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First drive: Mazda3 hatchback. Image by Mazda.

First drive: Mazda3 hatchback
Mazda launches the new 3 with a mild-hybrid petrol engine. Is it a better choice than the diesel?

 



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Mazda3 hatchback

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It might be a bit of an ask to get family buyers into a family hatchback with a 2.0-litre engine, but the new Mazda3 is gorgeous to look at, frugal to drive and a sharp rival for the likes of the Focus, Golf and Astra.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Mazda3 2.0 Skyactiv-G M-Hybrid GT Sport
Pricing: Mazda3 starts at 20,595; car as tested 24,595
Engine: 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol, plus mild hybrid
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body style: five-door five-seat hatchback
CO2 emissions: 117g/km (VED Band 111-130: 170 in year one, then 145 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 55.3mpg
Top speed: 115mph
0-62mph: 10.4 seconds
Power: 122hp at 6,000rpm
Torque: 213Nm at 4,000rpm
Boot space: 358-1,026 litres

What's this?

You might, at first glance, think that this is a new Alfa Romeo, but it's actually Mazda's new 3. It's a surprisingly easy mistake to make, not least because from the side there's more than a strong hint of the old Alfa Romeo Brera coupe about the styling of the 3 hatchback. It's easily the best-looking car in the class now (the forthcoming four-door saloon looks smart too, but perhaps a touch more sober) and there's a hint of the Range Rover Velar's minimalist style in the 3's lack of ornamentation or fussy cut lines. Basically, it's really good looking is what we're trying to say.

Good, too, in the cabin. In fact, better than good. In fact, in high-spec form at any rate, the new 3 might be the biggest challenger to the mighty VW Golf when it comes to interior design and quality. Again, there's a minimalist aesthetic which centres everything around the driver. In previous Mazdas that has felt a touch plain, almost utilitarian, but here the careful attention paid to such things as switch quality, lighting, dial design for the part-digital instrument pack and the sheer refinement of the cabin has paid off. The best cabin in its class? It just might be, although that comes with the caveat that the rear window line, which slopes up very sharply, makes the back seat feel rather gloomy, even if actual space is fine.

Underneath, there's a new Skyactiv chassis, which Mazda says is stiffer and safer than it used to be, and the 3 is coming with lots of new, and standard, safety equipment. That includes autonomous emergency braking with night pedestrian detection, a driver drowsiness monitor that can also spot when you're distracted, adaptive cruise control, a heads-up display, and front and rear cross-traffic alert. Yup, all standard, which is impressive.

On the engine front, you can choose for now from a new 116hp 1.8-litre diesel engine, or this 122hp 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol engine. It's a development of Mazda's old 2.0-litre, but this time around comes with fuel-saving cylinder deactivation and a standard-fit mild hybrid system. That uses an integrated starter/generator which both charges and draws power from a small 6kWh lithium-ion battery mounted under the boot. It can add little bursts of electric power to help with acceleration, or to smooth out gear changes, or it can help work the car's fast-reacting stop-start system around town, all of which helps to save fuel. Unlike a Toyota hybrid it can't drive the 3 on just electric power, but it's a much less obtrusive system than the Corolla's full hybrid setup.

How does it drive?

The first thing you notice about the 3 is just how refined it is. Mazda's engineers seem to have focused in on noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) issues from the old model, and it really shows. Rolling refinement is very good, with little tyre noise coming through into the cabin (both Volkswagen and Toyota would do well to pay attention here) and that's in spite of the 3 being lumbered with a cheaper torsion bar rear suspension setup, compared to Toyota's independent multi-link rear end.

That torsion bar makes the car more agile, says Mazda, as well as being more affordable and better for boot space (which is a relatively small 358 litres) but you can feel, at times, that it's not as good as a fully independent setup. The 3's steering is not as sharp as that of the new Corolla, nor that of the Ford Focus when fitted with Ford's optional independent rear suspension. It's also a little rougher and noisier over bumps.

That said, the 3 is still very entertaining to drive and well ahead of the class average in that respect. Mazda has fitted with 'G-Vectoring Control Plus' system, which can tap an individual brake or retard the torque output of the engine to help smooth out your steering inputs heading into, and exiting, a corner. It's a subtle system - none of the obvious tugging that you get with a more aggressive mechanical differential - but you can feel its effects in the way the 3 resists the usual understeer of a front-driven hatchback in challenging corners. Driven more sedately, the 3 is really very sweet - quiet, stable, sure-footed and enjoyable.

The 2.0-litre Skyactiv engine just gets its nose in front of its sister diesel unit, too. The diesel is impressive - refined and very economical - but the petrol sounds sweeter to the ears and, if you drive it gently, is capable of near 50mpg economy in real-world conditions. Mazda has always maintained that a large-capacity non-turbo engine with high compression ratios is the best for real-world economy, and you can sense the smugness of its engineers as some rivals struggle to get their downsized turbo engines through the tougher WLTP economy and emissions tests. The hybrid system doesn't give the engine much of a kick when you accelerate - you have to build up the revs, and keep them there, to make decent progress - but you can feel its fuel-saving effects around town. The Corolla Hybrid would best the Mazda for urban fuel economy, we reckon, but the Mazda should do better on the open road, and is anyway more engaging and more refined, especially on the motorway.

Verdict

Quite apart from its gorgeous styling, the Mazda3 should prove very tempting with its high quality and promise of long-term reliability. The torsion bar rear end does limit driving pleasure a little, and the rear cabin is unnecessarily gloomy, but the simple mild hybrid setup is appealing and the gorgeous interior up front gives it a quasi-premium feel.

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Exterior Design

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Interior Ambience

4 4 4 4 4 Passenger Space

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Luggage Space

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Safety

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Comfort

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Driving Dynamics

4 4 4 4 4 Powertrain


Neil Briscoe - 26 Feb 2019









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