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Driven: Mazda3 2.2 SkyActiv-D. Image by Mazda.

Driven: Mazda3 2.2 SkyActiv-D
Mazda blitzes to the top of the C-segment with a high-quality hatch.

   



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Mazda3 2.2 SkyActiv-D

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Good points: styling, interior, space, refinement, drivetrain, standard equipment

Not so good: doesn't undercut the Volkswagen Golf on price by as much as you might think

Key Facts

Model tested: Mazda3 2.2 150hp Sport Nav SkyActiv-D
Pricing: 22,545 basic; 24,785 as tested
Engine: 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 107g/km
Combined economy: 68.9mpg
Top speed: 130mph
0-62mph: 8.1 seconds
Power: 150hp at 4,500rpm
Torque: 380Nm at 1,800rpm

Our view:

C-segment hatches, defined by the parameters of the class, can be much of a muchness. The discernment required to differentiate between what makes one a car you'd enthusiastically recommend to family and friends, and what makes another a dullard you'd advise anyone to avoid, can be extremely fine. Take, for instance, the Nissan Pulsar (no, please; take it), a hatchback that doesn't do anything particularly wrong but one that has received a resoundingly lukewarm response from critics because on the other hand it does absolutely nothing with any sparkle. People will still buy it, though; the sort of people who 'just want something to get from A to B' and who don't care about steering feedback or brake progression, whatever they might be.

The truth is, unless these C-segment cars are the performance versions of their respective lines (Golf GTI/R, Focus ST/RS, Astra VXR etc.), they are normally not that exciting to drive nor look at - a Golf GT 150hp diesel shouldn't set anyone's world on fire. But every so often, one comes along that shakes up the marketplace by trying to offer some interest in a sector that needs to be largely conservative. The latest Mazda3 is a fine exponent of this rare breed.

With the previous generation car one of the makeweights in class (it was cheap, well-equipped and spacious, but not as proficient as the best of its rivals), Mazda has pulled out all the stops on the latest one and given us something that should seriously worry the entire Volkswagen Group, Ford and Peugeot and pretty much anything else premium and German. For a start, we can't remember the last time we test-drove a normal, run-of-the-mill hatchback like this and yet felt the need to glance back, each and every time we walked away from it. Mazda's Kodo ('Soul of Motion') design language has already given us some handsome cars but none of the company's products wears the styling better than the 3. The sweeping swage lines down the side - one draped over the top of the front wings, another running just above the sill and the third arcing forward over the rear haunches - give the flanks real definition and visual allure, the rear end looks particularly fabulous with its narrow light clusters and spaced twin exhausts, it doesn't need to sit on massive great ride-ruining alloys to look good in profile and it even has a leonine, subtly aggressive face. Two minor gripes - the designer didn't see fit to leave space for a front number plate recess, which means our ugly UK item perches in an ungainly manner in the middle of the grille, while that sloping tailgate leads to a rear window that's not the largest in the world, thus limiting visibility. But as we'd say it even eclipses the angular SEAT Leon as the chief looker in this segment (we'd recommend white as a good hue for high-spec models like the Sport Nav), we're inclined to overlook these minor details.

The bodywork is backed up by an interior that must rank as one of the best from Japan we've seen at any price point. OK, the blue digital figures used in some displays might just be edging towards outmoded, while a few of the graphics in the head-up display are necessarily primitive for reasons of space, but in terms of the fit, finish and general haptics, it's a delight inside. The infotainment system and its attendant controls are a particular highlight, working as intuitively as any other system we've tried, while the seats are both supportive and comfortable. Everything you touch feels classy, with the only items looking a bit cheap compared to the rest of the 3's cockpit are the electric window switches; hardly deal-breaking stuff. There's also a good amount of space in the back for both people and cargo, although that sloping hatch does mean bulky, taller items are unlikely to go in the boot if anyone is sitting in the rear.

However, it's all well and good winning acclaim while sitting still, but if the 3 wants to get near the top of the class, it needs to impress on the move, too. Which it does. In spades. The SkyActiv-D engine is a gem, so smooth and torquey thanks to a giant 380Nm from just 1,800rpm, yet it's also quiet and surprisingly happy to rev out. While it couldn't, of course, match the official economy figure of 68.9mpg, a genuine mid-50s average mpg figure is not to be sniffed at. The ride is excellent at all times, the steering and body control are sharp enough that the 3 becomes fun to hustle along (and its dynamic prowess bodes well for any forthcoming MPS version), while noise levels are kept to a minimum whether on the motorway or blasting along a back road. There's very little to fault about the Mazda's driving manners.

Probably the main sticking point would be the phrase 'almost 25 grand for a diesel Mazda hatchback', which - admittedly - doesn't exactly make it extraordinary value. The Sport Nav is at the top of Mazda's specification tree, though, so without options it costs 22,545 and comes with touchscreen satnav, head-up display, cruise control, keyless entry and go, climate control, 18-inch alloy wheels, parking sensors front and rear and a nine-speaker Bose sound system that's utterly fantastic. A Golf GT five-door starts at 23,850, so the Mazda does undercut it, but not by a massive margin. Options on our car were metallic paint (540), leather upholstery (1,000) and the Safety Pack (700), incorporating lane-departure warning, auto high-beam control and rear vehicle monitoring. You'd need to factor in residual values to work out whether the Mazda makes mid- and longer-term financial sense, especially as the Golf - come resale time - will undoubtedly preserve more of the outlay required to buy it in the first place.

Picking a Mazda3, whether you're a private buyer or someone being offered a C-segment hatch as a company car, will require you to think laterally, then, despite its innate brilliance. You need to ignore the heavy-hitters in terms of sales, from Ford, Vauxhall and the Volkswagen empire, as well as the Gallic charm of the current Peugeot 308. But if you do choose the 3, you'll be well rewarded. It might be a very fine line between failure and success in this crowded and competitive marketplace, but the Mazda3 finds itself emphatically in the winners' circle. It's up there vying with the long-established class-leaders and it should attract serious consideration from buyers, because it's an exceptional car.

Alternatives:

Ford Focus: not quite the paragon of handling it once was, the Focus still offers a sharp steer in non-ST/RS guise. Cabin recently updated and improved, exterior facelifted. Too common for some buyers but always in the mix for class honours.

Peugeot 308: the other C-segment hatch that has recently gone from also-ran to race-winning contender. Handsome, well-equipped, reasonably cheap, nice to drive - interior is bereft of switchgear, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Volkswagen Golf: we could as easily have recommended the SEAT Leon, Audi A3 or Skoda Octavia, but let's go with the key model and we all know its strengths: very capable in all departments, strong residual values. Is it a bit dull compared to the Mazda3, though?


Matt Robinson - 16 Jul 2015



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2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.



2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.
 

2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.
 

2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.
 

2015 Mazda3. Image by Mazda.
 






 

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