In third generation form though, it deserves far more careful consideration. Redesigned from the ground up, it’s powerful, efficient and very good to drive.
‘Defy convention’. This, apparently, is what the Mazda3 is designed to do. It’s not something you’ll immediately appreciate at first glance, there’s genuine innovation and cleverness here if you care to look for it.
The 'SKYACTIV' technology this car was launched with, mainly based around improving performance and efficiency through lighter weight is why this car’s mainstream petrol unit is 2. 0-litres in size, at a time when most other rivals are producing comparable outputs from 1. 4, 1. 2 or even 1. 0-litre powerplants. The mainstream 2. 2-litre diesel’s big in size too – though the Japanese brand is also offering the 1. 5-litre SKYACTIV-D unit from its Mazda 2 supermini as an entry-level option. For this revised model, the 'SKYACTIV' ethos is also extended into handling dynamics; plus it's much classier inside.
The Mazda3 has always been good to drive. But then, in its first two generations of life, there were lots of reasons for that, like underpinnings from the acclaimed Ford Focus and old-style responsive hydraulic steering. This third generation model is very different. So can it stack up now that it’s very much its own car?
This Mazda3’s sophisticated suspension just works on British roads and should you feel the urge, you can cover ground at real pace without the car feeling ragged or tiring to drive. The front end is incredibly good, and you'd have to be doing something extremely ill-advised to bring the stability or traction control into play on dry tarmac. Refinement has been improved as well and electric power steering has been introduced with no real dilution of the feelsome response that was such a feature of the old hydraulic set-up.
‘SKYACTIV’ is an all-encompassing term for efficient technology that drives down running costs by saving weight. And that ramps up driving enjoyment by doing exactly the same thing. It’s a solution that seems so obvious – and one that every other rival brand strives to achieve before getting bogged down in having to make its products bigger, better equipped, safer and better-built. But then, no other brand has invested itself into the process quite like Mazda.
Integral to the Mazda3 line-up are SKYACTIV powertrains, SKYACTIV bodies and SKYACTIV 6-speed manual and automatic gearboxes, all of them with bulk trimmed to the minimum, with the collective result that this car is significantly lighter than most of its rivals.
It’s certainly the most cohesively styled version of this car we’ve seen to date, with a bold cab-rearwards profile, a rakish windscreen angle, a lower roofline, shorter overhangs, flared wheelarches and an extended wheelbase that pushes the wheels out into the corners of the car.
Up front, there’s the same so-called ‘KODO’ design approach that also characterises both the larger Mazda6 and the company’s CX-5 crossover model. True, ‘KODO’ isn’t a very inspiring acronym but what it apparently stands for when you translate from the Japanese - ‘Soul of Motion’ - offers up a more emotive feel, this supposed to be a theme ‘inspired by the movement of animals in the wild’. The KODO keypoint – a boldly contoured five-point grille with a distinctive signature line that runs through its lower lip into piercing headlamps – at last gives this car some much-needed visual identity.
Move beyond the long bonnet and start to look further back and fans of the brand might notice the repositioned wing mirrors, while the rest of us are more likely to be impressed by the incredibly tight shutlines and a sleek profile for the hatchback variant.
The best bit though, is the latest generation 7-inch colour TFT touchscreen, a vast improvement on the cramped little infotainment display fitted not only to the previous generation version of this model but also to the current and supposedly more luxurious Mazda6. Controlled by touch, voice command or the chromed rotary dial positioned by the handbrake, it’s a delight to use, alleviating dashboard button clutter by handling various audio and telephonic functions, plus it can also help you with the eco-friendliness of your driving and display sat nav where fitted. Fortunately, the system doesn’t try and replace conventional ventilation controls but the set-up does include a clever cloud-based internet connectivity platform that aims to bring a wide range of free web-based infotainment content safely into the vehicle – two apps in particular: ‘Aha’ for various infotainment features including text, Twitter and Facebook and ‘Stitcher’ for on-demand internet radio. The 21st century family hatch has truly arrived.
Released from the shackles of Ford ownership, Mazda’s product range is at last coming alive. The cars look and feel more appealing and innovation is now an established part of the company’s DNA. Here’s a perfect example of that. True, there are still many more obvious choices than this one within the family hatchback sector, but if you're bored with the usual Golf, Astra and Focus fare and want a car that won't impose a swingeing financial penalty for wanting to be just that little bit different, the Mazda3 is a smart pick.