The best family hatchback on sale today, to the power of 3
WE never like to miss an opportunity to wax lyrical about Mazda in Drive, and just such an occasion arises today, writes William Scholes.
Mazda has recently plumbed a 1.5-litre diesel engine beneath the long and shapely bonnet of its sleek 3 family hatchback and 'fastback' saloon, and I was keen to get my hands on it to see if it as good a match as the other petrol and diesel units already available.
The new engine makes do with a modest 104bhp but its trump cards are economy and low running costs.
The EU combined fuel consumption figure is a heady 74.3mpg and while I didn't quite achieve that 54.6mpg is an excellent real world result.
Carbon dioxide emissions are rated at 99g/km, bringing the 1.5-litre Mazda 3 into the territory where it is not liable for vehicle excise duty.
Company users will be further pleased to note that the low CO2 means the taxman has slapped a benefit in rate of just 19 per cent on this particular Mazda 3.
There are plenty of similarly hair-shirted eco-spec versions of other family cars out there, but none drive with quite the same verve as the Mazda.
The power figure may be low, but a healthy 199lb/ft of torque means the car has enough punch out on the road.
This, combined with Mazda's trademark deft handling, means the 3 always feels alert and alive, as if it's up on its toes and ready to play.
There's a smooth sophistication to the way the 3 moves along the road - the twistier and more undulating the better - that lifts the Mazda above anything else in its class.
Put it this way: if someone taped over the badges before you got in and told you that you were driving a BMW, you wouldn't be surprised.
The driving position is spot on, with a good view of the road ahead inspiring confidence and making the car easy to place, and the consistency and smoothness of the interaction between the pedals, gearshift and steering speaks of real care and attention to detail.
The gear change, a perennial Mazda strong point, is a delight, and the steering offers plenty of feedback.
Handling is admirably neutral, with the car resisting understeer with determination, and the suspension - an expensive multi-link set-up at the back - offers a great compromise between sportiness and comfort, with very good body control.
Taken together, all this means the driver is able to make use of every one of the Mazda 3's horsepower, should the mood take them; the rest of the time, the smoothness of the engine and the controls makes this an easy car to tootle around in.
Engine apart, the rest of the 3 is the same as that which has impressed previously.
That means a sporty cockpit - an appropriate enough term for a change, particularly with the Sport Nav-trimmed test car's rev counter-dominated instruments and head-up display - with lots of space and excellent fit and finish.
The large touchscreen and rotary control wheel for the car's various satnav, radio and phone functions is one of the best you will find in any car - again, the BMW comparison comes to mind...
In terms of quality and how it makes you feel, the 3 stands comparison with the Audi A3 and is several notches ahead of the likes of the Vauxhall Astra, Ford Focus and Seat Leon, with a sense of style denied Volkswagen Golf drivers.
Rear passenger space is ample, though there are larger back seats in this class. Legroom is abundant but the sloping roof line means six-footers won't be able to wear their favourite hat if they are sat in the back.
The boot is a decent 364 litres, swelling to 1,263 litres with the seats folded - note that Mazda measures to the 'belt line', rather than to the roof - and there are decent storage cubbies and pockets throughout the cabin. Weirdly, however, there are no door pockets.
You will have no doubt, I hope, gathered that I was rather smitten by the Mazda 3.
Enthusiastic drivers in particularly will enjoy the 3 and will probably prefer the more powerful engines , but there is more than enough here for everyone to enjoy even in humble 1.5-litre guise.
The Mazda 3 is a stylish yet practical car that is also very enjoyable to drive. It is infused with quality, from the basic design right the way through to its execution, and there is an inherent rightness to the way it goes about its business; and that's why I think it's the best new family hatchback on sale today.
:: AT A GLANCE:
Mazda 3 1.5D 105PS Sport Nav
Engine and transmission: 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 104bhp, 199lb/ft
Performance: Top speed 115mph, 0-62mph in 11.0 seconds
Fuel consumption: 74.3mpg (EU combined); 54.6mpg (real world)
CO2, road tax, benefit in kind: 99g/km - not liable for road tax - 19 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (93/86/65/81)