The new Mazda 3 has a seriously tough job on its hands. To stand out in the ultra-competitive family car class it not only has to beat similar-sized hatches – such as the Kia Ceed and Seat Leon – but also the bigger, yet cheaper, Skoda Octavia.
The new 3 gets the latest Mazda look that we’ve already seen on the 6 and CX-5, while the company’s lightweight Skyactiv underpinnings and efficient engines and gearboxes should help give it agile handling and excellent fuel economy.
When it goes on sale in early 2014, the all-new Mazda 3 will be available as a five-door hatchback or a four-door saloon. There will be four engine options: a new 99bhp 1.5-litre petrol, a 2.0 petrol (with either 118 or 162bhp), and a 148bhp 2.2 diesel.
A six-speed manual gearbox will be standard across the range, but a six-speed auto will be available as an option on the diesel and lower-powered 2.0-litre petrol.
What's the 2014 Mazda 3 like to drive?
We tried the 118bhp 2.0-litre, which is expected to be the biggest seller. Unlike similarly powerful rivals – such as the VW Golf 1.4 TSI – the Mazda doesn’t benefit from turbocharging, so you need to rev its engine hard to get anywhere in a hurry.
However, the power delivery is very progressive, and the engine doesn’t start to labour unless the revs drop below about 1300rpm. The six-speed gearbox is another positive, with a smooth and precise shift action.
The lightweight Mazda handles well, too; it changes direction eagerly and stays remarkably flat through tight twists and turns. The only slight disappointment is the steering, because although it’s light and accurate around town, it doesn’t always weight up quickly or consistently enough at faster speeds.
No matter what speed you’re doing, you’re always aware of the UK's scarred tarmac passing beneath the car - the ride is partciulalry firm with the 18-inch alloys fitted to our test car (entry-level models get 16s). However, no matter the wheel size, the 3's ride never becomes too uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, refinement isn’t so good; there’s plenty of road noise at motorways speeds and you can also hear the wind whistling around the door seals.
What's the 2014 Mazda 3 like inside?
Drivers of all shapes and sizes should have no trouble getting comfortable, thanks to the wide range of adjustment to the seat and steering wheel, and the generous head- and shoulder-room.
The dashboard layout is also fairly logical, with clearly labelled buttons and dials for the air-con system, and easy-to-read instrument dials.
This uncluttered layout is largely down to a new infotainment system, which encompasses everything from the sat-nav to the stereo. The various functions can be accessed using the seven-inch colour touch-screen that sits on top of the dashboard, or via a BMW iDrive-style controller mounted between the front seats.
The latter method is much easier when you’re on the move, because you simply rotate a big dial to scroll through the on-screen menus and press the dial to make a selection. There are also some handy shortcut buttons to take you directly to specific functions, although it's a shame the menus themselves aren't a little more intuitive.
Perceived quality hasn’t always been Mazda’s strongest suit, but the 3 impresses on this score, too, with dense, soft-touch plastics covering most of the dashboard and solid-feeling buttons and switches throughout the cabin. In fact, only the centre console lets the side down, being a little lightweight and flimsy.
In the back, there’s plenty of headroom for a couple of six-footers, although the dipping roofline and rising windowline can make you feel a little hemmed in. Legroom in the rear is adequate, but the scooped seat-backs force rear passengers to keep their knees in one place. That space quickly runs out when the driver is over six foot.
Boot space in the hatchback is roughly on a par with a Seat Leon's (the saloon has slightly more room, but a narrower opening), and the rear seats fold almost completely flat and lie flush with the boot floor, making it easy for you to transport longer loads.
Entry-level SE models get 16-inch alloys, air-conditioning, Bluetooth, two USB sockets, steering wheel-mounted stereo controls and a tyre pressure-monitoring system.
Stepping up to SE-L gets you dual-zone climate control, privacy glass, automatic xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers and front foglights, while range-topping Sport models also add keyless entry and electric leather seats.
Should I buy one?
The new Mazda 3 is a very decent car and worthy of a place on the shortlist of anyone in the market for a Golf-sized hatchback. It’s stylish, good to drive, cheap to buy and run, and even reasonably practical.
That said, the Seat Leon 1.2 TSI SE is all those things, too, plus it’s more refined. True, the Mazda is ultimately slightly faster, but the Seat counters with better in-gear flexibility, greater rear space and more standard equipment.
Alternatively, if space really is a priority, a Skoda Octavia 1.2 TSI S offers a much bigger boot and similar amounts of kit for £1000 less.
The new Mazda 3 isn't class-leading, then, but it’s not too far behind the best.
What Car? says...
Engine size 1.5-litre petrol
Price from £16,695
Torque 111lb ft
0-62mph 10.8 seconds
Top speed 113mph
Fuel economy 55.3mpg
Engine size 2.0-litre petrol
Price from £16,995
Torque 155lb ft
0-62mph 8.9 seconds
Top speed 121mph
Fuel economy 55.3mpg
Engine size 2.2-litre diesel
Price from £19,245
Torque 280lb ft
0-62mph 8.1 seconds
Top speed 130mph
Fuel economy 68.9mpg