Mazda 3: You've only yourself to blame if you don't try it
The Mazda 3 is an excellent family hatchback that offers more style and driving fun than the default Volkswagen Golf
IF you happen to be in the market for a new family hatchback at the moment, then you are fortunate enough to be living in a golden era, writes William Scholes.
Indeed, apart from the undercooked and overpriced Mercedes-Benz A-Class, it is easy enough to put forward persuasive arguments for why the Vauxhall Astra, Renault Megane, Seat Leon, Hyundai i30 or whatever is the car for you.
The Volkswagen Golf, according to the sales charts, is consistently Northern Ireland's favourite family car among those yet to join the ranks of crossover and SUV ownership.
The Golf is a very competent car, of course, with a vast range of engines and trim levels that means there really is a Golf for everyone.
The Volkswagen also has a particular veneer of suburban poshness, like a Marks 'n' Sparks food hall on wheels, that has been carefully cultivated over the years to convince punters that a car with a VW badge is inherently better than one with a Ford, Vauxhall or Renault badge, even when it has been caught shamelessly cheating emissions tests. But that's an article for another day.
The VW Golf might be Northern Ireland's most popular family hatch - indeed, it's back on top spot across Europe at the moment - but that doesn't mean it is the best.
For my money, that honour lies with the generally underrated Mazda 3.
It's not the biggest car in the class - that would be the mini-cab spec Skoda Octavia - nor is it the plushest - that's you, Audi A3 - and makers like Ford and Volkswagen offer a wider range of engines and trims, but when you blend everything together the Mazda is hard to beat.
The VW Golf might be Northern Ireland's most popular family hatch but that doesn't mean it is the best. For my money, that honour lies with the generally underrated Mazda 3
The Mazda is, to my eyes at least, the best looking family hatch you can buy - a long, low bonnet, sporty proportions and sharp detailing - and painted in trademark Soul Red, it looks superb.
It is also probably the sweetest driving family hatch. There are much faster hatches - Mazda has a 'Sport Nav' version of the 3, but this is a trim level rather than indicative of a particularly powerful engine - so if you really want an authentic hot hatch you will need to shop for something like a GTI-badged Golf or Peugeot 308.
The Mazda, however, establishes its fun-to-drive credentials through having a lovely gearbox, with the same short, decisive shift action that you get in the company's MX-5 roadster, and pedals which are perfectly weighted and notable for the consistency of their action.
A sporty driving position - sat low, legs straight ahead, looking over that long bonnet - sends the signal that Mazda has put driving enjoyment higher up its list of priorities than its rivals have sought to.
The steering is light and accurate and while the chassis set-up is pliant and comfortable in everyday A to B driving, it has the same ability that you get in a good sports car to feel responsive and eager, as if it's standing on its tippy-toes, when you want to press on.
Driven thus, the Mazda 3 has an agility and keenness that you won't find in a Golf, and there is much fun to be had at speeds that won't put your driving licence at risk.
As mentioned earlier, Mazda's engine range is more modest than you might find elsewhere.
Petrol devotees can opt for a 2.0-litre unit with either 118bhp or 163bhp. It's an unusual engine among the competition these days, both for its large capacity and the fact that it is - and defiantly so - non-turbocharged.
A sporty driving position sends the signal that Mazda has put driving enjoyment high on its list of priorities
Mazda's is an increasingly left-field approach at a time when everyone else is fitting their cars with smaller capacity but turbocharged engines; these match the Mazda's power output but offer more torque than the 155lb.ft mustered by its 2.0-litres, which can make them feel brisker in day-to-day use.
Though it enjoys to rev and is a smooth and sweet unit, the Mazda petrol engine needs to be driven harder than a turbocharged rival, thus demanding a little more from the driver in terms of planning their driving in terms of gear changes and so on.
If that sounds like too much hard work, happily Mazda has a couple of excellent - as in best-in-class - diesel engines from which to choose.
There is a 1.5-litre engine which whisks the Mazda along far more briskly than its figures of 104bhp and 199lb.ft might suggest, though its 99g/km CO2 emissions and consequently low car tax and benefit in kind rate are likely to be of more interest to company car drivers.
The engine you probably want in your Mazda 3, though, is the 2.2-litre diesel, which churns out 148bhp and 280lb.ft - and 107g/km of CO2 - in fine style.
This really is an excellent engine, and thus equipped the 3 blends a decent turn of everyday pace with realistic 50mpg-plus fuel consumption.
While the six-speed manual gearbox is superb, a six-speed automatic can be specified with the 118bhp petrol and 148bhp diesel engines.
Trim levels follow Mazda's familiar pattern of SE, SE-L Nav and Sport Nav; all are decently equipped, with alloy wheels, power-folding mirrors, air conditioning, sharp 7-inch touchscreen with Mazda's excellent control wheel, Bluetooth and a plethora of airbags.
As well as the five-door hatch, Mazda also offer the 3 as a four-door 'fastback' saloon.
Hatch prices start at £17,995 and the fastback, which skips SE trim, at £20,095.
As mentioned earlier, there is a wide range of decent cars from which to choose if you are after a family hatchback.
No-one could blame you for buying a VW Golf, a Ford Focus, a Vauxhall Astra or a Renault Megane, but you might blame yourself if you hadn't first tried the excellent Mazda 3.
Sure, there are roomier, cheaper and faster models than the Mazda, and others which have wider engine and trim choices.
But for its sheer mix of quality, style, decent practicality, low running costs and fun, the Mazda is hard to beat. It's the feel-good family hatch.
No-one could blame you for buying a VW Golf, a Ford Focus, a Vauxhall Astra or a Renault Megane, but you might blame yourself if you hadn't first tried the excellent Mazda 3
AT A GLANCE
Mazda 3 2.0 120PS SE-L Nav hatchback
Price: £19,895. As tested: £20,565. Options included 'machine grey' metallic paint, £670
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 118bhp, 155lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 121mph, 0-62mph in 8.9 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 55.4mpg (EU combined); 42.6mpg (real world), 119g/km
Car tax: £160 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 22 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (93/86/65/81), 2013