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New car review

Mazda 3 review

Is the new Mazda 3 better than some of the biggest-selling models on the market?

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Design
9
Comfort
7
Driving experience
7
Value for money
8
Safety
9

Summary

The Mazda 3 cannot match some rivals for space or powerplants available, but scores with plentiful equipment and attractive, distinctive design, inside and out, plus a strong safety package.

Summary

The Mazda 3 cannot match some rivals for space or powerplants available, but scores with plentiful equipment and attractive, distinctive design, inside and out, plus a strong safety package.
 

60-second summary

What is it?
The new Mazda 3 is the latest version of the Japanese brand’s family hatchback.

Key features
First model with next-generation styling, two engines now available, more and a saloon to come.

Our view
The Mazda 3 cannot quite match some of its big-selling rivals in terms of its interior space or the pace of powerplants available, but it more than makes up for this with a strong standard equipment list, especially in terms of safety, and a design, both inside and out, that is as attractive as it is distinctive.

The family hatch buyer who does not want to follow the herd should look at a Mazda 3 as they will be able to express their distinction without being forced to settle for too many compromises.

Other views
We’ve gathered the top UK motoring media reviews of the new Mazda 3 to give you a complete range of opinions. Check out how the Mazda 3 ranks in The Car Expert’s New Car Ratings.

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Alfa Romeo Giulietta | Citroën C4 Cactus | Ford Focus | Honda Civic | Hyundai i30 | Kia Ceed | Mini Countryman | Peugeot 308 | Renault Megane | SEAT Leon | Skoda Scala | Skoda Octavia | Toyota Corolla | Vauxhall Astra | Volkswagen Golf

Full review

Introduction

Family hatches are increasingly being shifted into the shadows by the inexorable rise of the SUV, but the market for such core cars remains strong, populated by chart-topping models. So the all-new, fourth-generation Mazda 3 is a highly important car for the Japanese brand, and an indication why it is this car that Mazda describes as the first of its “next generation” vehicles.

The Mazda 3 has to offer something special as its competition is tough – core rivals include sales top-ten stalwarts such as the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf. And in addition to several other mainstream models wanting a slice of a declining SUV-decimated pie, these days the premium brands are hunting in this patch too with such models as the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3.

On the other hand, this invasion from above could mean more potential conquest sales for Mazda, from badges once considered way beyond the brand’s market. But does the 3 have what it takes to steal those customers?

The exterior visuals help. The new car debuts the latest evolution of the brand’s ‘Kodo – soul in motion’ design language, and it’s certainly different to its rivals. Instead of sharp panel creases, we get curving proportions, with a distinct nose-down stance emphasised by the low bonnet. Combined with the smooth downwards curvature from rear doors to bumper, the result is a clean, purposeful and highly attractive look.

Buying and owning the Mazda 3

The launch range for the Mazda 3 is quite simple as while there are five trim levels on offer, these are spread across just two engines – either a 122hp 2.0-litre petrol unit or the diesel of 116hp. The really interesting powertrain is still to come – Mazda will add its new Skyactiv-X Spark Controlled Compression Ignition engine to the range later in 2019. This supercharged unit promises the performance of a petrol unit but with the economy and emissions of a diesel.

Also coming later is a four-door saloon. While popular in the rest of Europe, such cars have traditionally not ticked the box with UK buyers, unless they were buying the products of Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. It’s a measure of Mazda’s new attitude to the 3’s place in the market that it believes a four-door will work – we shall see…

 
 

For now we have the hatch and those five trim levels, dubbed SE-L, SE-L Lux, Sport Lux, GT Sport and GT Sport Tech. All grades are available with either engine, except for the range-topping GT Sport Tech which can only be had with the petrol unit. A choice of auto or manual transmission is also offered across the range.

Mazda also promises “a level of standard equipment never seen before on a Mazda hatchback”. And yes the list of equipment included is impressive, even on the entry-level SE-L models that cost from £20,595 with the petrol engine or £22,395 with the diesel.

For example, how many entry-level cars have previously included a head-up display? The Mazda 3 gets the windscreen-projection system, usefully recognising traffic signs and adding them to the display. Adaptive cruise control is standard, as are LED headlights, navigation, smartphone integration with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and an eight-speaker audio system.

Go up the range and the toys become more desirable. A jump of just one trim level and £1100, to SE-L Lux, adds such niceties as a reversing camera, smart keyless entry and heated front seats, and by the time one reaches the £25,495 GT Sport Tech the recipe includes a 360-degree birds-eye view camera and lots of extra active safety equipment.

On the subject of safety, this Mazda ticks all the boxes. A top five-star rating from crash-test body Euro NCAP is a given, but the report that goes with the rating is liberally scattered with mentions of “scored full points”, while the standard-fit autonomous emergency braking is found to avoid collisions “in all test scenarios.”

Safety improvements range across such aspects as adding a driver’s knee airbag to all versions. Choose either the top model or dive into the options list and the protection gets even better, perhaps most notable the new Driver Attention Alert that uses an interior camera to monitor the driver’s face, particularly their eye movements, and gauges whether they might be about to fall asleep at the wheel.

Also standard on top versions is Cruising & Traffic Support (CTS) – a variation of adaptive cruise control it can accelerate and decelerate the car in traffic jams while also keeping it in the middle of the lane via small steering movements, reducing driver fatigue. In summary, in standard from the Mazda 3 is an impressively safe car, that can be made even safer.

