Mazda 3: Still a magic number
The new Mazda 3 is touched by brilliance, but it's not perfect, says William Scholes
WHEN it was launched earlier this year, the new Mazda 3 thoroughly impressed Drive, writes William Scholes.
A long and interesting test route which pitted the car against some fabulous driving roads in the Scottish Borders and Northumberland played to Mazda’s strength as a purveyor of some of the best-to-drive family cars money can buy.
Oodles of power and the thump of turbocharged torque is not usually the Mazda way, however, but the 3 was still capable of rapid progress thanks to a chassis that positively flowed across miles of sinewy, undulating and clear-sighted roads and a magical ability to maintain momentum.
It was also obvious that the interior, both in terms of design and quality, had taken several steps forward to put Mazda firmly in the premium bracket with BMW, Audi and their ilk.
But perhaps the Mazda 3’s boldest calling card is how it looks - it’s stunning, isn’t it?
It manages to look even better in pictures than in the metal, particularly as the light plays over the gentle, organic curves on its sculpted flanks.
It’s beautiful to behold - and there are precious few mainstream cars of which that can be said.
Overall, then, on first encounter I loved the Mazda 3.
Manufacturer model launches can tell you a lot about a car, but there is no real substitute for living with a vehicle and using it as you would your own.
And having just spent some time with the 3 on Northern Ireland roads, does it still leave such a strong impression?
I’ll start with the negatives. Making the 3 so outrageously eye-catching means Mazda has chosen to compromise in a few areas where competitors fielding more prosaically-styled hatchbacks haven’t.
Those oh-so-thick rear pillars mean the view out of the back of the Mazda is far more limited than it is in, say, a Volkswagen Golf or Ford Focus.
A large over-the-shoulder blindspot presents itself when you need to reverse from a driveway or out of a parking space.
The reversing camera fitted to my GT Sport test car helped mitigate the problem, but it doesn’t completely fill in the blanks.
Limited visibility may be something that sports car owners are prepared to put up with, but I imagine family car drivers may find it more of an issue.
They’ll also be nonplussed by the rear seats, which are tighter on space - particularly headroom - than rivals.
Children and younger, less lanky teenagers will have plenty of room, but adults won’t be thrilled - an unavoidable consequence of that sleek, low, coupe-like roofline is less headroom than you’ll find in something like a Skoda Octavia; then again, a Skoda Octavia looks like a Skoda Octavia, whereas the Mazda 3 looks like nothing else...
Perhaps the Mazda 3’s boldest calling card is how it looks - it’s stunning, isn’t it?
My 10-year-old found the back of the Mazda fairly dark, too. Those thick rear pillars are to blame again, plus the shape of the back windows and their heavily-tinted glass.
The shape and size of the back door aperture also make positioning and manoeuvring an Isofix-style baby seat or booster seat a bit of a palaver.
The boot’s volume is 351 litres, which for context is a little, though not decisively, behind the Focus’s 375 litres and the Golf’s 380 litres.
It might sound like my own ardour for the 3 has cooled, but it hasn’t; I merely highlight these downsides because these things might matter to you, even if a jumbo boot and adult-spec back seats aren’t really that important to me.
Unless they are really weird, no-one sitting in the front of the Mazda should have anything to complain about.
There’s buckets of room, the seats are super-comfortable and the view of the road - aimed down that elongated bonnet that subconsciously helps the driver to place the car more precisely - is clear.
As mentioned earlier, this is an interior of real quality in which everything is arranged and executed with intelligence.
Modern cars are loaded with an arsenal of technology, from sat-nav and phone to DAB and safety assistance systems.
The gathering trend is for the control of these functions to be delegated to a touchscreen somewhere in the middle of the dashboard.
This, in my view, is often to the detriment of safety because the driver’s eyes tend to be drawn away from the road for longer than they should while menus are navigated and screens prodded.
Mazda, then, is to be congratulated for giving the driver a big no-nonsense knob, located behind the gearstick and surrounded by a bunch of large buttons, to control the radio, sat-nav and so forth.
You don’t need to look at it to control it - what could be safer? There’s also buttons on the steering wheel to control volume and cruise control settings, as well as a voice activated system, though Irish accents tend to bamboozle these...
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are on board and the process of pairing Bluetooth is idiot-proof. The scope of the digital dashboard’s capabilities is a little underwhelming though, compared to the full colour widescreen effect that you can get in a Golf these days.
The Mazda’s driving position is spot-on, the gearshift wonderful and the pedals and steering consistently weighted; the 3 is a very slick car to control, which conveys its depth of engineering with real fluency
The Mazda’s driving position is spot-on, the gearshift wonderful and the pedals and steering consistently weighted; the 3 is a very slick car to control, which conveys its depth of engineering with real fluency.
My test car came in the latest ‘soul red crystal’ paintwork, which is a must-have because of the way it helps accentuate the Mazda’s stunning shape.
On the move, there’s a definite edge to the 3’s ride at lower speeds which wasn’t so obvious during the launch.
Rough tarmac in my neck of the woods wasn’t solely to blame, either, with the car feeling a bit stiff and transmitting minor bumps into the car that the occupants of the sporty Golf I’ve also been driving recently wouldn’t even have noticed.
It’s not a deal-breaker, at least in my view, but worth mentioning because other Mazda’s aren’t similarly afflicted and rival manufacturers also avoid feeling so firm up to 35mph or 40mph.
Oddly, the faster you go, the better the ride gets. In fact, above 40mph or so, the 3 feels right in its stride, striking a great balance between comfort and sporty handling.
Refinement is also strong - the new 3 is a lot quieter than the old car on the motorway.
What it isn’t, however, is quick. This sensation is amplified because the 3 feels so dynamically capable.
I think it would be brilliant with the 182bhp 2.0-litre engine from the MX-5, but none of the units currently offered feel powerful enough to exploit its undoubted ability.
When the new 3 was launched, it could be had with either a 2.0-litre petrol toting 120bhp and 157lb.ft of torque or a 1.8-litre diesel with 114bhp and a 199lb.ft.
Mazda’s high-tech Skyactiv-X petrol engine is about to join the line-up, with 178bhp and 165lb.ft. You can read more about Skyactiv-X here.
The diesel, as tested on this occasion, enjoys being revved hard and is a very smooth unit, and its torque advantage over the other two engines mean most drivers will probably find it the easiest to live with in every-day driving.
Still, whatever engine is under the long, shapely bonnet of your Mazda 3, you have access to a put-a-smile-on-your-face driving experience.
Overall, then, the Mazda 3 is an excellent car which I can happily recommend to anyone shopping for a new family hatchback.
Its styling, depth of engineering, quality and driving verve are class-leading. If ultimate practicality or straight line speed aren’t at the top of your priorities, the Mazda should be at the top of your checklist.
AT A GLANCE
Mazda 3 1.8D GT Sport
Price: £26,395. As tested: £27,185, with soul red crystal metallic paint £790
Engine and transmission: 1.8-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 114bhp, 199lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 121mph, 0-62mph in 10.3 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 56.5mpg (WLTP combined); 43.4mpg (real world); 109g/km
Car tax: £170 in first year, then £145 annually
Benefit in kind: 29 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (98/87/81/73), 2019