REVIEW DATE: 03 Apr 2009
Mazda is determined to make an impact with its second generation Mazda3 hatch. How does it fare in entry-level diesel form, the 1.6-litre powerplant now Euro5-compatible? Steve Walker takes a look.
There are a lot of different family hatchbacks out there vying our attention and to get it, they need to stand out. The latest Mazda3 has been created to do that job and once it has customers on the hook, a big proportion of them will be channelled towards models with the entry-level 1.6 MZ-CD diesel engine. It's a unit with a big role to play but can it deliver the goods?
Competence is one thing. Getting the recognition and success that should accompany it is another. This is a problem that has afflicted the Mazda3 family hatchback. It's been good for a long time but it hasn't always commanded the attention it deserved from the buying public. We can probably forgive UK car customers this oversight. After all, the family hatchback market is hardly devoid of talent. Having carefully considered the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Vauxhall Astra, Peugeot 308, Renault Megane and Volkswagen Golf, most of us wouldn't have the grey matter left to take the SEAT Leon, Hyundai i30, Citroen C4 and Mazda3 into account before grinding out a decision on which to buy. The plan with the latest Mazda3 is to stand out more prominently in this illustrious company. It sounds simple but it isn't and pulling it off won't be easy.
A 1.6-litre diesel engine isn't the sort of powerplant that leaps to mind when Mazda trumpets its Zoom-Zoom philosophy and the keen driver focus of its products. This Euro5-compliant unit has 115PS at its disposal and if you're quick with the slick 6-speed gearbox, 62mph can be reached from rest in 11.4s. It always pays to remember, however, that power is not the final determiner of fun behind the wheel, even if it does help. The engine is a solid diesel unit using common-rail injection technology and generating 270Nm of torque from 1,750rpm. It can be found wanting in certain situations like when there's a big hill to be accelerated up but generally, it's adequately powerful for the Mazda3. Wind the windows down and the diesel rumble is clearly audible but comprehensive sound deadening means that refinement is strong with the windows raised. The Mazda3 handles very well too, and proves easy to enjoy on the road.
".a tempting package for buyers who prioritise low costs rather than outright pace"
Based on the same basic underpinnings as the Ford Focus, the Mazda3 had a head start in the handling stakes. Unlike the majority of its key family hatch rivals, it has independent suspension for all four wheels rather than just the front pair. This higher tech approach manifests itself in the form of a more supple, fluid feel on the road. The Mazda3 rides reasonably well, soaking up the worst of the bumps while letting you know what's going on, but it might be on the firm side for some tastes. The steering is responsive and the car changes direction sweetly, keeping body lean on a tight leash.
Mazda is determined that its products will no longer pass under the radar of buyers and has fashioned an adventurous design direction to see to it. The lines are almost organic in the way they curve around the vehicle's surfaces, while the narrowly contoured headlights and the black grin of the huge central air-intake produce a malevolent front end. Both this gaping central vent and the smaller ones either side which house the fog lights on up-spec models are crossed by black fins, adding to the feeling that you could be looking at some giant insect. Mazda has aimed to retain some of the aggression and sporting focus of the exterior inside where the instruments are housed in two heavily hooded binnacles and the dash is divided in to curved tiers that mirror the lines of the bodywork, the upper one displaying important information in the driver's eye-line. The seats are supportive and the handbrake and gear lever are mounted high-up within easy reach though the satellite navigation screen on the dash's top tier is rather small.
The layout of the minor controls in the Mazda3 is ok but it can take a while to get to grips with the various systems. The materials used in places aren't up to the high standards set elsewhere in this sector but build quality seems extremely good throughout. From a practical perspective, the storage options in the cabin aren't particularly generous, with the thin door pockets and glovebox yielding little by way of capacity, forcing any large items into the deep bin beneath the centre armrest which tends to get over-stuffed. The hatchback bodystyle provides good rear passenger accommodation with plenty of space for a couple of six-footers and a big boot with 340-litres of capacity.
Mazda is throwing in DSC Dynamic Stability Control, traction control and an advanced braking system as standard on all Mazda3 models. There are also twin front, side and curtain airbags, adaptive head restraints and seatbelt pre-tensioners for the front seats. There are TS and TS2 trim levels available with the 1.6-litre MZ-CD engine and a choice of saloon or five-door hatchback bodystyles. All variants get alloy wheels, dual zone climate control air conditioning, electric mirrors and windows and a 6-speaker stereo. The absence of the three-door model seems a shame considering the sporting flavour of the '3' and that other manufacturers have used the three-door shape to create a coupe-like versions of their hatchbacks but the good-looking five-door should be enough for most.
There's quite a gap in the Mazda3 diesel engine range. If you come to the decision that this 1.6-litre 115PS engine isn't quite muscular enough, the next unit up is the 2.2-litre MZR-CD which has 150PS and a matching price tag. That's why this engine has so much riding on it. It's the Mazda3's sole representative at the lower end of the market where the big sales figures are generated. It's also likely to be a real favourite with fleet customers.
The 1.6 MZ-CD is the Mazda3's most efficient engine with emissions of 117g/km and 64.2mpg combined fuel economy. Few family hatchbacks can eclipse this performance and these figures should give the car an edge with buyers looking to keep a tight reign on their pennies.
The strong environmental performance is achieved partly through the efficiency of the 1.6-litre diesel engine and partly through the attention to detail elsewhere on the car. The Mazda3 can boast excellent aerodynamics of 0.30cd for the hatchback bodystyle most UK customers will choose and the car as a whole if 15kg lighter than the pervious generation Mazda3.
Mazda looks to have its best chance ever of making real headway in the family hatchback market. There are some tough rivals out there but this Mazda3 really can stand out in their company with its distinctive, sporty style and polished driving experience. The 1.6-litre MZ-CD engine makes the car extremely economical too and produces a tempting package for buyers who prioritise low costs rather than outright pace.
Few hatchbacks will tackle a twisty B-road better but keen drivers will yearn for more power than the 1.6 MZ-CD can offer in the Mazda3. They won't be left wanting in many other areas, however. Some questionable materials and fussy design mar the interior slightly but otherwise the car is spacious, economical, well built and has a solid safety specification. Mazda has earned its place at the family hatchback market's top table.
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