REVIEW DATE: 01 Jun 2009
Mazda hatches never used to be particularly accomplished. This Mazda3 is different. June Neary reports
Back in the eighties, Mazda hatches used to be the automotive equivalent of white goods. You bought a 323 if you had no interest in motoring but wanted a reliable scoot that your friends wouldn't laugh at. These days those sort of tactics aren't anything like enough to cut the mustard in the cutthroat family hatch sector and Mazda's current foray into this market, the second generation Mazda3, is a whole lot more accomplished. I even caught a few passers by giving it the rubber neck treatment, such is its sleek styling. The car delivered to me for a week was a 1.6-litre diesel model and it seemed very well built. It's the sort of car I like - good looking but not showy, with five door practicality, promising keen reliability and not averse to showing its playful side.
With Mazda now subsumed by the Ford empire, what we have here is a car that rides on Focus running gear. That means that not only is it a fun drive but it also offers plenty of practicality. The wheel at each corner shape gives a clue that there's a reasonable amount of space freed up for people inside. If you've ever driven a Mazda6 you'll feel at home in the 3, as many of the design themes seem quite similar. If anything, the plastics quality of the smaller car is superior. The steering wheel and driver-orientated dials look very sporting and there are some nicely detailed metallic touches dotted about the cabin. Interior accommodation is middle ranking, Mazda perhaps deciding that if customers in this price range really want to maximise the sheer amount of cubic inches available in the cabin, they'll likely opt for something like a Mazda5 mini-MPV. The Mazda3 isn't huge in the back and the small rear doors don't open particularly wide. Headroom is very good, despite the swoopy styling. The front pair of passengers should have no difficulty getting comfortable although one drawback of the thick rear pillars is somewhat limited rear three-quarter visibility when reversing or doing a 'lifesaver' check when switching lane.
Ford Focus underpinnings give the Mazda3 a head start in this respect. A sophisticated chassis with advanced multi-link rear suspension was always going to pitch this model up amongst the class leaders and so it proves. Essentially, not too much has changed over the old car but it's all been sharpened up in a way that suggests the people involved knew exactly what they were doing. The chassis feels that bit more rigid - like a larger more expensive car - over poorly surfaced roads and the set-up's firm enough to appeal to enthusiastic drivers who like tenacious grip without putting off shopping mums who want a comfortable ride. The electro-hydraulic steering now has more feel - less like a PlayStation game. The gearbox snicks from cog to cog with a slicker action. And refinement has taken a useful step forward. The main news on the engine front has been the adoption of Mazda's impressive 2.2-litre MZR-CD diesel engine, the 148 and 183bhp versions of which will, hope the importers, give it a useful power advantage over comparably priced diesel family hatchbacks. Stir the 6-speed gearbox into action and sixty from rest in the more powerful model takes just 8.2s - in other words, a couple of seconds quicker than a plush Focus 2.0 TDCi. That - and in particular the 400Nm of torque - is a difference you really notice in day-to-day motoring. The rest of the engines are pretty much carry-over from the old range - entry-level 1.6-litre petrol and diesel units will form the mainstay of sales - but here again, some useful tweaks have enabled Mazda to make the most of what it has. The 148bhp 2.0-litre petrol option, for example, has a start/stop function, cutting the engine in traffic or at lights to drive down costs.
It would be difficult to find anybody who'd have an issue with the Mazda3. It's a very versatile, all-things-to-all-people sort of car that never lapses into blandness. If I was delving into my own pocket, I'd probably choose the 1.6-litre petrol car as it offers a competitive upfront price versus the diesel models. If you're planning to keep your Mazda3 for a very long time or rack up interstellar mileages, one of the two diesels may work out more cost effective. Whichever model you choose it's hard to pick a meaningful Achilles heel.
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