REVIEW DATE: 09 May 2008
The Mazda3 is a car that has never stood still for long. Andy Enright runs the rule over the latest model range.
The Mazda3 is a car whose message is sometimes lost in the background chatter from many more extrovert rivals. Do your homework, however, and you'll find a car of serious quality. The range has been revised of late to offer more equipment and better value.
When it comes to midlife makeovers, many car makers' efforts smack of desperation. Their attempts to prop up a model as its sales figures disappear down the gurgler are often pitiful to behold and only serve to draw attention to quite how fast things move in the automotive industry. Every once in a while, there's an exception and when Mazda announced that their 3 family hatch and compact saloon was getting the once over, most of us were left scratching our heads and wondering what had been changed.
In truth, not a whole lot has been altered but then not a lot needed changing. The car itself is a strong product and one that maybe Mazda needs to be a little more proactive in promoting. This year's model gets tweaks to the trim levels and equipment count.
As far as the driving experience goes, nothing has substantially changed. In order to get a handle on where we are with the dynamics of the Mazda3, it pays to spool the clock back to 2003 when all the engines bar the 1.6-litre petrol were tweaked and there were some significant improvements in terms of emissions and fuel economy right across the range. The 2.0-litre petrol unit got sequential valve timing (SV-T) that boosted torque, while the entry-level 1.4-litre car received improved valve timing gear. The 2.0-litre benefited from an electronic throttle and a six-speed manual box. If required, there's also the option of an uprated four-speed auto.
The area where Mazda can really award themselves a gold star is refinement at cruising speed. Although a 1.4 decibel reduction in cabin noise may sound like pretty small beer, the scientifically-minded amongst you will know that 3 decibels represents a doubling of noise, so the latest Mazda3 models really are a degree or so quieter than the early ones. It's all come about through concerted effort. A few years back, Mazda shoehorned additional soundproofing in the roof and under the bonnet, the car's generator was replaced by a quieter unit, the tyres were redesigned to run in a more hushed manner and the wheel rims were revised to reduce noisy harmonics. At the same time, the suspension was also modified to make it stiffer and allow the shocks absorbers and dampers to keep the tyres better planted on the tarmac. The geometry was altered to reduce understeer during fast cornering and the Mazda3 at last came closer to the Ford Focus in the handling stakes, a car which shares many of its underpinnings.
"The Mazda3 is a very mature and self-assured proposition."
The majority of the Mazda3 range carries on largely unchanged from an external perspective. The one exception is the car at the top of the range. The Mazda3 MPS is now offered with a sports aero kit which adds side skirts, a larger rear spoiler and an Eibach lowered suspension. Even without the aero kit, the MPS benefits from a revised alloy wheel design, the 18-inch rims now featuring a dark finish. Otherwise things are much as before. There are four-door saloons and five-door hatches, all of which look tidy but unobtrusive.
At the last facelift, much of the development budget was spent on targeting the three issues identified by existing Mazda3 customers as requiring attention, namely refinement at speed, fuel economy and luggage capacity. The refined aero package helped to reduce fuel economy by up to 6 per cent and a revised boot on the saloon model eased access to the luggage bay. Build quality remains very good indeed, the materials quality inside this Mazda being notably better than either the Honda Civic or the Toyota Auris.
Prices start from £11,440. The model line up is the key area where Mazda have tweaked the current 3. Out goes the TS trim level and in comes the Takara. This gets a front sports bumper, front fog lights, 16-inch alloys, rear electric windows, a 6 CD autochanger, a trip computer and leather trim for the steering wheel and gear knob. Throw two-tone black and red interior trim, piano black fascia inserts and illuminated vanity mirrors into the mix and the £145 premium over the old TS looks decidely good value. The Sport models have also been given extra equipment and there's now a 1.6 Sport to augment the 2.0-litre petrol and diesel models.
Six engines are available at present, with 1.4-litre, 1.6-litre, 2.0-litre petrol versions joined by the 2.3-litre turbo unit from the MPS plus a pair of MZ-CD common rail diesel powerplants. These oil-burners are 1.6 and 2.0-litre in capacity developing 107 and 142bhp respectively. The 150bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine will be of most interest to those subscribing to Mazda's whole 'zoom-zoom' philosophy who don't want to go the whole MPS hog and it's a pleasantly peppy unit.
The volume selling engine in the Mazda3 line up remains the 1.6-litre petrol and it's not hard to see why. Fire the engine up and it settles into a smooth hum with none of the coarseness you might expect. It returns some very respectable figures, getting to 60mph in 11 seconds and running out of puff at 113mph. An average fuel economy showing of 39mpg is around average for the class although the 162g/km CO2 emissions figure isn't the car's standout feature. Low insurance costs are, however, both variants fitted with the 1.6-litre engine falling in to Group 5, making it a car that may well appeal to younger drivers.
If you can afford the additional premium for the diesel, you'll probably not regret the outlay as the 2.0-litre returns some very decent economy figures. A combined economy showing of 47.1mpg is extremely good given this car's cross-country pace and a 55-litre tank spells decent range. Only the 162g/km carbon dioxide emissions blot this engine's copybook, the figure perhaps being enough to deter some company car user-choosers. In the 1.6-litre diesel, a combined fuel economy figure of 58.9mpg will be enough for most and the carbon dioxide emissions figure of just 128g/km looks very good.
It's probably fair to say that the changes made to the latest generation Mazda3 have been welcome but are unlikely to make a great impression on the potential customer. In this country at least, the Mazda3 remains an underachiever, not getting near the sales of many less talented rivals. That's not the case worldwide however. When Mazda's top brass were asked why the changes were so subtle, the truth eventually slipped out and it was like a breath of fresh air. "Because it's still selling like hot cakes" is a rough translation and with worldwide demand far outstripping supply for the 3, it's as good an argument as any.
The Mazda3 is a very mature and self-assured proposition. A good all-rounder, it doesn't grab the headlines yet the overwhelming impression is of a quality, eminently buyable car. Appealing to a more mature market than the Ford Focus, it makes a capable alternative to the Volkswagen Golf in terms of quality, although we badge-obsessed Brits will doubtless still prefer the German car. Perhaps something got lost in the translation.
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|Mazda 3 2.3T MPS 5dr hatchback|
|Price £21,454||Save £2,521|
|Mazda 3 1.6d  Venture 5dr diesel hatchback|
|Price £16,554||Save £2,441|
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|Price £18,305||Save £2,685|
|Mazda 3 1.6 Venture 5dr hatchback|
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|Mazda 3 1.6 Tamura 5dr Auto hatchback|
|Price £14,849||Save £2,141|
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