Mazda's new 3 is, without question, the best-looking family hatchback around right now, and beautifully built to boot. Will its buyers notice, however, that it doesn't get as sophisticated a rear suspension design as some in the class?
In the metal
Family cars tend to be compromised, in style terms, by the competing needs of practicality and safety, but you'd never know it from the new Mazda3. It looks staggeringly good, especially in Mazda's signature 'Soul Red Crystal' metallic paint. From that round-hugging snout, to the barely-there headlights, to the curvaceous rear with its Ferrari-inspired round brake lights, this car is a looker of the highest order.
The cabin takes a lot from the existing Mazda6 and CX-5, in terms of switchgear and overall style, but it uses a much more minimalist style that pares back the design to its barest elements. That could, in some ways, look a bit too plain and cheap, but I reckon Mazda's done a good job here, creating a pared-back cabin that still manages to look classy and welcoming. The ultra-slim infotainment screen, jutting out of the top of the dash like a slice of widescreen bread in a toaster, is out of kilter with the more conventional big-screen-in-the-middle look essayed by most rivals, but is all the more refreshing because of that. It works well, thanks to the fact that Mazda has at last updated its infotainment software, ditching the outdated old system that has been plaguing its models for far too long. The new system looks slick and is easy to use, not least because of the BMW-aping rotary controller mounted on the centre console being much more manageable than a touchscreen. Mazda says that its 'human-centric' design philosophy means that everything is oriented around the driver, from the part-digital dials to the high-set centre console. Spec your 3 up with wood and leather and it looks cool and classy. It's a very nice place to be.
Underneath is Mazda's new-generation SkyActiv chassis, and again the company says that its design has been centred around the human driver, even to the point that: "An investigation of the human ability to maintain a dynamic balance revealed how people move their pelvis and spine to control their centre of gravity. The Mazda3 development team applied these findings to the design of the seats, body and chassis." In particular a lot of attention was paid to the car's seating position and to keeping your pelvis upright and your spine naturally s-shaped (it helps you cope better with any bumps or vertical movements) and also to keeping the backs of your legs fully supported so that you were able to operate the pedals properly.
At a non-human level, Mazda is claiming improvements in rigidity, noise suppression and safety levels from its new chassis.
Plus, there are new engines. This 1.8 SkyActiv-D model may be somewhat unfashionably diesel-powered, but Mazda says that, as long as you can keep the exhaust clean, diesel still has a viable future. This engine replaces the old 1.5-litre unit and will in time (and with higher power outputs) replace the 2.2-litre diesel engine too. And it is very, very clean. Mazda says that it can meet the current Euro6-D Temp emissions regulations without the installation of a heavy AdBlue-injection Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system, and so both weight and bulk can be saved.
Mazda has, ever since the original MX-5 was launched thirty years ago (yes, we are getting old, thanks for asking), prided itself on making its humble family cars perform and drive with at least a whiff of the spirit of its iconic sports car. The new 3 cleaves tightly to that mantra, but perhaps isn't quite as impressive in some respects as it might be.
Now, a caveat to that; we're driving these cars on unfamiliar Portuguese roads, which lurch from the glassy smooth to the uncomfortably potholed, so it will take some driving at home for us to get a solid hold on the new Mazda3's dynamic performance, but here's what we've gleaned so far.
The steering is good, but not quite great. The steering wheel itself is lovely - perfectly round with just the right thickness of rim, but the rack itself feels just a touch over-assisted and a little numb. Certainly, the bigger Mazda6 has sweeter steering than this 3, but on the upside, it's quick-reacting, and while it doesn't quite tell you everything that's going on under the front tyres, it does place that gorgeous nose into a corner with unerring accuracy.
The 3 features Mazda's 'G-Vectoring Control Plus' system that is a long-winded way of saying that it can twiddle the brakes and torque output to smooth out your steering inputs both on the way into and the way out of a corner. It works very well, this stuff, and even driving the 3 at a (cough) brisk pace on some very tight and twisty roads, it would only give into traditional front-drive understeer when you pressed it really hard. It's fun, agile and has chassis reflexes far and away above the needs of any 'normal' family buyer.
The limiting factor seems to be the rear suspension, which uses a simple torsion bar setup, in contrast to the new Toyota Corolla's expensive multi-link suspension. It's this, I suspect, that means the 3 doesn't quite have the Corolla's impressive fluidity on a really challenging road (No.278 in the list of Sentences I Never Thought I'd Have to Write) and it affects the low-speed ride, too. Now, Mazda's impressive work on refinement in the 3 does help here (it really does have a very silent cabin, and puts one over even the hybrid Corolla for in-car quietness at speed) and so the suspension never sounds too noisy, but you can feel an occasional heave or lurch over a really poor surface, in a manner that an independent rear end just wouldn't do.
The 1.8 SkyActiv-D engine is a bit of a gem, it must be said. While some rival Japanese car companies think that diesel is dead, Mazda still sees a future for the black pump, and if this engine is anything to go by, it's right. There's a touch of rattle and clatter at low rpm, but that clears away once heat and velocity build up, and while its 116hp power output isn't too clever, it does have a decent 270Nm of torque, which means you can make pleasant progress in most circumstances. Frugal progress too. Mazda makes much of its ability to meet its on-paper fuel economy figures, and that proves to be the case here. Against an official WLTP combined fuel consumption figure of 5.0 litres per 100km, we managed to get... 4.6 litres per 100km. Now, that was with mostly gentle driving, so expect your realistic day-to-day to be a touch worse, but even so that's hugely impressive. If Mazda can convince customers and regulators that its diesel exhaust is sufficiently clean, then why wouldn't you buy one of these?
One final query is over the gearshift. We've become used to all Mazda manual gearshifts having that sweet 'rifle bolt' MX-5 feel, but this one doesn't. Although the 3's six-speed manual shift is unerringly accurate under pressure on faster roads, it felt a bit broader of gate and longer of throw than the Mazda norm at other times. Odd, that.
What you get for your money
€26,295 is a bit of a steep starting price for a family hatchback, but it seems to be close to par for the course these days, and it’s more or less a match for the Toyota Corolla. The diesel 3 is pricier still, though, charging a €2,500 premium over a 2.0-litre mild hybrid, which just makes the petrol-engined car that much more appealing. On the upside, Mazda will step up to Toyota’s recent levels with the Corolla, and offer radar cruise control, lane-keeping steering, and an emergency braking system that can pick up pedestrians and cyclists even at night, all as standard. a heads-up display will also be standard, as will the 8.8-inch infotainment screen.
We need to drive the Mazda3 at home to get a true handle on its mix of abilities, but the early signs are very, very good. For a start, it's now the class lead when it comes to exterior styling and interior fit and finish - it's hugely classy inside and out. The new 1.8 diesel engine is excellent, and the handling and general driving experience is from a top drawer, if not quite perhaps THE top drawer. Even though it’s a bit on the pricey side, the new Mazda 3 is pretty hard to resist.