its dampers lack the initial progressive response that indicates real fine-tuning. It’s that occasionally fidgeting ride that keeps this car from disturbing the order of things at the very top of the class on dynamics.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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

The Mazda 3 is a competitively priced car whichever way you look at it. With prices starting at well under £17,000, there are only a handful of cars in the class that undercut it – and not many of those come with a seven-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth and electric windows all round as standard.

If you’re looking for a very low-priced, sub-100g/km diesel, this clearly isn’t the car for you because there is no small-capacity oil-burner. But Mazda does offer you a 2.2-litre, 148bhp diesel for the kind of money you might have spent on a better-equipped 1.6 TDI. And that’s not something to complain about when the 2.2-litre diesel in question will still top 60mpg on a gentle touring run.

We averaged 60mpg in the 2.2-litre 148bhp diesel version. A remarkable result

We don't usually recommend it, but going for the full-house Sport-spec model is probably the right way to specify your car. You get a better stereo, a headlight upgrade, 18-inch wheels and a head-up display, and all for a relatively modest premium.

It’s disappointing not to see a more favourable estimate on residual values from our sources, however, because this car deserves better. But our testers did note one or two concerns about panel thickness during the course of our test.

The Mazda's bodywork felt quite thin in places and might possibly be more susceptible to dents and scrapes than would otherwise be the case.

 

VERDICT

4 star Mazda 3
A fine-handling, big-hitting hatch, but still not as complete as a Golf

The new Mazda 3 is a perfect fit for enthusiasts. Its blend of brisk performance and energetic handling will be deal-clinchers for Mazda regulars who like to get a bit more but pay a bit less, and those buyers will be delighted with the economy, practicality and style also on offer.

This is a car that deserves to bring new customers to the brand. But road testing a car for a week often leaves you with a different perspective than living with it for several years might – and we have to account for that gap here.

It's a stylish-looking car, thanks to the company's ‘Kodo’ design language, but the interior needs to be more interesting

The best of the Mazda 3’s rivals manage to wrap their driver reward in a blanket of compliance and refinement, and the Mazda’s equivalent blanket is a bit thin.

The 3’s cabin is also a conservative, slightly mundane place, and too ordinary to land blows on the competition at the highest level.

Much as we like it, that’s why the Mazda 3 fails to infiltrate our family hatch top three, but it deserves a four-star recommendation all the same.

Many will appreciate its ride, ergonomics and straightforward A-to-B effectiveness. And many will enjoy this Mazda's style, too.

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mazda 3 2013-2019 First drives