The new Mazda3 is here and it looks good, it’s great to drive, it’s efficient, and it deserves to be seen as more than just a niche choice in the small family hatchback class.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this new Mazda3 is the first generation of the car in the UK, as it’s likely that you won’t have seen many Mazda3s around. However there was a previous generation, but towards the end of its life it was ageing and was increasingly uncompetitive in the area of emissions, so sales were low. Mazda is hoping that the new model, with all-new design and all-new tech, will have very different fortunes.
Externally, the new Mazda3 is very good looking. Some competitors look boxy or fussy, whereas the new ‘3’ is curvy, simple and elegant – with a definite sporty feel.
The interior has moved on from the last model in areas such as soft touch materials, but despite the latest connectivity technology, overall it’s traditional rather than modern. The same could be said for a BMW 3 Series interior, and that works extremely well, so we have no problem with this approach.
The big news in terms of engineering is the ‘SKYACTIV’ technology. This is Mazda’s solution to lowering emissions without resorting to expensive – and usually heavy – hybrid or plug-in systems. SKYACTIV includes lightweighting, a focus on aerodynamics, efficient engines and transmissions, and the ‘i-stop’ stop/start system.
Such measures are not unique to Mazda – other manufacturers have similar solutions. The big difference is that whereas many other car brands are going down the road of engine downsizing – for example a 1-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engine in a Ford Focus – Mazda is instead giving us a relatively large 2.2-litre diesel engine, complete with two turbos. Mazda’s argument is that such an engine will deliver better real-life economy than a downsized engine (as it isn’t being overworked), and as a general principle, we would agree.
Although the term ‘lightweight’ is used frequently by Mazda in connection with SKYACTIV, our test car weighed 1470kg, which is hardly lightweight – presumably this is not helped by the 2.2-litre diesel engine.
The Mazda3 launch was at John O’Groats at the North East tip of mainland Scotland – in December – with a weather varying between rain, ice, sleet, snow and 100mph winds. The average manufacturer wouldn’t be brave enough to launch a typical family hatchback in such an environment.
The roads in the area of John O’Groats are more akin to rally stages than the roads you’d face on a trip to the shops. We drove three different Mazda3 models – as well as the 2.2-litre diesel tested here, we sampled the 120PS and 165PS petrol manuals. We’re delighted to report that all three models offered an excellent driving experience, combining class-leading handling with a good ride, sharp steering and decent performance.
The Mazda3 definitely seems to have inherited some genes from the MX-5, especially in the weighting of its controls. Drive a Toyota from this class and all its controls feel very light – overly light for most people who enjoy driving. Drive a Golf and you’re left with a feeling of solidity, but not much fun. In comparison the Mazda3 feels planted yet also responsive and entertaining – it’s the car choice for buyers in this sector who want a more rewarding, sporty driving experience.
Mazda has made a big deal about the low emissions from its SKYACTIVE technology. We’re in complete agreement with the company about a larger capacity engine having the potential to be more economical in real-life driving than a downsized engine – the Fiat TwinAir unit shows how disappointing the real-life economy of a downsized engine can be. But the key point about the Mazda3 is that the 2.2-litre diesel offers impressive performance compared to its official economy and emissions, however there is no engine in the entire range that offers sub-100g/km emissions, which has to be a serious omission in this sector.
This 2.2-litre diesel ‘hatchback’ model has emissions of 107g/km CO2, or 68.9mpg, which are the lowest emissions for the hatchback models in the range (this reduces to 104g/km for the ‘fastback’ model, ie. the saloon body style). This equates to a 16% company car tax benefit in kind liability for our test car, whereas other cars in its class have versions with a 13% BIK figure.
It wasn’t possible to accurately test the real-life fuel economy of the Mazda3 due to driving cars with three different engines over a 24-hour period. We would hope to do a week-long review as soon as possible, and would also hope that the real-life economy is better than we experienced after two weeks with the new Mazda6.
The Mazda3 is available in two body styles, a hatchback and a fastback – the latter meaning a saloon, which is unlikely to be a big seller in the UK. There’s a choice of one diesel engine, or three petrol units – offering 100PS, 120PS or 165PS. As well as the diesel, we drove the 120PS and 165PS versions on the launch, and both were very impressive. Some models are available with automatic transmission, but their emissions are higher.
There are three trim levels: SE, SE-L, and Sport Nav. SE and SE-L come with 16-inch alloy wheels; Sport Nav comes with 18-inch alloy wheels. Strangely, there is no 17-inch wheel option.
Prices start at £16,695 for the petrol Mazda3 100PS SE, rising to £23,345 for the diesel 150PS Sport Nav auto. The version tested here, the diesel 150PS Sport Nav manual, costs £22,145. This is quite a lot, and drivers who don’t do high mileages would probably be better off with the petrol engine – the 120PS unit, which will be the best seller, offers sufficient performance, emissions of just 119g/km CO2, and starts at a much more affordable £16,995 for the SE model.
All models get a 7-inch touchscreen, along with a rotary controller for use on the move. Sport Nav models get a head-up display, which appears on a piece of clear plastic; it’s not as good as some other systems which project directly onto the inside of the windscreen.
The majority of Mazda3 sales are expected to be retail rather than fleets.
The Mazda3 proved itself to be a great car to drive on the launch in John O’Groats. The weather varied between sun, wind, rain, sleet, snow and black ice, the roads were often more suited for rallying rather than normal driving, and the Mazda3 not only took all this in its stride, it impressed with excellent handling, a comfortable ride, and well-weighted controls.
For some, the interior – although featuring softer touch materials than previous generation Mazdas – may still look a little too traditional, but it generally works effectively so we have no problem with that.
Our main concern is that despite the much-publicised SKYACTIV technology, the lowest emissions in the Mazda3 range are 104g/km – in this sector, Mazda really needs to offer a model with sub-100g/km figures.
However if you’re looking for a small family hatchback with a genuinely sporty driving experience, the Mazda3 should be at the top of your list. It’s also good-looking. The problem Mazda will face is that most people looking to buy such a car won’t get past thinking about Fords or Volkswagens, and the Mazda3 is likely to be overlooked – although this would be a big mistake on the part of car buyers.
For doing most things very well, the Mazda3 is awarded a Green-Car-Guide rating of 9 out of 10 – and we look forward to Mazda engineering a version with sub-100g/km CO2 emissions in the near future