One of Mazda’s key selling points has long been the heightened level of driver appeal its cars tend to offer. And even with the rather obvious Mazda MX-5-shaped poster child put firmly to one side, this has been manifest in Hiroshima’s modern hatchbacks and superminis as much as anywhere.

The good news is that, in terms of its ability to conjure up an engaging sort of handling athleticism, this new fourth-generation Mazda 3 gives away none of that hard-earned reputation; in the wider class, it’s up there with the very best. That it backs this agility up with one of the most materially appealing cabins in the segment, strong levels of standard equipment and plenty of value for money only sweetens the deal.

Sweet to drive, great to behold – but the new engine’s no knockout

But as cleverly engineered and frugal as its ground-breaking new engine might be, it doesn’t quite back the 3 up with the performance to match its handling smarts. For all the credit it earns for efficiency, it loses as many for a lack of brand-authentic sporting range and enthusiasm in its power delivery. The car becomes a top-five hatchback class contender in a busy market segment, then – but only just.