What is it like on the road?
There’s not a lot wrong with the way the Mazda 3 drives. It’s smooth, accurate, good-natured, quiet and refined. For a regular hatch it’s rather pleasing. But it’s currently a car in in search of a decent engine.
Neither of the currently available Skyactiv engines has much life in it. The diesel is quiet at start up and has a commendably high 5,500rpm redline, but barely has the power (114bhp and 199lb ft) to get there. It’s fine from 1,500-4,000rpm, relatively lag-free, but in the UK it’s only expected to sell to five per cent of buyers.
Still, it’s narrowly the pick of the pair. The 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol is the more disappointing. There’s a bit of torque from 3,000-5,000rpm (it peaks at 157lb ft at 4,000rpm), but performance is sluggish, the engine drones and it’s not that smooth. You expect a Mazda to have a bit of pep and alertness, and at the moment neither engine delivers that.
Both, it has to be said, are clean and efficient thanks to their Skyactiv technologies, which for the petrol includes a mild hybrid system that uses brake regen to store power in a small battery that’s used to run the on-board electric systems. I suspect Mazda has done this for very valid engineering reasons, but it comes across as a token gesture. Where’s the actual hybrid? It does look like other firms have the jump on Mazda right now.
There’s other interesting bits of tech on the 3. A torque vectoring system called GVC that’s designed not to maximise traction, but to smooth out cornering, specifically the transitions between roll and pitch by gently pulsing the torque on the way into a corner. At the exit the brakes are brushed for a similar reason.
The fact the 3 corners smoothly and deals with roll neatly suggests it works. The mild hybrid regen system is also used to bring the revs down quickly between upshifts, helping to smooth out the gearchanges. But it doesn’t blip the revs on downshifts, which would arguably serve a better purpose. There’s also cylinder deactivation in the petrol.
Gearbox advice for the floating voter: have the manual. The shift is great, slick and satisfying. The auto isn’t. It’s an old school torque converter that hunts for gears, shifts up and down inappropriately and is no better in Sport mode. There are paddles, but that’s not enough to offset the higher fuel consumption (the auto is roughly 3-4mpg heavier on fuel and emits another 10g/km of CO2) and the $1773 Mazda charges for this off-puttingly poor gearbox.
It disrupts the 3’s otherwise impressive dynamics. Mazda goes on about Jinba Ittai – the sense of oneness between car and driver. And the 3 is a very natural car to drive. Provided you ignore the engines – or at least don’t ask much of them – it flows contentedly along. The steering has little feel, but the chassis isn’t stodgy and the ride is supple, well damped and well insulated – even on the largest 18-inch wheels.
On the inside
Layout, finish and space
As long as you’re in one of the two front seats. Those restricted to the rear aren’t going to get off to such a bright start. They’ll inevitably bang their heads on the door surround while getting in, and once recovered will note there’s not much legroom and it’s quite dark due to the thick C-pillars and smallish rear window. Better for kids of course, but not if they’re of the age where you have to insert them into seats yourself. That’s why family buyers favour a crossover. Less bending over. Nor is the boot much to write home about: high sill, only 358 litres.
The conclusion to come to here is that the Mazda 3 is either aimed at young singles/couples, or the older buyer. The more youthful are more likely to be put off by the fact the most potent version only has 120bhp and has all the snap of a limp salad, meaning for the time being it’s the more genteel the 3 is likely to appeal to. It is very easy to drive and operate, after all.
A couple of points to make here. Mazda has worked hard to improve the sound quality, moving the bass speakers to a more rigid mounting point under the dash and the tweeters to the doortop. There’s a Bose 12-speaker system on the options list. And the voice recognition has been enhanced – you can now ‘barge-in’, shouting over the voice guidance (excellent) and instead of talking your way through a menu system to call home, ‘one shot command’ allows you to say it all at once.
One last one. Just because Volvo does something does not make it a good idea. Mazda has copied the Swedes and migrated the keyfob buttons to the side rather than the face. It’s not right, and it’s not proper. Stop it.
Running costs and reliability
The standard kit list for the 3 is impressive. Every model has a head-up display, radar cruise, LED headlights, sat nav and Apple CarPlay/Android auto.
Upgrade one step from base SE-L to SE-L Lux and for another £1,100 you add a reversing camera, keyless system and heated seats. And the quality of all these features is exemplary. It’s not necessarily uncommon to find them on the feature list of cars in this class, but all too often the graphics are poor or the functionality limited. Not here. There’s a sense that Mazda’s engineers and design teams have worked tirelessly to ensure that everything works to the best of its ability.
Overall pricing is competitive. The SE-L Mazda 3 is as well equipped as a Ford Focus costing £1,500 more, and lease costs are likely to be competitive based on the reliability and quality of existing Mazdas. The engines should be just as efficient as the smaller turbocharged Ecoboost motor Ford uses, too. The WLTP combined economy figures for petrol and diesel are 45.6mpg and 56.5mpg respectively. Expect around 40 and 50mpg in daily driving.
The question is, who will buy it? Younger buyers will probably want something with more spring in its step, more spark and edge. Families are going to want more space. Which leaves the 3 to exploit an older demographic who want a simpler, more easily understood car.
Final thoughts and pick of the range
Things have been done for the right reasons – not to gain headlines, but to improve quality of life. It’s a human-centric approach. And the result is an easy, good-natured, undemanding car to live with.