It is interesting how two of the small car makers sold on by Ford (Mazda in 2015 and Volvo in 2010) both took a deep breath and redesigned themselves and their ranges to suit their resources and have become successful.
The Mazda3 was introduced in 2003 as a replacement for the 323 range. That original BK model named 3 was based on Ford’s C1 platform, which also underpinned the Focus and Volvo S40. Through generations two to three, Ford's controlling interest in Mazda was sold.
So the new, fourth-generation 3 family hatchback is a pretty important car for Mazda and the company is hoping to shift between 8,000 and 10,000 a year in the UK, three quarters of them to retail customers, although it’s hoping that the fleet business will take to the claimed economy of the lean-burn, part-compression ignition engine, called Spark Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI), which arrives this autumn. In short, think a petrol engine’s performance and refinement allied the economy of a diesel.
That’s jam tomorrow, however, for the moment, there's a 120bhp, 2.0-litre, naturally-aspirated petrol and a 114bhp, 1.8-litre turbodiesel, a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes and drive to the front wheels, although four-wheel-drive will come eventually. We got to drive manual versions of the diesel and the petrol; the latter will be the most popular by far.
The chassis is a step back technically from the previous model, with the same (doubtlessly titivated) MacPherson struts at the front but a move down-spec to a torsion-beam suspension instead of an independent rear suspension.
Why does this matter? It doesn't necessarily, but torsion beams have to be bolted semi-rigidly to the bodyshell. It’s a bit reductive, but if you want handling precision you need to attach the beam to the body with hard bushes, which feed noise and vibration into the cabin. If you fit soft bushes you get a quieter, less abrupt, ride but you also compromise the on-the-limit handling.
I lose track of where Mazda is on its next big ‘Kodo’ redesign, but first impressions are of a reasonably good-looking family hatch, while not shouting its presence from the roof tops.
In the front the cabin is roomy with narrow and not entirely comfortable seats, which don't get any more uncomfortable over prolonged periods. You'll fit where you touch in the back with a claustrophobic sloping roofline and driver's seats almost but not quite touching your knees. The boot is small but big enough for the week's shopping provided you're not buying for a rugby team.
The facia is a real step up for Mazda's usually cheap and cheerful in this sector. The instruments are clear with easily read yet classy lettering fonts, the materials are attractive and nice to touch, and it seems well put together. Interestingly there are no touchscreens, which Mazda says are too distracting, but that leaves a lot of buttons to learn. We like the way the dynamic safety systems can be customised as to when and how they intervene.
There's not a lot of storage space around the driver, but the door pockets are of a decent size and as well as a USB charge point there's standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; satnav; slide, recline and height adjustment for driver and passenger seats; leather-covered steering wheel; integrated Bluetooth; DAB radio; air conditioning (manual on the base model); electric windows; cruise control and city automatic braking as standard.
There are five trim levels, which is rather too many, but generally the equipment is decent even at the bottom of the hierarchy and the top model only adds a few of the intelligent driving functions and more luxury. 18-inch wheel come as standard in the Sport Lux halfway up the trim levels.
The diesel is a chirpy thing, a bit noisy and rattly at times, but free-revving to its 5,500rpm redine, punchy in the mid range and with a fuel consumption that absolutely refused to drop below 45mpg.
The petrol engine does feel better installed, however, much quieter and more refined, though being naturally-aspirated you need to rev it to make decent progress and wring its neck when overtaking. We got an indicated 39mpg against a WLTP Combined consumption of 44.8mpg, which isn't bad. In the real world, Mazdas seems to get closer to their official EU economies than almost any car you care to name.
A word, too, about the sensational gearchange, which is precise, short-shifting and light; just as you’d expect from the makers of the MX-5 sports car which has set the gearshifting standards for decades. “Do you think it costs any more to make a gearchange as good as this?” asked my driving companion. “No,” I replied, “you just need to care.”
From the off this feels like a different sort of family hatchback. That's partly because of the ride, which is hard, borderline harsh and the steering, which is terrific. I like the progressive yaw build up (it goes where you point it), I like the lack of nose-on understeer (it goes where you point it) and the on-centre response (it goes where you point it). The all-disc brakes are well engineered, too, being strong and progressive.
You get used to the ride in part, the biggest bumps show that the bump stop tuning has been deft and the damping control is also nicely done, but the suspension is quite noisy and there’s a fair bit of tyre noise beside you in the cabin.
It’s a way short of being a hot hatchback, but it’s fun to drive, adjustable on the throttle and a car that brings a smile to your face.
The prices seem quite steep until you start matching specifications. Get up the price range and the independently sprung Golf, Focus and Hyundai/Kia models ride slightly more plushly, but if you can live with the ride the Mazda’s grin factor, looks and reliability record should put this sparkling little hatch on your list.
Mazda3 2.0 122PS GT Sport Tech
TESTED 1,998cc, four-cylinder naturally-aspirated petrol engine, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE range from £20,595 to £27,735 (as tested £26,385)/now
POWER/TORQUE 120bhp @ 6,000rpm, 157lb ft @ 4,000rpm
TOP SPEED 122mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 10.4sec
FUEL ECONOMY 44.8mpg (WLTP Combined), 39.5mpg on test
CO2 EMISSIONS 119g/km
VED £170 first year, then £145
VERDICT Reverting to a twist beam rear axle makes this family hatch ride a bit harshly and the rear seats feel claustrophobic, but dynamically the 3 is up with the class leaders and this autumn’s Skyactiv engine promises diesel economy and petrol performance.
TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five
Ford Focus, from £18,305
Last year's new Focus is a delight to drive, though you really need to spend a bit more and get the independent rear end to fully participate in that delight. At £20,155, the one-litre Zetec model matches the Mazda for pace and economy, but not for equipment.
Volkswagen Golf, from £17,785
Europe's most popular car and rightly so, though not all Golfs are equal. At the attractive starter end of the range there's torsion beam suspension and asthmatic engines, things get pretty expensive pretty soon after that, but the mid range 1.5 turbo petrol on independent rear suspension is hard to better.
Seat Leon, from £17,975
Yes, it's a Golf in drag, but Seat's ride and handling team are on fire at present and they achieve distinction through careful tuning and in some ways are as independent of spirit as Mazda. Nicely built with good cabin quality, but you need to go up the price range to get independent rear suspension.
Hyundai i30, from £17,125
Great engineering from the South Koreans, with standard independent rear suspension and fine build quality along with an excellent warranty (in some ways better than Kia's seven year equivalent). The cabin is a bit dull though and it can't quite match the driving dynamics of rivals.
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*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 06/06/2019 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront. Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change. Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.