The Mazda 3 is a car that has underachieved but this improved version of the current third generation model is a much stronger proposition. The experts at Car & Driving check the range out.
In past years, the Mazda 3 has rarely figured amongst the family hatchback sector's stronger offerings, despite the fact that over 4 million examples of this car are pounding global roads. In this improved third generation form though, it deserves far more careful consideration. The brand's latest 'SKYACTIV-VEHICLE DYNAMICS' 'G-Vectoring Control' system improves the handling, plus there's a smarter cabin and enhanced safety tech. If you're shopping in this segment, you probably weren't considering buying one of these. But perhaps you should be.
The 'Three' is arguably the most important model this Japanese brand makes, a family hatchback pitched to sell in the class dominated by Ford's Focus - and also initially based upon that car in its earliest guises. First and second generation Mazda 3 models, introduced in 2003 and 2009, both had Focus underpinnings. This MK3 model though, announced late in 2013, is very much its own vehicle - and needed to be a big step forward to re-establish its brand in this segment. No room, in other words, for conventionality. Hence the so-called 'SKYACTIV' technology this car was launched with, mainly based around improving performance and efficiency through lighter weight. This is why this car's mainstream petrol unit is 2.0-litres in size, at a time when most other rivals are producing comparable outputs from 1.4, 1.2 or even 1.0-litre powerplants. The mainstream 2.2-litre diesel's big in size too - though the Japanese brand is also offering the 1.5-litre SKYACTIV-D unit from its Mazda 2 supermini as an entry-level option. For this revised model, the 'SKYACTIV' ethos is also extended into handling dynamics; plus it's much classier inside.
A key dynamic change for this improved Mazda 3 is the addition of what the brand calls 'GVC' - or 'G-Vectoring Control', parts of its 'SKYACTIV-VEHICLE DYNAMICS' range of technology systems. This is essentially one of those torque vectoring set-ups, this one able to vary engine torque to optimise the load on each wheel, providing more precise handling as well as a smoother ride under virtually any driving conditions. Diesel-powered models get high-precision boost control, which enhances accelerator responsiveness, along with 'Natural Sound Frequency Control' and what's called a 'Natural Sound Smoother' to improve refinement. As before, there are five engine options, all of which are designed around Mazda's SKYACTIV technology. You're probably used to such nonsense buzzwords, but bear with this one because there's real merit behind it. SKYACTIV aims to improve efficiency by reducing weight and utilising smart functions such as capturing waste energy to power things like the air-conditioning when the car is stationary. It even extends to functions like an active shutter front grille which closes for better aerodynamics when the engine isn't in immediate need of cooling. The engines comprise an entry-level 1.5-litre petrol and two 2.0-litre petrol units, as well as 1.5 and 2.2-litre diesels. The 1.5-litre petrol unit produces 100PS and will go from rest to 62mph in 10.8 seconds, while the 2.2-litre diesel will cover the benchmark sprint in 8.1 seconds, thanks to its punchy 150PS output. The less powerful 1.5-litre diesel engine gives you 105PS, 270Nm of torque and 0-62mph in 11.0s. The 2.0-litre petrol engine is offered in two distinct flavours; one packing 120PS and the other with 165PS. Performance? Think rest to 62mph in 8.9 seconds for the standard version and 8.2 seconds for the higher power version. Buyers of the 120PS 2.0-litre petrol and both diesel models are also offered the option of a six-speed automatic.
Mazda hasn't felt the need to make any significant changes to the exterior of this improved Mazda 3, which remains very sharp-looking in either five-door hatch or 'Fastback' saloon forms. There's the same beaky family face that's sported by the Mazda 6 and the CX-5, with long bonnet to lend the car a dynamic, muscular look. Changes have been made inside though, with, for example, an enhanced 'Active Driving Display' featuring a high quality full-colour screen. It eases communicating information to drivers without any need for them to take their eyes off the road. Mazda has also improved steering wheel ergonomics too. Otherwise, things are much as before, with strong standards of interior space and a decently-sized 350-litre boot. As ever with the Mazda 3, the driving position is supposed to feel a bit sporty and though here, there's not the properly low-slung driving stance that would really emphasise that, you do get all the things that make you feel more at one with the car you're driving, with ideal positioning for the pedals, steering wheel and gear knob, plus excellent all-round vision achieved in this case by the careful positioning of the A-pillars and the wing mirrors. There's a tendency to think every brand has already got this right but it's only when you get yourself into a model that actually has that you appreciate the small but subtle different that perfection in this respect can bring.
As before, pricing sits mainly in the £17,000 to £23,000 bracket and the Mazda3 is offered as a five-door hatchback or a four-door 'Fastback' saloon, the latter bodystyle rivalling cars like the Volkswagen Jetta and the Audi A3 saloon. Those aren't the key targets in Mazda's crosshairs though. Expected Mazda3 conquest sales will be based around the mainstream hatch variant and will largely come from mainstream marques, with the Ford Focus, the Vauxhall Astra, the Renault Megane and the Peugeot 308 being likely targets. This Mazda is offered with the sort of high-tech features that not so very long ago were the preserve of luxury saloons. There are refinements like a head-up display, touch-screen satellite-navigation and mobile internet connectivity. The mobile system is particularly interesting, following the likes of Toyota into the market with a system that allows the car to pair with a smartphone and display Facebook and Twitter updates. A nine-speaker Bose audio system is also available. Buyers choose between SE, SE-L and Sport trim levels, with or without sat nav. Even the base SE comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, power-folding heated mirrors, a leather steering wheel, a trip computer, a radio/CD with six speaker audio system, a 7-inch TFT colour touch screen, USB/iPod connectivity and a Bluetooth hands-free system. Key safety equipment upgrades an 'Advanced Smart City Brake Support' system that now uses a forward-sensing camera rather than a laser, adding to the set-up's pedestrian detection capabilities. Buyers can also specify Adaptive LED Headlights.
No manufacturer can revise a mainstream model like this without dangling the carrot of better efficiency and Mazda is no exception. The Mazda 3 has been popular with business buyers and in order for this form line to continue, the company has worked at driving down carbon dioxide emissions in the MK3 model range. The SKYACTIV engine technology means that fuel and CO2 figures are knocking on the door of best in class. As an example, the 2.2-litre 150PS SKYACTIV-D diesel version can return 107g/km of CO2 and 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and even the 2.0-litre 120PS SKYACTIV-G petrol model manages 55.4mpg and 119g/km. For the 1.5-litre SKYACTIV-D diesel variant, the figures are more impressive still, 99g/km and 74.3mpg.
Released from the shackles of Ford ownership, Mazda's product range is at last coming alive. The cars look and feel more appealing and innovation is now an established part of the company's DNA. Here's a perfect example of that. True, there are still many more obvious choices than this one within the family hatchback sector, but if you're bored with the usual Golf, Astra and Focus fare and want a car that won't impose a swingeing financial penalty for wanting to be just that little bit different, the Mazda 3 is a smart pick. Most of all, this is a car built around its smart SKYACTIV engine technology, offering a design approach rejecting small capacity turbo units that promise impressive running cost figures but rarely actually deliver them. In the real world, Mazda reckon their strategy of lightweight cleverness is the one that'll bring better day-to-day returns for customers - and they could well be right. Combine all of that with a rewarding driving experience and you've a car that ought to be hard for any right-thinking family hatchback buyer to ignore. One in every three Mazdas sold anywhere in the world is a 'three': don't expect that to change any time soon.
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