Good: excellent refinement, performance and economy from 1.5-litre diesel, cracking to drive, high quality.
Not so good: very little other than it's a bit too pricey in this spec.
We're a funny bunch, we Irish. We spent decades with a vehicle taxation system that, aside from being byzantine and deeply unfair, was also impossibly stupid - certainly for the last few years of its existence, taxing a car on the basis of its cubic capacity was beyond moronic, and it had little relevance to the types of engines then being produced. The 2008-onward CO2-based taxation system may have been a multi-party boondoggle, but at least it took away the senseless need to pay extra tax for an underpowered and oversized engine.
There is a lingering whiff of it still in the air though, and it finds expression in our lack of trust in larger engines. I know people who still boggle at the thought of an engine, any engine, larger than 2.0 litres in swept capacity. Tell them you're tooling around in a Band B 3.0-litre and they positively faint...
Old fashioned it may be, but it can certainly prove troublesome, as Mazda found to its cost when it first launched the current-shape 3 hatchback with a 2.2-litre diesel engine. It may have had a pleasant and pleasurable 150hp on its side, and Band A-friendly emissions, but it was just too darned big to chime with the collective desire of the Irish car buying public. Just as well then that Mazda has now, at long last, augmented it with a new 1.5-litre unit, an engine we've already sampled in the CX-3 crossover.
Here though in the 3 (and somewhat in concert with the recently-tested, similarly-specified 1.5 diesel in the BMW 116d) you kind of feel that the engine has found its rightful home. Here in the 3, with 105hp, 270Nm of torque and the promise of 70mpg fuel economy, it's aimed right down the throat of Ford's 1.5 TDCi, Volkswagen's 1.6 TDI and Toyota's 1.6 D-4D.
It's a really good engine too. OK, so power and torque aren't exactly its thing, and it's well outpunched by most of the competition, but boy is it smooth. There's a faint, and very distant, diesel thrum when you start up, and it's audible again when bumbling around town at very low speeds. In almost all other circumstances though, it could almost be an electric car, so smooth and quiet is it. Well, maybe not quite, but close enough... Thankfully, the rest of the 3's refinement comes out to bat at a similar level to that of the engine and there's none of the tiresome road noise that you'd find on the smaller CX-3.
Economy is not bad either. OK, you won't get the official 70mpg, but 50mpg is a breeze and around town that economy doesn't dip too far thanks to Mazda's clever i-Stop stop-start system. It's a neat idea to have the computer stop the engine just on the verge of ignition, so that restarts are as close to instant as you could possibly hope.
It's comfy too. In this rather pricey GT Leather spec you get leather seats and steering wheel (who'd have guessed?) and other niceties such as seat heaters, a head-up display, a highly connected infotainment system and split-zone climate control. Even with all of those toys, the cabin does tend to feel a bit spartan, a touch under-designed, but the upshot is that it's remarkably well built, and closer in quality terms to a pukka premium brand such as BMW or Audi.
That's the way it drives too. There is some slight inconsistency to the steering at times - a tendency to unexpectedly lighten when you least want it to - and odd weighting at full-lock, but other than that the 3 is a dynamic class act. It's smooth in its ride quality, responsive in its initial reaction to a corner and really rather beautifully balanced as you enter, clip and exit. No sports car, perhaps, but there's enough of the feel and response of the MX-5 buried deep within the 3's mechanical makeup to make the connection more than merely badge-based.
Wrap all of those talents up in a handsome and chiselled body and you've got a bit of a winning combination. With prices being far more reasonable further back down the list, the Mazda3 1.5 diesel makes a hugely compelling alternative to the rest of the (notably talented) family hatch class. It has the dynamics of a Focus or Astra, the handsomeness of a Golf and the quality and reliability of a Toyota Auris. And now it has the right engine, too.