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.
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.