AOL Cars gets behind the wheel of the Mazda 3 to see if this Japanese hatchback has what it takes to compete with European best-sellers.
What is it?
While Britain's favourite family hatchbacks are without a shadow of a doubt the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, there are plenty of other competitors. Take this Mazda 3 for instance. It's a good-looking family car that shares more than a little bit of its DNA with the brilliant MX-5 sports car.
The latest model has only incremental improvements over the previous one, but they're quite noticeable. The front grille has been bought in line with the rest of the brand's updated range, with a chunky chrome surround, plus adaptive LED headlights on higher-spec models. The rear bumper has also been tweaked.
Inside, switchgear's been upgraded with better-quality units, and flimsy trim has been traded for more solid-feeling items.
What's under the bonnet?
The 3's engine range is 'right-sized' rather than 'down-sized' – a Mazda policy that doesn't look as impressive on paper as it feels in real life. Our car was fitted with the most basic engine – a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol with 118bhp.
That's significantly more powerful than you'd find in a similarly priced Ford Focus (98bhp) or Volkswagen Golf (82bhp), but what really sets the engine apart is its refinement. It's whisper quiet at low revs and creamily smooth regardless of what you're doing with the car. Though low-end response isn't as immediate as it is in turbocharged rivals, the 3 hits back by being a lot more fun to press on at higher revs.
It's also pretty efficient. While the 55.4mpg rating isn't as immediately impressive as some rivals, the 3's naturally aspirated engine should achieve much closer to its official figure than some cars. We averaged 45mpg without much trouble, over mixed driving conditions.
Elsewhere through the range, there's a further 2.0-litre petrol with 163bhp – but it's barely any faster, and a lot thirstier. There's also a hyper-efficient 1.6-litre diesel and a beefy 2.2-litre diesel ideal for motorway work. Automatic gearboxes are available across the range, but they're old-fashioned units that dent performance and slash fuel economy.
What's it like to drive?
Mazda's expertise with the MX-5 shines through when driving the 3. Though it's nowhere near as sporty, it's still very satisfying to drive.
The steering, though a little light, is sharp and direct right from centre, making it very easy to point the car where you'd like on the road. Low weight and a wide wheelbase combine with firm suspension to make it a rival for the class-leading Ford Focus in the handling stakes, while expensive-feeling damping takes the edge off bumps and potholes around town.
How does it look?
Mazda's 'Kodo' design language is full of slashes and creases making for a bold and fairly pleasant look to the 3. It won't trouble the Volkswagen Golf for subtle class, though, and the Ford Focus seems better proportioned – the 3 has a large front overhang and jutting front 'jaw'.
The Mazda badge doesn't have the provenance of some others, either, and you won't attract many admiring glances in the office car park.
What's it like inside?
The Mazda's interior is a mixed bag. While our model was a very pleasant place to sit, thanks to the Stone leather upholstery, that's a pricey option – and the standard cabin is a bit dark and, dare we say it, a bit Japanese.
Build quality is great, but material quality less so, and probing fingers will quickly find hard scratchy plastic which doesn't feel very premium. The infotainment system is lifted from the MX-5 and 2, and works well, but it misses out on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – fast becoming crucial in this segment.
Space in the back is okay, but the boot is only average, with 364 litres of space and no clever storage solutions.
What's the spec like?
Equipment levels are generous. Trim levels run SE, SE-L and Sport, with 'Nav' variants of each unsurprisingly adding sat-nav to the equation. All cars have alloy wheels, that seven-inch infotainment display, air-conditioning and electric windows front and rear. SE-L adds LED daytime running and rear lights, xenon headlamps, climate control, cruise control and parking sensors, while Sport visually upgrades the car with 18-inch alloy wheels and adaptive front lighting, plus a heads-up display and Bose stereo system.
The Mazda 3 is a great-value family hatch which deserves more success than it gets. It's not perfect – the interior is overdue an upgrade, and the styling won't appeal to everyone – but great driving dynamics, smooth engines and low prices mean it would be pretty high up on our shopping lists.