The Mazda3 might just be the best car you’ve never considered buying.
Available as either a hatchback or fastback (a sleek, four-door saloon that costs the same as the hatchback), its anonymous looks hide a hugely competent chassis and the keen driver will find it one of the most rewarding and satisfying cars in its class, eclipsing even the Ford Focus.
Saga Car Insurance: Join over a million drivers already benefiting from our outstanding cover and personal service for the over 50s. Get a quote and find out more!
Mazda attributes at least part of this to G-Vectoring Control (GVC), a piece of electronic wizardry that it says modifies the car’s balance by varying the amount of engine torque that is being delivered to each wheel to ‘indiscernibly provide more precise handling and improved comfort.’
I can’t comment on its efficacy, not having had the chance to test it back-to-back with a car that doesn’t have it, but there is no question that the Mazda3 handles brilliantly.
I swooped my way across the Scottish Highlands along a variety of roads from single-lane tracks to sweeping motorways and everything in between and I doubt that anything else with four seats would have been more enjoyable for the same money.
10 laws motorists ignore or forget
Silky smooth gear changes
The 120PS/118bhp SKYACTIV-G petrol engine is likely to be the best bet for most drivers, allied to the manual gearbox that offers silky smooth gear changes that can be accomplished with a jaunty flick of the wrist.
My co-driver and I competed to see who could produce the most imperceptible change, and the result was a draw; I can’t remember driving a car with a nicer gearbox and clutch.
A large, unstressed engine
Mazda is almost unique in still fitting its cars with large, unstressed engines.
While others are choosing small, low-capacity motors, Mazda prefers a different approach; I’ve long thought that large, naturally aspirated, high-torque engines like the two-litre version fitted to the Mazda 3 are likely to produce real-world fuel consumption figures that bear more than a passing resemblance to the official EU ones.
And Honest John, at least, supports my theory. Its crowd sourced data shows the Mazda 3 delivers 90 per cent of its official consumption; others might sip less fuel overall but at least Mazda is honest in that it does almost exactly what it says it will.
Beware of notes left on your windscreen. Find out more...
It is also decently powerful, offering enough performance to enable easy and safe overtaking; Mazda thinks that most buyers will agree with me as its tipping this to be the best-selling model in the range.
If performance is your bag then you can buy the Mazda3 with a 148bhp version of the same petrol engine, which endows it with a muscularity that is at odds with the rest of the car, but which is oddly satisfying, nonetheless.
The 150PS 2.2-litre SKYACTIV-D diesel engine was rewarding but ultimately less satisfying for the keen driver than its petrol equivalent, while the 1.5-litre 99bhp diesel engine’s sole purpose seems to be to squeeze under the 100g/km threshold. If such a consideration is important to you you’ll find that it provides just enough propulsive power but no more.
An improved interior
The interior is mildly improved over that of the outgoing model, which isn’t to damn with faint praise because the old car had one of the better interiors in its class anyway.
Anyone trading up from an older model might struggle to tell much of a difference, the changes being more incremental than radical; an electronic handbrake rather than an old-fashioned lever-operated one being the main difference.
Three things you can do today to become a better driver
A bit too noisy?
Others have criticized the Mazda3 for being a bit too noisy at speed thanks to a combination of wind and tyre noise. It’s true that others, most notably the Golf, are quieter but I can’t say that I ever felt that the Mazda3 was unpleasantly noisy.
There are three trim levels: SE, SE-L and Sport Nav. All are generously equipped but the mid-point SE-L probably balances cost and convenience the best, bringing in a 118bhp manual Mazda3 at a smidgeon under £20,000. This feels like great value to me.
It’s too early to say whether dealers will be keen to do a deal in the showrooms, but as it’s on sale now it’s always worth chancing your arm to find out. Even without, I’d still suggest placing the Mazda3 near the top of your shortlist if you enjoy driving. It might not be the cheapest in its class, but it’s up there with the best of them for driving pleasure.
Is your car spying on you?
Power – 118bhp
Torque – 155lb ft
0-62mph – 8.9 seconds
Top speed – 121mph
Kerb weight – 1,276kgs
Official average fuel consumption – 55.4mpg
CO2 emissions – 119g/km
VED class – Band C
Warranty – 3 yrs/60,000 miles
Price – £17,595
Price as tested - £20,645
Seven tips to get your car sparkling
The SEAT Leon just pips the Mazda3 for pure dynamic ability, but the gap has shrunk and is now wafer-thin.
The best of the rest
The Vauxhall Astra is a simply brilliant all rounder.
You’ve probably never considered buying a Mazda3. This new, updated model is now good enough for me to be able to suggest that it might be time for you to think again.
Subscribe today for just £15 for 12 issues...
Read Carlton's other car reviews