From a segment that was once known for spectacularly dull vehicles, today’s C-segment vehicles handle, ride and go better than ever, while also delivering refinement not far shy of fairly recent luxury cars and economy better than the city cars of five years ago.
With such progress, ageing vehicles like the Mazda 3 risk getting left well behind. We’ve spent a week with a 1.6 diesel Venture edition to see whether it still stacks up.
The metallic grey paintwork and large, dark-finished alloy wheels lend the Venture edition a suitable air of sportiness, and despite the humble diesel lump under the bonnet our Mazda 3 didn’t look dissimilar to the sporty MPS model at the top of the range.
Deep front and rear bumpers, side skirts and a surprisingly large rear spoiler all enhance the 3’s looks, but after a week with the car we’d not really warmed to it as a whole.
Mazda’s new design language (as seen on the CX-5 and new Mazda6) has made the 3 look a bit old-hat, and the shape is overly complex next to the precision lines of some of the more Germanic brands. Nor is it as pretty, striking or curvaceous as some. And to our eyes, the enormous smiling grille looks a bit gormless.
The Mazda3 is about as conventional as cars get in this class. It’s a five-door hatchback, with a decent-sized boot and enough space for four occupants, five at a squeeze.
You also get three pedals, a gearstick, only two dials (speedometer and tachometer), and a set of simple-to-fathom heating and ventilation controls. Additionally, on this Venture model, a satellite-navigation system is standard, as is the ability to connect to your mp3 player of choice.
Beyond these characteristics, which should serve a family well over several years, it’s all a bit featureless. Build quality is largely good, but some of the plastics are rather nasty. These include the door trims, which you tend to touch when getting out, but not the soft-finish dashboard top, which you’ll virtually never touch.
The leather steering wheel and gearknob are welcome touches, but less so is the driver’s seat, the second in recent weeks we struggled to get comfortable in. Mercifully it’s heated on the Venture, numbing the pain of longer journeys. As with the Honda CR-Z we tested recently, try before you buy.
Mazda built its recent reputation on the term “Zoom-Zoom”, centred mainly around the MX-5 roadster and now-defunct RX-8. It’s a pity more of this spirit hasn’t found its way into the Mazda3, which feels oddly inert to drive.
We’ll start with the better stuff first. The brakes do everything you ask of them, and prove easy enough to modulate. The ride quality isn’t too bad either. It’s troubled a little by particularly broken roads, but deals with bumps with a muted thump rather than a crash, rattle and shake.
It also hangs on gamely in the corners, but this is where you’ll also discover the disconcertingly light steering and complete lack of feel through the wheel rim.
We’ve driven cars with feel-free steering before but the Mazda compounds this with inconsistent accuracy, making it very difficult to tell just how hard you’re troubling the tyres. You sense there’s a competent chassis in there somewhere, but the 3 isn’t a car that makes driving quickly easy or enjoyable.
It’s more pleasant around town, but then lots of cars are these days. Many of those cars are also decent on the motorway, where the 3’s refinement is little better than average.
The Venture edition is available with a choice of petrol or diesel 1.6-litre engines. Ours had the latter, a four-cylinder turbodiesel unit putting out 115 horsepower and returning 65.7 mpg on the combined cycle.
The former figure is about par for a car in this class, though recent advancements from other manufacturers have seen significant advancements in fuel efficiency. CO2 emissions of 115 g/km may mean only 30 in yearly road tax, but several rivals knock this down to zero.
An 11-second 0-60 mph time and top speed of 116 mph are respectable, but the diesel goes about its business with plenty of noise and little panache. Again, it’s an area where rivals now have the measure of the Mazda, with smoother engines and less noise. Most also offer a stop-start system these days. The Mazda lacks this, something most noticeable when you’re sitting in traffic listening to the diesel clatter away in front of you.
Saving graces? Well, the 3 has a short, snappy gearshift, not unlike the Mazda MX-5. The engine may not be pleasant to use, but at least it’s easy to make the most of.
Value for money
Our 3 Venture diesel starts from 18,995 on the road. This is one area the 3 can still compete – particularly as the price of traditional value brands like Kia and Hyundai increases.
Very few, if any rivals can match the 3’s satnav, sporty wheels, body kit and other trinkets with a similar engine for a similar price. In most cases, you need to spend another thousand or two, though it’s worth also mentioning that many of these more expensive rivals feel more expensive too.
We were pleased with the 3’s economy though. Our drive returned an indicated 53 mpg, which included a motorway trip from Leeds to Chester and back, a few runs around town, and some driving in the Yorkshire Dales. This should make it cheap to fuel, and Mazda’s reliability rating is strong too. Conversely, the 3 is several insurance groups higher than many rivals, so you may pay extra here.
When the current Mazda3 first hit the market, we’ve no doubt it was one of the better choices available. A few years down the line and its competitors have taken such giant leaps that the 3 now feels sub-par in almost every area, and a replacement can’t come soon enough.
Bought purely as a value choice it has some merit, both cheaper to buy than most rivals and capable of decent fuel economy. But Mazda is capable of better, and until it demonstrates this with the 3’s replacement (still a while away), we’d advise you to look elsewhere.
What the press think
Most reviews of the Mazda3 are more positive than ours, though it’s worth mentioning most of these are from the car’s launch three years ago. Many seem to enjoy the handling, and the styling goes down well too – though interior plastics came in for criticism even then.
For more information check out our full summary of the Mazda 3 alongside reviews, stats, photos and videos!