Mazda revels in doing things a bit differently. By shying away from downsized petrol engines, for example, it sets itself apart from the plethora of mainstream brands.
This is the all-new Mazda 3. It’s always been a stylish choice, but the fresh car stands out with sharp lights, neat lines and crisp detailing. When it goes on sale in the spring, it’ll come as a five-door hatch or saloon, and with manual or automatic gearboxes and front or all-wheel drive.
The engine line-up will comprise a 1.8-litre SkyActiv-D diesel, and a choice of 2.0-litre petrols in SkyActiv-G or SkyActiv-X guises. The latter will deliver around 180bhp, and brings unique Spark Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI) – a clever innovation that promises diesel levels of torque, economy and emissions from a petrol engine.
We’ll need to wait to sample that, though, because our early drive was restricted to the standard ‘G’ 2.0-litre petrol engine, linked to a six-speed manual transmission. And drive is exactly what Mazda’s engineers want you to do, bucking the zeitgeist and focusing on handling rather than nannying driver aids and convenience features.
To appeal to keener drivers, Mazda has undertaken exhaustive research into human movement, looking particularly at seating position and the connection the driver has with the car. The result is a superb driving environment. The cabin’s ergonomics are spot on, matched with improved material quality and a smart design. All controls are simple to operate.
Mazda has removed the touchscreen capability from its central display, offering all operations within a BMW-style rotary dial with supplementary buttons. It’s easy to use, and allows Mazda to position the screen higher on the dash, thus enabling the driver to see it without having to take their eyes too far from the road.
If there’s a complaint inside, it’s over-the-shoulder visibility. The thick C-pillars cause that, although the wide, frameless rear-view mirror and big hatch window do offer a better view directly out the back.
The boot is smaller than the outgoing model’s at 295 litres, too, which places it some way short of segment stalwarts such as the Volkswagen Golf (380 litres) and the Vauxhall Astra (370 litres). Rear seat space is acceptable rather than hugely accommodating, which might be an issue if you regularly carry passengers.
Riding on an all-new SkyActiv structure, the car has benefited from a lot of attention on suppressing noise. Refinement has improved dramatically as a result, with the lack of road and wind noise bringing premium levels of refinement.
The outgoing 3 was always an enjoyable car to drive, and the new version builds on that. The rear suspension might be less sophisticated, but you’d do well to notice it on the road. Body control is well judged, the Mazda 3 riding with composure. That’s been achieved with real connection, too – the steering offers decent feel and weight, delivering accuracy and response.
It all feels very polished, in fact. If there’s a but, it’s the 118bhp 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G engine. Largely carried over from the current 3, it lacks the sort of low-rev torque many of its turbo rivals can deliver, so it needs to be worked hard. We reckon the car will be better served with the newer and more efficient SkyActiv-X unit.
Equipment and trim levels have yet to be confirmed, but expect the 3 to offer the same comprehensive, simple spec line-up as the current car, with body colour the only option.