What are you driving?
This is the 'normal' or perhaps the 'regular' Mazda3, by which I mean the one without the high-tech compression-ignition SkyActiv-X engine. This one has the regular old 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, developing 122hp compared to the SkyActiv-X's 180hp. That said, it's not short of tech in itself - there's a 24-volt mild-hybrid system that helps to save fuel and also adds a little extra boost under acceleration. Mazda has also packed the 3 with safety kit, including a clever infra-red driver attention monitor that can see which way your eyes are pointing and will alert you to stop looking down at your phone. Yes, you - we all know you do it. There's also an intelligent electronic speed limiter and 360-degree parking camera system.
Name its best bits
Well, first off, there's the way the Mazda3 looks. I know such things are ever in the eye of the beholder, but I reckon that the 3 is currently the best-looking five-door hatchback you can buy (and that in a class that includes such handsome others as the Toyota Corolla, the Renault Megane and the forthcoming new SEAT Leon). The way the Mazda3's rear pillar swoops up and over into the roof looks great (albeit it has its downsides, which we'll come to in a tic) and the pared-back, minimal-decoration styling language that Mazda is currently using works great. This is a deeply handsome car.
Mazda says that it has tried to achieve the most natural seating position possible, and from the results of a long haul down to Cork and back, I'd say it has succeeded - the 3 is notably comfortable. If you can accuse the instrument pack of being a bit too plain (it's part-digital, part analogue) then other items, such as the gorgeous, slim-rim, three-spoke steering wheel, really work well.
Speaking of working well, there's the infotainment system. Instead of a big touchscreen sitting in the middle of the dash, the screen has been shifted up to the base of the windscreen, and it sits in a shallow, wedge-shaped frame. This means that it's not actually a touchscreen at all, but instead is controlled by the BMW iDrive-style rotary control mounted between the seats (along with some voice control). This is - frankly - brilliant as it means that, instead of taking your eyes of the road and stabbing at non-existent buttons, you instead roll and click the rotary switch, and your eyes stay closer to the natural line of sight out of the windscreen. It's also, graphically speaking, a big improvement on Mazda's old infotainment system.
Then we come to the handling. Now, this class of car has sky-high standards for handling, and cars such as the Focus, the Golf, the Astra and the Corolla set a pretty tall bar. The Mazda3 effortlessly reaches that bar. I'm not sure that it actually exceeds it - the Focus is still just a touch more fluent, with just a hair more feel to its steering - but the 3 corners with beautiful fluidity, and no little sense of entertainment. The steering has a delightful weight to it, and if the gearshift is actually a little longer in throw than is ideal then at least it still feels precise and mechanical. Honestly, the 3 is a car that you'd likely never truly tire of driving.
Anything that bugs you?
OK, let's discuss the engine, and as with our review of the Mazda3 SkyActiv-X, to be fair, we could have put the engine in either the 'bugs us' or 'best bits' category.
So what's good? Well, overall refinement is decent, and even though the power and torque figures are pretty low, you soon find yourself making decent progress. No, it's not fast, but nor is it disgraced. It's also decently economical. We actually averaged 6.2 litres per 100km in our time with the car, which is slightly better than the official WLTP figure, and that was with a broad variety of motorway, main road and city driving. The mild-hybrid system is unobtrusive, and the way the engine leaps back, smoothly, into life from a stop-start cycle in heavy traffic could give more than a few other car makers a lesson in such systems.
However, there's no getting away from the fact that long motorway inclines are more of a struggle than they ought to be, and that if you're looking for a car capable of snappy overtaking manoeuvres, then this isn't it. Mazda maintains a steadfast insistence that a naturally-aspirated, large-capacity engine such as this is, overall, better for emissions and economy, but there's no getting away from the fact that, with a small turbo and half the swept capacity, VW's 1.0-litre TSI engine offers better all-round performance, and in our hands has proven itself as economical.
Other issues? Remember the spoke about the C-pillar? Well it looks great from the outside, but from within it creates a somewhat claustrophobic environment in the back seats. Which is a shame if you're regularly hauling kids around (the saloon version of the Mazda3 has a much brighter, airier rear seat). Oh, and it's not cheap - although well-equipped, our test car ran to more than €30,000. Which is a lot.
And why have you given it this rating?
OK, so we have our question marks over the engine, plus the space and light in the rear of the 3. And its price (a regular Mazda bugbear). Even so, for me, this is the car from the hatchback class that I'd be most pleased to see on my driveway. It is the best looking, it's not far off the best to drive, I like the quirky insistence that a big engine is best and the overall quality, fit and finish are up to premium brand levels. The smart money, arguably, still goes on a Golf, but I'd have the 3.
What do the rest of the team think?
I adore the exterior styling of the Mazda3 hatchback, and I like the style of the cabin. Sadly, it's very tight on space in the back and in the boot, so it will have limited appeal in Ireland. Still, those that like driving will find it refreshingly capable and enjoyable to drive, even in normal traffic and on normal roads. Sure, it could do with more low-down oomph, but it's still a satisfying car to drive.
Shane O'Donoghue - Editor
For me, the jury is still out on the more advanced SkyActiv-X engine that Neil mentioned in the review. This 'regular' petrol engine suits the Mazda3 to a tee and after driving all versions I reckon this is the best setup for most people. I too am totally enamoured with the styling of the car, while the interior feels suitably premium.
Dave Humphreys - Road Test Editor