Is the new Mazda 3 the best-looking family hatchback in years? Its maker would certainly hope you think so. When it revealed the Kai concept some two years ago – this fresh model is based on that car’s squat, sporty design – reaction to it was overwhelmingly positive.

Clearly, the firm’s design and engineering teams have pushed the boat out to deliver as much of the concept’s stunning looks as possible; and in a year when we’ll see a fresh Volkswagen Golf, Mazda’s newcomer needs to occupy a desirable spot in the minds of buyers up and down the land. It’s now on sale in Britain, and this is our first chance to drive it on home turf.

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With a few months still to go before the new Golf arrives, the Mazda 3 will need to square up to the latest Ford Focus. Both are sharp-looking and promise maximum driver engagement, although the Mazda’s launch line-up is much slimmer than the vast number of configurations you’ll be presented with in a Focus brochure.

Just two engines are available. The SkyActiv-D diesel produces 114bhp, while the SkyActiv-G petrol we drove is slightly stronger. It’s expected to be more popular, even if it lacks the diesel’s torque and fuel economy. An all-important third option will appear later this year, called SkyActiv-X; it’s a new engine that promises diesel-like fuel economy with the punch of a petrol unit, thanks to clever compression technology.

It’s a shame the new motor isn’t available at launch, because the existing engine is a weak link. There isn’t much torque, and it takes more than 10 seconds to sprint from 0-62mph, so it’s far from fast. The older SkyActiv-G engine is very refined, though. At cruising speeds the Mazda 3 is extremely quiet, and it works well with chassis, gearbox and steering settings that are fundamentally sound.

Be in no doubt, the Mazda 3 is a great car to drive. The innate tautness of the platform means that the suspension doesn’t need to be rock-solid for this to be a hatchback you can drive hard with a bit of confidence. It’s superbly composed – if maybe not as grippy or keen to turn in as a Focus – but it does it while retaining excellent ride quality.

Given the scant torque served up by the turbo-less engine, you need to work the gears to keep momentum. But the six-speed manual is a joy to use, with a short, accurate throw. You might wish the steering felt more alive, but by family-hatch standards it’s well judged. The driving position is nicely adjustable, too.

Whoever sits behind the wheel will be impressed, as should anyone in the passenger seat, given the quality of the cabin. We tried a mid-spec Sport Lux car, and although you’ll need to step up to GT Sport for leather seats, the materials used around the interior feel of a high standard.

It’s a much nicer place to sit than the latest Focus, and probably surpasses the outgoing Golf, too. Importantly, the 3 gets a new infotainment set-up as well. The 8.8-inch display is crisper than what we’ve seen in Mazdas before, placed neatly in the driver’s eye-line, and operated through a rotary dial like BMW’s iDrive. Nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are all present, as they are on every model. In fact, every version of the new Mazda 3 is well equipped for the money. Even the basic model has radar cruise control and LED lights.

Any downsides? A couple. The Mazda’s sleek shape means space in the back isn’t amazing, and it’s dark back there, too. The thickness of the C-pillar means that rearward visibility is restricted, and the 351-litre boot isn’t among the most spacious in the class.

Overall, the Mazda is definitely worth exploring. But if your budget will stretch by another £1,500, it may be worth waiting for the SkyActiv-X to arrive in October.

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