First impressions count and, when I first saw the new Mazda
3 at the celebrity race for the Australian Grand Prix a couple of years ago, it struck me as one of the most cohesive family car designs currently on offer from any Japanese manufacturer. The intervening couple have years have not changed my view.
Many modern Japanese cars look like different designers worked on sections of the design, before they were brought together to make a car. The Mazda 3, however, flows nicely from the Mazda shield-shaped grille through to the elegant hatchback or stubby boot.
Yes, there are two different versions of the Mazda 3. All global manufacturers have to recognise that European drivers tend to favour hatchbacks, while US owners tend to prefer saloons (or sedans as they are known Stateside).
Sometimes that means a manufacturer will only offer the version that appeals most to each market, but Mazda have decided to let us choose. Hatchback or saloon? Both are available in the UK – although naming the saloon the Mazda 3 Fastback may cause some confusion.
My favourite is the ‘Fastback’. It is 120mm longer than the hatchback and looks all the better for it. It may lose some of the versatility of a big hatch opening, but, with the back seat up, it does have the larger boot at 419 litres.
My previous experience was with the two-litre diesel, but this car joins the trend to smaller engines for greater efficiency with a 1.5-litre diesel producing 105 bhp. The smaller engine reduces emissions to 99g/km. It does also impact a little on the performance, most notably with the 0-62 mph acceleration dropping to 11 seconds. In reality it still felt lively enough for a family car.
Space in the front is good. Round the back, longer-legged passengers may have to do a little horse-trading for knee-space if they sit behind a similarly long-legged driver or passenger. Headroom in the back is adequate for me, at a little under six feet.
If the exterior looked like a small executive saloon, the interior, too, is nicely appointed and finished with good quality materials and bright metal highlights. The only thing that looked a little ‘lower rent’ in these otherwise plush surroundings, was the little plastic flap onto which the useful head-up display is projected.
The levels of refinement match the first impressions of sophistication. The ride quality is generally very good, nicely taut, but mostly without any jarring surprises. I say ‘mostly’ because there were a couple of times – but only a couple – when there was a louder thump as one of the wheels encountered a poorly fitted manhole or drain cover.
Manufacturers have a constant challenge to satisfy the potentially conflicting needs of buyers. City dwellers want cars with light controls to make manoeuvring easy and to reduce the effort of tap-dancing on the pedals during stop-start city traffic.
But, when you pass the speed limit signs and head into the country, enthusiastic drivers want a car that has some weight to the steering and produces feedback on the interaction of tyre rubber and tarmac.
The Mazda 3 offers a pretty good compromise between these potentially conflicting requirements. The controls have enough feel to inspire confidence, but are also light enough to make light work of city manoeuvring and traffic. Just occasionally the brakes seemed to grab unexpectedly, spoiling my attempts to provide a chauffeur-style smooth ride for my passengers.
Most of the time, if no-one told you, you could be convinced it was a petrol engine under the bonnet, it is so responsive, quiet and refined. At normal driving speeds a light touch on the throttle brings an instant response. The only time the diesel tones become noticeable is at higher revs. Similarly, road noise is well damped. Just occasionally tyre noise becomes noticeable on particular road surfaces.
My average fuel consumption in this mixture of driving was a very creditable 44 mpg and the combined figure of 72.4 indicates that, with a little care, it would be easy to top that.
My driving included city streets, country roads and dual carriageways. The Mazda 3 proved good company in all these conditions. Indeed, the more I drove it, the more I liked it – which is always a good sign. Mazda 3 Fastback Sport D
Carbon dioxide emissions: 99 g/km
VED band B
Combined fuel economy 74.3 mpg
Top speed: 113 mph
0-62: 11 secs
Power 105 bhp
Engine size 1498cc
Boot capacity 419 litres