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, that 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 rode rippled and cracked roads impressively. Out of the city surroundings and onto the concrete freeway, noise levels were subdued and the smooth ride continued to impress. By the time we got to stretch the car’s legs in the hills of Angeles National Forest, that supple ride became all the more remarkable, because it hasn’t been achieved at the expense of stability, steering response or handling.
Mazda's engineers have played around with the tyres, ultimately opting for a softer sidewall to absorb the impact, then tuning the suspension bushes to ensure a precise response to the driver’s commands. The benefits of the softer rubber are myriad: as well as taking the edge off the ride comfort, it gives a better contact patch when cornering and braking.
The clutch, throttle and gear change 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 that's about as long as the list of niggles gets. Working the 3 hard through the twists and turns, it remains level, never gets upset over 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, customers will be able to choose from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit, now a mild hybrid, a conventional 1.8-litre diesel and, for the first time, the interesting Skyactiv-X.
This supercharged unit runs on petrol but uses a combination of spark ignition and compression ignition to, claims Mazda, deliver the driver appeal of a petrol together with the fuel efficiency and torque of a diesel.
The 179bhp, 164Ib 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), it could just be the holy grail of engines, delivering impressive fuel efficiency, low CO2 and NOx emissions and a satisfyingly sporty side to its delivery when desired.
It will be paired with four-wheel drive on 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.
Back to today, the 2.0-litre petrol (which will be the UK’s best-selling version) is smooth until around 4500rpm and then grows a bit gruff. Cylinder deactivation and electrical assistance make for figures of 44.8mpg and 119g/km of CO2.
Performance is nothing to write home about, as you’d expect in a car that makes 120bhp and weighs the best part of 1350kg, but you can forgive that for the way the 3 has such a poised, polished feel about it.