You might look at the spec sheet for the Mazda 3 and think that there can’t possibly be anything here to interest an enthusiast. It only has 120hp, after all. But power isn’t everything.
For years now, Mazda has produced by far the best handling middle market cars. And this latest 3 is no different.
It very much put this writer in mind of the original Ford Focus. It’s a car with no real pretentions of being sporty, yet the chassis answered every question asked of it and made me feel intimately involved in the process.
It’s a cliché to say you can think a particular car round a corner, but that is more true here than of any rival you care to mention. Point the steering at a corner and the front wheels go exactly where you’re aiming for. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going either, as the chassis can carry as much speed as you want through just about any corner. And the flood of feedback goads you to push harder.
That makes it easy to carry a lot of momentum through a set of turns, so it’s actually possible to cover ground at a pretty rapid pace. Despite the lack of power.
If the road starts climbing, though, the low output becomes more of an issue. Fortunately, downshifting a gear or two is no hardship as the shift is a delight.
If, for whatever reason, a hot hatch isn’t for you, but you still enjoy driving, the Mazda 3 is still the best-handling mid-size hatch. And you can enjoy the full range of its capabilities without troubling the speed limit.
The rest of the time, the 3 is a very pleasant place to be. The interior architecture is attractively minimalist but doesn’t eschew buttons completely, the climate controls grouped together on the centre stack. The rest of the car’s functions are controlled via the screen, which Mazda has mounted high up so the driver can look at it without taking their eyes off the road for too long. Likewise, every model gets a head-up display.
Cruising along, the cabin is hushed and the ride is cosseting.
There’s plenty of space up front, but rear legroom is a bit pinched. The gigantic rear C-pillar and rising beltline produce rather small rear side widows, too, so some passengers could find the back claustrophobic.
Similarly, the boot is undersized by class standards.
The more powerful, more economical Skyactiv-X engine that arrives later this year will broaden the 3’s appeal further, as will the upcoming saloon.
Limited practicality aside, the Mazda 3 is an incredibly strong contender in an extremely talented class. At sub-hot hatch level, it’s this writer’s choice.
Model tested: Mazda 3 2.0 122ps GT Sport Tech Type: Mid-size hatchback Price: £25,495 Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder petrol Power: 120hp Torque: 157lb/ft Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel-drive Performance: 0-62mph in 10.4secs, top speed 122mph Economy: 55.4mpg combined, Co2 emissions of 119g/km Length: 4,460mm Width: 1,795mm Height: 1,435mm Weight: 1,349kg Boot capacity: 351l seats up, 1,026l seats down Towing weight: 1,300kg
By Graham King