The Mazda’s top-spec 2.2-litre diesel engine is reasonably smooth and even quicker than the more powerful petrol, but a Golf is more comfortable and a Focus is more fun to drive
You can get the Mazda 3 with two petrol and two diesel engines and with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic gearbox.
Live and drive in the city? Pick the 120hp 2.0-litre petrol engine. It’s larger than the engines you’ll find in most other small family cars but it doesn’t have to work quite so hard to provide similar performance. As a result, it’s quite quiet when you’re cruising and it’ll return around 45mpg in normal driving (compared to Mazda’s claimed 55.4mpg). A more powerful 165hp petrol model is also available but only in range-topping (and rather expensive) Sport Nav trim.
If you spend more time on the motorway pick one of the two diesel engines. The entry-level 1.5-litre model isn’t as smooth as the petrol models but it’ll return around 60mpg in real-world conditions. Don’t expect it to be particularly fast, however – accelerating from to 62mph takes a leisurely 11 seconds.
Don’t expect the 3 to feel like an MX-5 sports car just because they share a Mazda badge – it’s actually a fairly sedate family car that’s nowhere near as fun to drive as a Ford Focus
By contrast, the 2.2-litre diesel model is actually the fastest in the Mazda 3 lineup. It’ll sprint from 0-62mph in 8.1 seconds (compared to the fastest petrol model’s 8.2 second time) yet returns around 55mpg in the real world. Both diesels do make a lot of noise however, even at a constant speed.
The standard six-speed manual gearbox is easy to use but you might want to consider the optional automatic if you spend a lot of time in heavy traffic. It’s a little slow to respond when you accelerate hard but gives your foot a rest from operating the clutch on long journeys. It’s available on 2.0-litre petrol and 2.2-litre diesel models for an extra £1,200.
The Mazda 3’s relatively easy to see out of but its thick rear pillars – where the doors meet the roof – create some awkward blind spots that can make parking slightly nerve-wracking.
Thankfully, SE-L Nav models and above come with rear parking sensors as standard and range-topping Sport Nav cars get both front parking sensors and a reversing camera, too. The Mazda’s turning circle is rather wide, however, which can make navigating through tight city streets more difficult than in a VW Golf.
It isn’t quite as comfortable over rutted roads as a Golf, either – especially if you pick a Sport Nav model with 18-inch alloy wheels. SE Nav and SE-L Nav models are slightly more comfortable – especially around town – but all Mazda 3s suffer from lots of tyre roar and wind noise on the motorway.
This problem is worsened by the near-constant drone in the diesels. Thankfully, the two 2.0-litre petrol versions settle into a much quieter cruise at motorway speeds.
The Mazda 3 might look rather sporty, but on a twisty backroad it’s nowhere near as sharp or as responsive as a Ford Focus. Its steering feels only tenuously connected to the front wheels and its suspension has been designed to isolate you from the road rather than glue you to it.
It is pretty safe, though. Euro NCAP awarded the Mazda 3 a five-star safety score in 2013. The tests have been made stricter since then, but a 2016 update means all 3s come with a system that’ll automatically apply the brakes if it detects there’s an obstacle in the road ahead.
For a little extra peace of mind, pick the optional Safety Pack – it comes with lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and even a feature that’ll automatically brake to stop you reversing into parked cars.