Review: Mazda3

The Mazda3's profile makes it more rakish that its rivals, though you may bump your head more often
The Mazda3's profile makes it more rakish that its rivals, though you may bump your head more often
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News came last week that the Renault Group and FCA may merge. Renault includes Dacia and Lada, and it also has a 43 per cent stake in Nissan, which in turn owns a chunk of Mitsubishi. The 50/50 proposal came from FCA – that’s Fiat Group including Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari, plus Chrysler and Jeep.

The deal would make Renault-FCA third in the world after Volkswagen and Toyota and bring cost-saving and business synergies to the French-Italian alliance. Fiat already sells a version of Mitsubishi’s one-ton pick-up, while a Nissan one-tonner is sold by Renault and Mercedes-Benz. What chance a light and cheerful Jeep derivative?

These big cats leave smaller companies looking fragile. Jaguar Land Rover has been linked to a sale by its Indian owner. Prestige is a commodity, but more so are numbers and profits.

One of the surviving solo brands is Mazda, based in Hiroshima, Japan. A 40-year affair with Ford ended in 2015. It remains proudly independent, albeit with a joint venture with Toyota in a new factory under way in Alabama.

Here now is its all-new Mazda3, a Golf, Astra and Focus rival. It remains the best-looker in the class. In my opinion. The face is bold yet almost pretty, maybe a work of fine industrial art. It is a five-door hatchback, with a saloon to follow. There is no estate car – a shape offered in the new and rival Toyota Corolla.

These cars come to our market at the same time. The chassis and cabin structure are all-new – always a good thing in the business and making this Mazda even better than before.

The new 3 stays true to Mazda’s Skyactiv philosophy, favouring large capacity, high compression petrol engines instead of turbocharging a smaller engine, which is what all its rivals do. The mash of performance and economy and emissions is not bad from the 120bhp 2-litre petrol engine but not class-leading compared with the best small capacity petrol turbos. However, you can choose a high torque 1.8 litre turbo diesel engine which gives the low-speed whack the petrol unit lacks. Mazda predicts low demand for diesel, maybe one in ten sales. For the record, it offers an extra ten miles a gallon and lower CO2 but costs an additional £1,800. Automatic gears are £1,300 with the petrol engine, £1,340 on the diesel.

The petrol motor has mild electric hybrid assistance. It reduces emissions and economy by cutting out a pair of cylinders on a light throttle. You can see this confirmed on a display graph but unless you’ve the feel of a brain surgeon you can’t sense it happening. Coming: a SkyActiv-X petrol engine with 179bhp aimed to match the fuel economy of diesel with sub 110g CO2 ratings by using both compression and spark ignition. This is world-first technology in a production car. The ignition process is started with a spark and then as relatively weak air/petrol mixture is squeezed in the cylinder the pressure makes it explode – as in a diesel engine. Then at higher engine revs it reverts to spark ignition. It arrives in October at the same time as the saloon, now a bespoke design and rather attractive. Prices are awaited, as too is news of a new CX-3 SUV.

The 3’s cabin detailing is first-class. Mazda uses a BMW-type control selector knob and voice control rather than touchscreen because of concerns about the possibility of distraction and a tendency for the driver to lean away from the steering position. It is my preference, too. It allows information requests without the fuss of looking for icons to tap on a screen.

The hatchback’s rakish outline forsakes some practicality. Check the rear entry and exit: the low roof line means you’ll bang your head at least once or thrice.

Another curiosity: the car can be locked by pushing a button when you close the tailgate. That could be handy but if you’ve left the keys inside the car you’ll have to crawl in to get them because the same button will not then unlock the doors.

To launch the Mazda3 to the cognoscenti and sometimes astute British motoring media, Mazda set us off from Edinburgh through Border country on a route down into England, to overnight in Blanchland’s interesting Lord Crewe Arms.

The drive was pleasant. The relaxed, nay meagre, 120bhp output of the 2-litre petrol engine means it is not stressed and it runs quietly and smoothly and the car handles superbly. Just don’t expect the snap of acceleration you get from a turbo engine. It’s not there.

That’s not to say you can’t cover miles quickly. The 3 rides well and corners reliably. That makes a restful tourer – corroborating, perhaps, Mazda’s holistic SkyActiv philosophy. For the record, we got 42mpg from the petrol engine and 52mpg from the pokier diesel.

Kit on the price entry SE-L brings navigation, smart-phone interaction, blind-spot warning, traffic sign reading, adaptive cruise control, and LED headlights. There are four higher trim levels. The SE-L Lux we tried adds a rear camera, adaptive lighting and parking sensors. The sparkly paint added £550 and brought the price to £22,245. It’s my choice from the range.

Verdict: Mazda3 fans should be pleased; brand newbies smitten.