Although Mazda Ireland hopes that the shapely new Mazda3 hatchback can win it new customers to the brand, it's acutely aware of the importance of the four-door saloon, and in particular the 2.2-litre diesel-engined version. Good news for Mazda dealers: it shows great promise.
In the Metal:
Mazda calls its eye-catching design language 'Kodo - Soul of Motion ', but it doesn't need a fancy marketing name to sell, as it's highly successful. The Mazda3 takes over where the Mazda6 and CX-5 left off and it's just as attractive. It looks good from every angle and the saloon is particularly pleasing to the eye. It's a full 120mm longer than the hatchback, at 4,580mm. Both cars have a 60mm longer wheelbase than before, and at 2,700mm it's claimed to be the longest in the class. The new Mazda3 is also wider (by 40mm) and lower (15mm) than the outgoing model.
But the previous Mazda3 wasn't a bad-looking car; it's the interior that really sets the new model apart. It's a modern design and even without the higher specification seats and head-up display it feels of high quality. That's helped by the use of soft-touch plastics in all the right places. Mazda states that the new car 'offers best-in-class shoulder room front and rear, and is close to best in terms of legroom.' The rear certainly feels quite spacious for the class, while the boot is among the biggest at 419 litres (the hatchback has 350 litres of space) - and the rear seat backs fold flat.
A disclaimer or two: while we had plenty of time in the Mazda3 (and we tried three different variants) the cars were classed as pre-production, so it's difficult to know how close to the finished article they are. On top of that it was lashing rain the whole time making it difficult to judge refinement levels or handling capabilities.
Saying all that, the Mazda3 comes across as quite wieldy from the outset, with direct steering, good body control and a keenness to turn into a bend. On the motorway it felt stable and comfortable, though back in town traffic the suspension seemed to jiggle about a little more than we'd like.
The 2.2-litre diesel engine, as previously tested in the CX-5 and Mazda6, is a gem. It's refined and effortlessly potent. There's no need to seek out the peak power at 4,500rpm, but instead ride the wave of torque available much lower down the rev range. Most people will go for the six-speed manual gearbox, which is perfectly fine, but the automatic option is worth looking at, as it's a great transmission and it doesn't hurt economy and emissions too much.
What you get for your Money:
Mazda is staying quiet about pricing for the moment, which is no surprise given that the Mazda3 won't be on sale in Ireland until November. It is likely, however, that the five-door hatchback version, powered by a 1.5-litre petrol engine, will start at €23,500. Most versions sold will be diesel and in mid-level specification. The sole diesel option is that tested here, a 150hp 2.2-litre unit.
Mazda talked us through the mindboggling process of designing an infotainment system that does everything the 'connected' consumer of today wants while minimising distraction from actually driving the car. The head up display is just part of it, but the high-level colour screen and its rotary controller are key. Availability has yet to be confirmed, but this system includes the Aha service, which allows internet access to about 30,000 stations, plus podcasts, etc. It also features audio feeds from Facebook and Twitter, and there's more to come apparently - all in a bid to ensure it doesn't date and is easy to update.
Mazda's new 3 shows a lot of promise. The saloon may still edge it in terms of sales in Ireland, and to our eyes it's a more elegant shape than the hatch. The interior is as stylish as the exterior and it seems well made and spacious. Though there are no smaller diesel engines available, the 2.2-litre option is highly efficient and first impressions suggest that the car drives well. We look forward to trying the finished product.