£17,595 - £25,195 Price range
48 - 74 MPG
That’s not an easy task, even if the 3 comes armed with a fresh facelift. The styling changes don’t amount to much individually, they combine to make the 3 look significantly more modern than the outgoing model.
Meanwhile, inside, fake carbon fibre trim pieces have made way for piano-black plastics and there’s a new, slimmer infotainment screen. That’s about it, though, so as before all of the switches and buttons feel durable – but not to VW standards – and the boot is bigger than you get in a Focus.
New engine and suspension tech aims to make the 3 better to drive, but then the Mazda was always one of the best cars in the class when it comes to entertaining. It’s agile, grippy and suffers from minimal body roll. Ride quality is top notch and suspension tweaks mean the car is as comfortable eating up B roads as it is cruising on the motorway.
And, if you’re going to be using it predominantly for long-distance runs, one of the two diesels makes for the best choice – both return fuel economy of more than 65mpg and provide effortless grunt. Mazda also offers the 3 with a pair of petrols, which need to be revved hard to perform, but are a good match for the car’s sporty setup and joy-to-use manual gearbox.
The driving experience is backed up by a healthy level of standard equipment, which includes air-conditioning, a seven-inch infotainment display and all round electric windows, while the upper echelons of the range promise kit such as cruise control, sat-nav and a powerful Bose stereo.
The Mazda 3’s interior lacks the vault-like qualities of a Volkswagen Golf, but quality is still pretty good, with lots of soft-touch plastics as well as different premium-look materials such as piano black plastics and brushed aluminium.
Mazda’s gone for an overtly sporty theme that’s pretty much unique for this class – you get a rev counter that sits prominently in the centre of the instrument binnacle (ala Alfa Romeo), a stubby manual gear shifter and a centre console that’s angled towards the driver.
It’s only when thoughts turn to technology that the 3 gets majorly caught out. The seven-inch colour display sprouts tablet-style from the dashboard, but it looks low rent compared to the colour explosion that is the 8.7-inch portrait-style display offered in the excellent Renault Megane. Having said that, the Mazda infotainment system’s fixed rotary control is much easier to operate on the move than the Renault touchscreen.
Mazda 3 passenger space
Getting comfortable behind the wheel is key to making a driving experience pleasurable and the Mazda 3 hits the nail square on the head, with all models getting a height adjustable driver’s seat and a steering wheel that slides up and down, as well as adjusting for reach.
Passengers in the rear may be less enamoured – the 3’s main problem is limited rear headroom, thanks to the swoopy styling, and a claustrophobic feel courtesy of the black interior plastics and high window line. The latter point is a little deceptive because, being 100mm longer, the Mazda actually has more rear legroom than a Ford Focus.
Mazda 3 boot space
The 364-litre boot is also bigger than a Focus’ and, for that matter, the Vauxhall Astra’s, but smaller than in a Golf. Although there is a load lip to contend with when loading heavy items, opening the rear door reveals a wide boot opening and the rear seats fold flat to offer up a total load capacity of 1,360 litres.
Much like the MX-5, the 3 has a meaty gearshift that is satisfying and, when cornering, the 3 demonstrates the sort of balance and excellent body control that isn’t normally expected from a family hatchback.
The steering feels direct on twisting country roads, so you can place the car through bends without having to make constant minor adjustments, but it’s also light enough to ease town driving and not so quick that it feels edgy on the motorway .
The final layer in the near-perfect handling package is the torque vectoring system that was added in 2016. Called G-Vectoring Control, it trims power to the outside wheel to improve stability through fast corners. It would take a motoring connoisseur to detect the system doing its work, but day to day it makes the car feel more planted to the road in bends.
Work has also been carried out to improve ride comfort and the small changes have softened things up, without having a detrimental effect on the handling balance. Interior refinement is pretty good, too – long motorway cruises cause no problem, even if the 3 isn’t quite as quiet as newer models such as the Renault Megane or Vauxhall Astra.
With everyone else reverting to small-capacity turbocharged petrol engines, Mazda’s decision to stick to larger non-turbo units may seem a little fickle. But, given the ‘jackanory’ theme of most official fuel consumption figures, the company might just be onto something with its SkyActiv technology. It works on the principle that a large capacity engine doesn’t need to work as hard to provide everyday performance.
