By Wayne Gorrett
The 2019 Mazda3 five-door family hatchback and four-door saloon were both revealed at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, 2018.
The hatchback is available to order now, while the saloon will follow in the autumn, along with the new and much-anticipated 2.0-litre SkyActiv-X petrol engine which uses diesel-like compression ignition, a prototype of which I drove in Portugal last year.
With its eye-catching styling, a refined, enjoyable drive and with a more upmarket cabin, this fourth-generation Mazda3 hatchback argues a much stronger case for itself than previous versions against mainstream rivals such as the VW Golf, Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra.
There’s an entirely new platform that underpins the new Mazda, which facilitates the option of four-wheel drive and a design that sets it far apart from the crowd in this sector. Rest-assured, this is no makeover.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a while with the new Mazda3 hatch at the Millbrook Proving Grounds in Bedfordshire and surrounding rural roads. This time I voice-recorded a few notes as I was rather busy keeping it on the road at the time…
There is much to admire about the design of the hatchback, especially as the absence of noticeable front and rear bumpers afford the car an almost naked minimalist look. The low nose has an aggressive air about it, while the back has a pronounced slope to the boot lid that subtly mimics the conventional lines of a coupé.
Along its flanks are body panels with smoothly contoured surfaces, which is markedly different to the chiselled and busy bodywork seen on so many other cars in this class. The effect is to create a distinct look of one-ness with a solid air of sophistication. It works.
The inside story
…is one of elegance, class and style.
The design and tactile elements of the entirely new Mazda3’s cabin stand up to comparison with the current generation of Audi, SEAT, Skoda and Volkswagen hatchbacks – which, while practical in their approach, tend to be rather clinical and ‘samey’ in appearance.
The slender dashboard is awash with soft-touch surfaces and all of the switchgear has a satisfying look and feel and there’s a new, larger 8.8-inch screen for the infotainment system and a partially digital instrument display.
Refreshingly, there isn’t a touchscreen to be found. Functions on the conventional infotainment display are operated via a simple BMW-style rotary controller near the gear lever, or by voice control. In bypassing the current trend towards increasingly complicated and high-maintenance touchscreens, Mazda expresses reservations about the safety of such systems. Hurrah!
The dashboard design is simplicity at its very best, with horizontal lines and conventional and intuitive rotary dials for the climate control.
The driving position is excellent, the redesigned seats are first-rate and the weighting of the pedals and steering is consistent. However, over-the-shoulder visibility is rather compromised due to the wide C-pillars and shallow rear windows.
While space in the front seats is as roomy and comfortable as you'd expect, rear space is adequate at best and anyone approaching six-feet in height or more will find their knees a little too close to their chin and their hair brushing against the roof liner. It’s all a tad too cosy and claustrophobic back there, but perfectly suited to those afflicted with narcolepsy or for 12-year-old Goths-in-training.
Understandably, Mazda makes no claims for class-leading interior space anywhere in the cabin. Despite its elongated nose giving the illusion of a big car…it isn’t. The new 3's boot is 358 litres with row two in place, which is below average for the class and down six litres over the previous model. By comparison, the Volkswagen Golf offers a 380-litre boot, while the Ford Focus has 375 litres.
Fold down the 60:40 split rear seat uprights and a more practical 1,026 litres of space become available, but which is still down on the aforementioned rivals. Not helping the overall practicality of the boot space is a high loading lip which is likely to hinder to loading of heavy or bulkier items.
The load bay is reasonably square, although the rear wheel arches intrude at the side and, unlike some rivals, Mazda doesn't provide a load divider or baggage hooks to prevent shopping from rolling around.
Trim grades and equipment
There are five trim levels across the new 18-model Mazda3 range – SE-L, SE-L Lux, Sport Lux, GT Sport and GT Sport Tech – and all come generously equipped.
All cars get LED head- and tail-lights, heated door mirrors, rear parking sensors, lane-keep assist and radar-guided cruise control. The 8.8-inch infotainment system is great, too: the graphics are sharp and the rotary click wheel feels solid and works well.
Engines and transmissions
Following Mazda’s trend of keeping things simple, the new 3 is offered with a choice of just two engines, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder Skyactiv-G petrol unit with its 24V mild hybrid system and cylinder deactivation technology, and a conventional 1.8-litre Skyactiv-D turbodiesel.
Because the 122hp/230Nm petrol doesn’t have a turbocharger, it doesn’t feel as willing as the turbo-assisted engines in some rivals and you have to get used to revving it higher than usual – with the resultant penalty in fuel economy. However, the six-speed manual gearbox is some help in that regard, as it shifts accurately but with a longer than expected throw than in some other Mazda models. And, while the 2.0-litre is smooth until around 4,500rpm where it does its best work, at which point it becomes rather intrusive and raspy.
Those in search of better economy and whose work-life balance requires their driving lots of miles every year should look more closely at the diesel. With its 116hp and 270Nm of torque which comes in from just 1,500rpm, the diesel pulls strongly along with little effort in higher gears. Unfortunately, the turbo lag is far too evident to make for smooth progress: re-apply the throttle after a gear change, and you feel a delay as the turbine spools up before the boost arrives.
Buyers can choose from an excellent six-speed manual gearbox or an equally good six-speed conventional torque-converter automatic. The manual transmission is a delight to use, but if you prefer to let the car take the strain, the smooth automatic is quick to select the correct gear with little hesitation.
We’ll have to wait until October 2019 for Mazda’s all-new petrol engine technology to be offered on the new 3 hatch and saloon. Named Skyactiv-X, the engine is said to provide the fuel efficiency and torque of a diesel combined with the power and high-revving nature of a petrol engine.
On the road
Likely its biggest attraction, the new Mazda3 is truly great to drive, although some may prefer a heavier steering weight. It manages to provide an impressive balance between sharpness and comfort and Mazda’s engineers have tuned the suspension to deliver a softer, more pliant ride than the previous iteration, but at the same time ensuring it also feels responsive at any speed. It means the Mazda 3 is up there with the very best hatchbacks in its price range for all-round dynamic ability.
The new 3 gets Mazda’s a clever torque-vectoring stability system that tweaks the engine’s power settings and applies individual brakes, to help smooth out your inputs as you pilot your way into and out of a corner. It’s a very subtle system and most will barely notice it at work, but the 3’s outstanding agility in corners does take some beating, even by VW Golf standards.
Another impressive character is how quiet and smooth the car is when underway. Whether nipping about town, tackling a rural winding road or inter-city cruising on British motorways, the levels of road and wind noise are remarkably low, as to be almost indiscernible. Later, all-wheel drive will be made available with the more powerful, Skyactiv-X engine.
The 2019 Mazda3 achieved a five-star result from Euro NCAP when it was tested in the spring. It scored an impressive 98% in the adult occupant category, as well as 87% for child occupant protection.
Safety kit includes the latest technology, such as autonomous emergency braking, lane keeping assist and driver fatigue warnings, along with the usual myriad passive devices like airbags and ISOFIX child-seat mounting points.
To dismiss the latest Mazda3 in your quest for a sensible family hatchback would render it a disservice. With lots of soft-touch materials and proper switches and buttons in favour of a touchscreen display, its interior is up there with the very best. It's also reasonably practical for a small family and – best of all – it’s great to drive, while the new Skyactiv-X engine arriving in the autumn could be worth waiting for.
Browse our latest top leasing deals on the all-new Mazda 3 hatchback.