Inside the Mazda 3

The latest Mazda 3 debuts a new platform which will no doubt be extended to other future models. Mazda highlights the safety and handling advances provided by extra rigidity, with high-tensile steel now employed across 60% of the shell.

What this doesn’t mean, however, is lots of extra interior space. This is not a car to follow any trend to expansion. It would be unfair to call the interior cramped, though the rear is cosy, especially if one of the occupants is tall, while the boot space of 351 litres is larger than that in a Focus but smaller than the Golf.

Where the interior scores is in quality of construction – it is very well put together. The surfaces feel upmarket, and the design replicates the exterior in being minimalist but highly efficient, without extraneous leanings whether in angles or controls.

The driver’s essential controls for example – a large pod design behind the steering wheel houses a display that may be digital but as standard presents three large, traditional dials, the centre one largest of all. It’s very easy and quick to become accustomed to.

The standard-fit head-up display plays its part in providing the driver with all the information they need without distracting them from the road ahead and Mazda’s attention to detail is evident in other areas. The infotainment screen, for example, is mounted firmly on top of the centre console, as close to the windscreen as possible, and angled slightly towards the driver. It’s not a touchscreen either, Mazda’s research suggesting such tech is more distracting to use than a traditional rotary control.

Driving the Mazda 3

A very long launch test route starting in Edinburgh and ending south of the Scotland/England border provided plenty of opportunities to experience both engine options for the Mazda 3. Mind you it almost seems pointless to try the diesel, as with the continuing shift away from oil burners it is expected to appeal to just one in 20 buyers, even with the fleet market targeted.

Which is a shame, because of the two currently available power plants the diesel is the better, particularly in terms of low-down torque which makes it feel more enthusiastic than its petrol sibling. It’s not that swift, however – accelerate hard and the turbo takes some time to bring anything useful to the party. But it is extremely refined, almost indistinguishable from the petrol unit in this respect.

The 2.0-litre petrol is a competent engine, and in its latest form has grown some more tech. It’s now a mild hybrid, with a belt-driven starter generator harvesting the energy generated under deceleration. It then puts this energy to good use, both in terms of aiding economy and the driving experience by smoothing out gear changes and clutch operation.

Cylinder deactivation is also now standard on the 2.0-litre petrol. The engine switches between two and four cylinders according to load (basically what the driver indicates through application of their right foot). You won’t notice it in driving but it does add a little to the economy and emissions performance.

The problem with the petrol engine is that it simply doesn’t have enough power or torque to excite, especially down the bottom of the rev range. In 90% of motoring, tooling along motorways or negotiating traffic-choked urban streets, it will be fine, but if faced with an entertaining twisty B-road route an enthusiastic driver will wish for the diesel. Or perhaps the SkyActiv-X, which on paper suggests it could provide the answer to petrol popularity and diesel performance (whether pace, economy or emissions).

Top marks for the gearbox, at least in manual form. The six-speed unit is an excellent piece of design, reacting slickly and swiftly to inputs – it’s a shame the engines can’t quite match it in speed of response. We did not get the chance to try the auto option though colleagues tell us it’s not quite so impressive.

On the road, the Mazda 3 provides a cosseting experience. Inside it is quiet to a quite amazing degree, a level one expects on very top-line premium cars. And this remains the case whether clocking up motorway miles with the adaptive cruise control doing all the work, or taking on that B road.

Handling is confidence-inducing – the car doesn’t feel as one is carving an inch-perfect corner but the car goes where it is pointed, while remaining upright and unruffled.

One minus point, however, is three-quarter rear vision. The view out of the back is quite narrow to start with, and over the shoulder when coming out of an awkwardly-angled junction it can be an issue.

Summary

Mazda has never been afraid to plough its own furrow whether in terms of technical design or styling, and the new Mazda 3 is evidence of both. Technically the brand’s SkyActiv programme delivers a solid car, well designed with useful technology, though some more enthusiastic engines would be nice.

Where the Mazda 3 really scores is in two areas. It comes with an impressive ell of standard equipment, particularly in terms of safety – and it boasts a minimalist design treatment, both inside and out. This not only sets there car apart from its rivals but makes it in its own right very pleasing to look at.

Good points

  • Attractive styling, inside and out
  • Strong levels of standard equipment
  • Accomplished road performance

Bad points

  • Cosy rear cabin space
  • Existing petrol engine lacks pace
  • Poor three-quarter rear vision


Key specifications

Make & ModelMazda 3Ford FocusSEAT Leon
SpecificationGT Sport TechST-Line X5-door Xcellence Lux
Price (on-road)£26,495 (Range starts £20,495)£25,355£24,975
Engine2.0-litre petrol1.5-litre petrol1.5-litre petrol
Transmission6-speed manual6-speed manual6-speed manual
Power122 hp120 hp 130 hp
Torque213 Nm300 Nm 200 Nm
0-62mph10.4 sec10.0 sec 9.4 sec
Top speed122 mph122 mph 126 mph
Fuel economy (combined)44.8 mpg (WLTP)76.3 mpg (NEDC)56.5 mpg (NEDC)
CO2 emissions119 g/km (WLTP 99 g/km (NEDC)113 g/km (NEDC)
Insurance Group17E15E15E
Euro NCAP rating5 stars (2019)5 stars (2018)5 stars (2012)
1907 Mazda 3 The Car Expert
Design
9
Comfort
7
Driving experience
7
Value for money
8
Safety
9

Summary

The Mazda 3 cannot match some rivals for space or powerplants available, but scores with plentiful equipment and attractive, distinctive design, inside and out, plus a strong safety package.
Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is the News and Road Test Editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.

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