Mazda 3: Beauty is more than skin deep
BEAUTY is in the eye of the beholder, but even the most myopic and easiest to please observer would have to concede that car design is going through a particularly ugly phase, writes William Scholes.
Perhaps the prevalence of SUVs is to blame, or maybe their boxy bodywork simply highlights a crushing conservatism and lack of stylistic ambition that would have existed anyway.
And by building cars to meet the same crash regulations and aerodynamic priorities, there is a certain inevitably to vehicles in the same class being not only of similar size but also of similar appearance.
But something else - some deeper malaise - has taken hold.
Take BMW, for example. Once a purveyor of beautifully proportioned sports saloons, its current output is overwhelmingly gormless, inelegant and derivative.
I saw an X7, BMW’s new flagship SUV, in the wild for the first time last week. I hope I don’t see another.
The logical extension of BMW’s current direction of travel is that X7 will be followed by an X8 and an X9, each more bloated and more grotesque than the last.
It sometimes feels like we have moved a long way from the automotive landscape which prompted French philosopher Roland Barthes to compare cars to the great Gothic cathedrals: “I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”
Barthes’s inspiration was the Citroen DS; the closest many of today’s cars would get to a cathedral is as a gargoyle to ward off the evil spirits of good taste, elegance and efficiency.
There are exceptions, thank goodness.
The premium German makes may have lost their senses - and their sensibilities - but Volvo is on a dazzling run of form with a consistent and coherent design language that works across its entire range.
Mazda got here first, though. Now, it’s putting v2.0 of its design on to our roads, with the latest Mazda 3 acting as its striking and fabulous calling card.
The 3, of course, is Mazda’s contender in the mainstream family car market. But no other five-door hatchback looks like this.
Photographs tell only part of the story - you can spot the long nose and the chunky haunches, like a cat ready to pounce - because you need to see the Mazda 3 in the metal to fully appreciate how the light plays along its flanks, reflecting deeply in its crease-free panels.
The effect is that of a pebble that has been precisely worn to smooth perfection by sand and sea; it gives this family car an organic feel that no other rival comes close to.
No other five-door hatchback looks like as good as the new Mazda 3. Photographs tell only part of the story - you can spot the long nose and the chunky haunches, like a cat ready to pounce - because you need to see the Mazda 3 in the metal to fully appreciate how the light plays along its flanks, reflecting deeply in its crease-free panels
Making a car look like this is not only deliberate but also expensive. The panel gaps around the bonnet and the swell of the edge of the back doors as they merge into the car’s hips speak of extraordinary precision in the manufacturing process, for example.
Nor should the contribution of paintwork to the overall aesthetic of a car be overlooked; in the latest iteration of Mazda’s trademark ‘soul red’ crystal metallic, the 3 looks nothing less than stunning, a concept car for the road.
The net effect is as if the whole car had been blown from glass rather than formed from metal panels. Barthes would approve.
We can expect the 3’s design language to appear on the next wave of new Mazda cars, and I hope the effort, energy and expense that it has gone to will be rewarded in sales.
There’s more to the new Mazda 3 than its exquisite exterior execution.
This is an all-new car, and it also benefits from an interior which is at least as good as anything from Audi in terms of quality of operation and materials. The dashboard is distinguished by its uncluttered minimalism.
Mazda continues to prioritise driving enjoyment - the driving position is spot-on, with pedals and steering of almost unrivalled consistency and weight. The six-speed manual gearbox’s shift action is exceptional.
You will likely use the gearbox more than in rival cars, given how relatively light the Mazda’s torque output is.
Petrol cars have a 2.0-litre, but non-turbocharged, engine with 120bhp and 157lb.ft, augmented by a 48-volt mild hybrid system.
Diesel duties are taken care of by a 1.8-litre unit with 114bhp and a brawnier 199lb.ft.
There is a sense, however, that the best engine for the Mazda 3 will arrive later this year, when the company’s so-called Skyactiv-X unit debuts.
This intriguing petrol-fuelled engine represents something of a breakthrough, combining the traditional combustion processes of both petrol and diesel in what Mazda calls ‘spark controlled compression ignition’.
Skyactiv-X debuts in the Mazda 3 as a 2.0-litre unit with 178bhp and 165lb.ft, fuel consumption in the 50mpg territory and CO2 emissions around 100g/km.
It might not be quick, but the Mazda doesn’t need speed to earn its enthusiast credentials; this is a sweet-handling car, possessed of beautiful balance and a lightness of touch that means there are more powerful vehicles which wouldn’t see which way it went on a sinewy back road
It might not be quick, but the Mazda doesn’t need speed to earn its enthusiast credentials; this is a sweet-handling car, possessed of beautiful balance and a lightness of touch that means there are more powerful vehicles which wouldn’t see which way the 3 went on a sinewy back road.
A typically challenging and enjoyable Mazda test route in Scotland and the north of England displayed the full range of the Mazda’s chassis excellence, particularly when my companion and I were waylaid by a navigational error and had rather less time than anticipated to get to Edinburgh airport…
It isn’t all perfect, of course. There are other family hatchbacks with more capacious back seats and larger boots. Many others have wider engine ranges and trim levels.
But none of them look like the Mazda 3. Is it the only family hatch that deserves to be called beautiful?
AT A GLANCE
Price: £20,595 (petrol SE-L) to £27,735 (diesel GT Sport Auto)
Engines and transmissions: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, with 48-volt mild hybrid system, 120bhp, 157lb.ft; 1.8-litre four-cylinder diesel, 114bhp, 199lb.ft. Both engines front-wheel-drive and paired with either six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearboxes
Performance: Diesel - top speed 121mph, 0-62mph in 10.3 seconds; Petrol - top speed 122mph, 0-62mph in 10.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: Between 42.2mpg and 56.5mpg
CO2 emissions: Between 128g/km and 107g/km
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (98/87/81/73), 2019