Impressive advance over outgoing 323, but faces talented new rivals from Ford, Vauxhall and Volkswagen in near future

How much of the Mazda 3 is going to end up on next year’s new Focus and Volvo S40 depends on who you talk to. But the fact that no one is shy of saying that it at least shares a platform with these two future Ford offerings should be significant in itself. Not least because it finally means that Mazda hatch buyers no longer have to justify their purchase on mechanical reliability alone.

How close it will end up being to the Focus and S40 remains to be seen. Especially as Mazda’s engineers are at pains to point out that despite the shared architecture, it owes its character to work carried out in Hiroshima, rather than Detroit, Cologne or Gothenburg.

It feels that way on the road, too. Despite the family ties, the 3’s not as sharply satisfying as the current Focus, yet still pitches at the sporty end of the spectrum. So like the bigger 6, with which it shares its front and rear suspension layout, it trades some ride refinement in the name of high-speed agility and keeping vertical and lateral body movement in check. Wind and road noise are also commendably isolated when you’re rolling at above urban speeds.

A brace of 1.6-litre diesels and a 1.4-litre petrol will be ushering along next May, but at the January launch there’s only two bigger petrols to play with: a 103bhp 1.6 litre and a 148bhp 2.0 litre.

Naturally enough, the larger-capacity motor’s got the edge for flexibility, but not to the extent that you might expect, certainly not fulfilling the promise of its lofty power output. The 1.6 has the edge on refinement as well, being far lessraucous when the rev needle is nearing the red line and when settling back into cruising mode.

An added benefit of piloting the cheaper car is the way it steers. Order the 1.6 and you get a conventional power-assisted system, but the 2.0-litre model comes with an electro-hydraulic tiller, losing some of the feel and well-judged weight as a result.

In every other way the Mazda 3 is up there with the best hatchbacks. Cabin space is impressive, especially for those relegated to the rear, and even six-footers shouldn’t have their heads scraping the headlining.

Up front, it’s equally well judged. Plenty of the switchgear will be familiar to a 6 driver, but that’s no bad thing. And while some of the plastics wouldn’t make it past Volkswagen’s quality control, there’s no reason to assume they’re not going to soak up plenty of abuse.

Pricing will be firmed up nearer the January on-sale date, but Mazda insiders confirm that it’s going to follow the 6’s lead and square up well against the established competition. That means a base 1.6 will weigh in at around £12,000 and come generously kitted with air-con, alloys and a full suite of safety kit. Moving up the range brings leather and climate control.

Mazda’s big problem, of course, is that its new hatch crosses the Channel uncomfortably close to the arrival of both the new Golf and Astra. Whether it does enough to seriously outpoint either remains to be seen, but we doubt it.

Chas Hallett

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