Mazda 3 petrol engines
Whether the technology works is hard to say. The 3’s basic 1.5-litre petrol produces 98hp and returns fuel economy of 55.4mpg. In contrast, a 1.0-litre Ford Fiesta, with the same power, returns 65.7 mpg, although that figure is nigh on impossible for anyone (bar a robot in a testing centre) to achieve. Thankfully, a 0-62mph time of 10.8 seconds is readily attainable for people and makes the 3 feel pretty spritely. In fact, the basic petrol engine is so well rounded it should be at the top of your shopping list unless you need more performance or cover lots of miles.
If that’s the case then there’s also a 2.0-litre petrol that raises power to 118hp, but it seems a little pointless when, for less than £500 more, you can have the 163hp model that’s a good bit quicker, yet still returns close to 50mpg.
Mazda 3 diesel engines
A better bet if you’ll be covering lots of miles is Mazda’s punchy 2.2-litre diesel. A twin-turbocharged unit, it’s the quickest car in the range (being a tenth of a second faster to 60 than the top-of-the-range petrol). Yet it also returns fuel economy of close to 70mpg in manual form, with a lowly £20 yearly tax bill. It has a sporty growl under acceleration but settles at speed for impressive refinement.
The basic 1.5-litre diesel is only marginally more frugal (74.3 vs 68.9mpg) than the larger 2.2-litre one, but for company car buyers it has cheaper benefit in kind tax and, if you go for the manual gearbox, also qualifies for free road tax. The automatic isn’t really up to the standards of rivals and is not only slower than the manual, but also more expensive to run with annual road tax costing £30.
One of those is mid-range power, lacking for those now used to small-capacity turbocharged engines. Mazda's 1.5 is naturally aspirated, which is great for the engine's responses and linearity - both praised - but not for outright grunt.
Despite a modest 99 bhp output though, performance isn't bad - 10.7 seconds to 60. The Mazda 3 is very light, which helps. The engine is also quiet and "doesn't sound strained" under hard acceleration. The other benefit is economy - a more than respectable 56.4 mpg combined.
It's a smooth engine but testers do have one main reservation - it's not as punchy as you'd hope. Maybe we've all gone soft and got used to turbochargers, but the lack of one means you need to venture quite high up the rev range to find the engine's power.
Luckily, it does have economy to redeem it, at over 55 mpg in the 120 PS cars and 48.7 in the 165. And the rest of the 3 is an appealing package.
It's rated highly by the experts. There's shove here you won't find in the petrol versions, with a hefty 280 lb-ft of torque from 1,800 rpm. It's "uncharacteristically easy to rev" too, even emitting a "sporty sounding, muted growl" under acceleration. And at speed, it's very refined. Its mix of pace, economy and refinement makes it the pick of the Mazda 3 range.
When it was crash tested by Euro NCAP the Mazda 3 got a five-star rating. Automatic emergency braking is fitted to all but the basic model. It limits the chances of the car being involved in a low-speed shunt and joins a kit list that includes six airbags, stability and traction control, although automatic cruise control isn’t even an option.
Mazda 3 Sport Nav
Sport Nav models get even more safety equipment than the basic Mazda 3. The trim level sits at the top of the range and comes with headlights that follow the direction of the steering wheel and dip automatically. There’s also warning systems that detect cars in your blind spot and can sense when the Mazda is edging out of its lane on the motorway.
There’s no shortage of standard equipment even if you buy the basic SE model. Its 16-inch alloy wheels make the car look smart and there’s also a sporty roof-mounted spoiler. Inside, you get air conditioning, electric windows all round, a USB port, plus a leather-bound steering wheel and gear knob that feel nice to use. The dashboard is dominated by a large seven-inch touchscreen, but you’ll have to upgrade to SE Nav, for an extra £695, to get it hooked up to sat-nav.
Mazda 3 SE-L Nav
Mid-range SE-L is all you should realistically need – on top of the already generous standard equipment, it adds cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control and heated front seats. They’re also the first model to come fitted as standard with automatic emergency braking.
Mazda 3 Sport
Sport models sit at the top of the range but, unless you count their 18-inch alloy wheels, get no genuinely sporty add-ons. They do get plenty of extra equipment, though, including headlights that follow the direction of the road, keyless entry and a reversing camera.
In the fast-moving small family car class, it doesn’t take long for a car to look and feel dated, but the Mazda 3 has done a reasonable job of resisting the onset of age. The facelift keeps things looking fresh, and the more comfort-oriented driving experience is in keeping with buyers’ demands.
The refresh is no miracle cure, though, the Mazda’s age is given away by it small infotainment screen and somewhat dated interior. That being said, the 3 should still be at the top of the list for anyone looking for a practical family car with a sporty drive.