3 really is the magic number

Is the British motorists’ clear preference for small hatchbacks over similarly sized saloons down to lacklustre four-door offerings, or just an ingrained bias for practicality?

Mazda, of all people, is about to find out. Its new three-box 3 is no hatch, with an unbalanced rear-end extension, but a sleek stand-alone style that shares not one exterior panel with the hatch. The only bits common to both are windscreen, door handles, wipers and exterior mirrors.

Because saloon and hatch were designed simultaneously (largely in Europe), each has its own distinctive visual character. And each is built on the same 2640mm wheelbase as Volvo’s new S40/V50 – which, along with this year’s new Focus and the Focus C-Max, are all underpinned by Ford’s C1 platform.

We’re not alone in preferring the looks of the elegant, more cohesive saloon. Since, engine-for-engine, trim-level-for-trim-level, they’re priced identically, buyers face a clear choice, or will, when the saloon goes on sale in June. Style has been allowed to take precedence over practicality, too, the fast-falling roofline reducing rear headroom compared to the hatch. Yet the saloon has the bigger boot – 413 litres versus 300 litres – and, despite being 70mm longer, weighs 15kg less.

The arrival of the four-door also heralds the first appearance of PSA-Ford’s new 1.6-litre diesel in a Mazda. We expected a lot from the joint-venture, second-generation, common-rail diesel, and the all-alloy 16-valve oil-burner really delivers. Not long ago a 1.6 petrol engine achieving over 100bhp was exceptional. Now we have a 1.6-litre turbodiesel pumping out 107bhp at 4000rpm and an equally remarkable 181lb ft of torque, from just 1750rpm, when the equivalent 1.6 petrol has just 103bhp and 107lb ft. Six-hole injectors, operating at 1600bar, ensure the fine spray for clean operation – a particulate filter helps it meet Euro4 emissions regulations – and relatively hushed operation, though it never quite loses the high-frequency clatter inherent in diesel engines.

Otherwise, refinement is outstanding. The engine’s smooth, works efficiently across a broad rev range from 1500rpm to the 4750rpm red line and beyond, and within this band, feels responsive and gutsy. In fact, it’s a more polished motorway performer than the 2.0-litre petrol Mazda 3. In the real world, its strong mid-range makes the diesel 3 seem much quicker than the claimed 11.3sec 0-62mph sprint suggests. Keen drivers, who’ll enjoy the brisk steering, slick gearchange and sporting handling bias, will surely take advantage of the engine’s willing character and, therefore, probably won’t match the 56.5mpg combined fuel figure. Our hard-driven test car returned 38-42mpg.

The ride’s always firm – Mazda claims it’s tuning of the C1 chassis is more sporting, even, than that on the new Ford Focus – the electrically assisted power steering a little disconnected compared to the conventional hydraulic system fitted to 1.4 and 1.6-litre petrol models, though it is quick and nicely weighted. Wind noise above 80mph, apparently from the recessed inner edge of the windscreen pillars, is the 3’s biggest let-down – in hatchback or saloon form.

Mazda’s revival can’t help but gain further momentum from the launch of the diesel and saloon versions of the already competitive new 3. In combination, they’re surely sufficiently talented not to be overshadowed by heavyweight rivals from Ford, VW and Vauxhall.

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Peter Robinson

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Citytiger 13 June 2009

Re: Mazda 3 1.6 CD TS2

Obviously a very busy week, first a 2 year old road test of the Mazda 2 and now a 5 year old road test of the Mazda 3