Since its introduction in 2004 to replace the old Mazda323, the Mazda3 has established itself as a reliable piece of kit with plenty of good looks and charm. But despite its solid performance and a series of model enhancements it hasn’t quite managed to blow away the competition.
Sharing a platform with the popular Ford Focus, the Mazda3 is in fact much easier on the eye than its market-leading counterpart, so it is something of a surprise that it continues to fly a little beneath the radar. New trim levels introduced on the 2012 versions have helped to funk it up, and the 2013 versions promise to do more of the same, so perhaps it is time for the market to finally wake up to the charms of the Mazda3.
With plenty of headroom to the rear, four adults can be accommodated just fine – though five is certainly a squeeze. Manoeuvring in and out takes a little practice thanks to the slightly unusual design of the rear doors, and it doesn’t score tops on legroom, but it delivers no less than you would expect for a car of this size. The sedan boot is roomy and well-designed, while the hatchback offers the usual flat-folding split seats, providing plenty of extended space when needed.
Available as a hatchback or sedan, current models include the Neo, Maxx Sport, Diesel, SP20 SkyActiv and SP25. Petrol and diesel options deliver a choice of Mazda3 that is as perky or as pedestrian as you wish. The ride is firm with plenty of control and grip, the steering is responsive and light, but the flip side is that it does have a tendency to be a bit floaty on the bends. All in all though it handles well and we think most would agree that its drive has a distinct edge over much of the competition.
The Mazda3 first came to market with two engine options, a 2.0-litre petrol giving 104kW and 181Nm of torque and a 2.3-litre petrol with variable valve timing giving 115kW and 203Nm of torque. Transmission options were a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual.
Later models saw the introduction of a 2.2-litre turbo diesel alongside the 2.0-litre entry model and a sporter 2.5-litre petrol alternative in the SP25 model.
Following an initial redesign in 2010, a major overhaul for 2012 saw the introduction of new SkyActiv technology (a series of technological improvements that increase engine power and fuel efficiency) and a raft of body and parts enhancements. These included a new direct injection 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and six-speed transmission (automatic or manual), delivering a more powerful and fuel-efficient machine than its predecessor, while the 2.2-litre diesel option continues to deliver even greater efficiency.
Combined fuel consumption on the standard 2.0-litre models is 7.9L/100km, rising to 8.8L/100km on the more pokey but equally more thirsty 2.5-litre SP25 model, and dropping to just 5.7L/100km on the 2.2-litre diesel. Things can get a bit noisy under the bonnet, especially on the SP25, but rather than being a problem this actually lends an added touch of sporty charm, with the noise insulation in the cabin plenty good enough to offset it.
Alloys, remote locking, climate control and electric front and rear windows come as standard on the new models, with the higher specs offering a raft of extras such as heated sports seats, satnav, Bluetooth, cruise control and automatic lights and wipers. The level of kit available on older Mazda3s varies according to age and model so it is advisable to check the spec carefully before you commit to buying.
In general the adjustable steering wheel and driver’s seat offer maximum flexibility for a comfortable driving position, although the overall look of the interior still leans towards the functional rather than the luxurious, with a little too much plastic still in evidence on and around the central dash. It is well lit however, and intuitively laid out with plenty of pleasingly chunky controls.
Safety features include twin front, side, and curtain airbags, active front headrests for reducing the effects of whiplash, and anti-theft devices including alarm and deadlocks.
With more space, finer features, and plenty of va-va-voom, the Mazda3 is finally giving the small-to-mid-sized car market a run for its money. Stacked up against competitors such as the Kia Forte, Chevrolet Cruze, and Hyundai Elantra, and with a decent level of kit included as standard, you get plenty of bang for your buck whichever model you choose. For the ultimate combination of fuel economy and power (all 113kW of it), opt for the SP20 SkyActiv model with SkyActiv-G engine and SkyActiv-Drive 6-speed automatic transmission, while for minimum emissions the 2.2-litre diesel remains the model of choice.
Insurance, repairs and other running costs are competitive, making the Mazda3 a pretty compelling choice for the driver in search of an even trade-off between value and above-average performance. On the flipside sales values remain lower for the Mazda further down the line than for some of its more established competition, especially the Focus, but with looks and quality steadily improving, it may well not be long before resale values follow suit.