You might be forgiven for thinking that pretty much every car aimed at families these days is an SUV. It certainly feels that way sometimes but there are manufacturers out there still catering to people who want a good old fashioned hatchback.
The Ford Focus dominates the sales charts but there are plenty of rivals out there, from the refreshed Vauxhall Astra to the much-improved Kia Ceed, the Volkswagen Golf Mk8 and this, the all-new Mazda3.
Each fights to create its own space in the market and have something that marks it out as different from its rivals. In the Mazda3’s case, what makes it stand out isn’t so much what it has but what it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have random creases and folds cluttering up the exterior design; it doesn’t have dozens of buttons and dials; it doesn’t have a million ways to configure the instrument display and it doesn’t have multicoloured “mood” lighting to distract the driver.
Rather, it has a pleasingly simple exterior design with a few simple lines that flow from front to rear, and an interior design approach that lets you focus on driving. The dashboard is simple, with physical controls where they’re needed and nicely integrated 8.8-inch screen controlled by a sensible rotary dial. The whole cabin sweeps around the driver with a fluid continuity but without the fussy design “features” that seem to clutter up so many cars. In front of you there are three big clear dials giving you the information you actually need, supplemented by a head-up display that can show navigation instructions as well as speed and traffic sign alerts. And everywhere you look and touch there are premium-feeling materials that shame its rivals.
Supplementing its looks and feel, the 3’s driving experience is among the best in class. The controls are a touch lighter than in the Ford Focus and the 3 doesn’t have quite the same agility or feedback but there’s still an enjoyable suppleness and fluency.
I’ve recently driven the 3 with both the “regular” Skyactiv-G engine and the fancy new Skyactiv-X unit and struggle to see why you’d bother with the more expensive more complicated Skyactiv-X.
While everyone else has downsized and turbocharged, Mazda perseveres with large-capacity naturally aspirated engines. The Skyactiv-G is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol producing 120bhp. It’s hardly a firecracker, no turbo means you’re waiting a while for it to get going but once you’ve got the revs up it moves along quite nicely. It also managed to return 44mpg over my week with it, which isn’t bad for such a big old unit.
The Skyactiv-X uses spark-controlled compression ignition, allegedly to give petrol performance with diesel economy. Unfortunately my experience is that you can have one or other but not both. Driven gently you’ll get good economy but to feel the benefit of its 178bhp you need to use all the revs, which ruins the mpg figure.
It’s a bit of a shame and the engines are the 3’s biggest weakness. Elsewhere it offers reasonable space for passengers and luggage and competes with its main rivals on price and equipment but Mazda’s corporate independence has left it rather out of touch when it comes to drivetrains.
Nonetheless, in an industry where so many cars are almost identical, Mazda should be generally applauded for going its own way. The 3 stands out partly for its limited choice of drivetrains but more for adding a premium look and feel to the segment while managing to compete with the best in class on its driving experience.
Mazda 3 GT Sport Tech
Price: £25,495 (£26.045 as tested); Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol; Power: 120bhp; Torque: 157lb/ft; Transmission: Six-speed manual; Top speed: 122mph; 0-62mph: 10.4 seconds; Economy: 44.8mpg; CO2 emissions: 119g/km