What Car? says...
There’s plenty of quirkiness to be found in Japan: toilet seats that sing to you and sushi delivered by model trains, for example. Likewise, the Mazda 3 is a family car that does things a bit differently to rival models.
Firstly, there are its looks. Mazda has given this five-door hatchback some of the style of its stunning Kai concept car, with smoothly contoured surfaces and a sloped roofline that tails off neatly into its rear screen.
There’s also a Mazda 3 Saloon (which we’ve reviewed separately) that pitches the model line-up into executive territory. Both body shapes are a world away from the more angular designs of the Skoda Octavia and other family car rivals.
Styling isn’t the only area in which the Mazda 3 follows a different tack to the competition. Take a look at the engine line-up for proof. While the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf have moved towards smaller, turbocharged engines, the Mazda 3 sticks with an old-school naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol engine.
Don’t go thinking the entry-level motor – called the e-Skyactiv G – is archaic, though. It uses cylinder deactivation technology that is said to improve fuel economy and has a 24V mild-hybrid system to enhance performance a little.
Things get even more interesting when you look at Mazda’s innovative e-Skyactiv X compression-ignition petrol engine. It’s a clever design that burns petrol a bit like a diesel engine burns its fuel – and, as we know, you get great efficiency with a diesel.
Technology is one thing, but the Mazda 3 needs to be a seriously accomplished all-rounder if it’s to succeed against the best family cars. Read on to find out how it compares with its rivals, what the performance is like, how much it will cost to run and more. We'll also tell you which engine and trim combination is best.
If a Mazda 3 has piqued your interest – or you're in the market for any make and model of vehicle – make sure you check out the savings available through our free What Car? New Car Buying service. It has lots of the best new family car deals.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Without a turbocharger, the Mazda 3's entry-level 2.0 e-Skyactiv G petrol engine produces 120bhp. That's about the same as the 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engines you get in rivals like the Ford Focus and Skoda Octavia, but the Octavia feels a little more flexible in the mid range. The 3's engine still has enough shove to keep up with traffic, and in our tests it was quicker from a standing start than a 1.0-litre Kia Ceed or Skoda Scala – 0-60mph took a creditable 9.4sec.
With 183bhp and an 8.1sec 0-62mph time, the 2.0-litre e-Skyactiv X feels usefully stronger than the e-Skyactiv G, although it still lacks the pulling power of turbocharged rivals. It has emissions-reducing technology under the bonnet, although it doesn't cut them that much compared with the much cheaper e-Skyactiv G.
You get the choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox with either engine. Certain configurations bring penalties because plumping for the automatic makes the car slower and affects fuel economy and CO2 emissions.
Suspension and ride comfort
Ride comfort isn't one of the Mazda 3's strongest suits. It's set up quite firmly and doesn’t smother angry bumps around town nearly as well as the best-riding cars in the class. And which would they be, you might ask?
The Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Golf are at the top of the tree, while the Skoda Scala also proves more supple when the going gets rough. On the plus side, the 3 is well tied down, so you and your passengers won't be bouncing out of your seats along rolling country roads.
To make the best of the 3's ride, stick with the smallest 16in wheels (standard on SE-L and SE-L Lux) rather than the 18in wheels and low-profile tyres that come as standard on Sport Lux and above.
Does that firmer ride pay off when it comes to handling agility? Well, the Mazda 3 doesn't sway about as much as the Ceed when sweeping quickly through a left-right kink in the road, giving it a sense of nimbleness.
In the dry, it finds a decent amount of grip, although it will start running wide at the front quicker, especially in the wet, than more tenacious rivals including the Ceed, Focus, Scala and Seat Leon.
The steering has some initial vagueness that's noticeable when you're trying to keep the 3 straight on the motorway, plus a sluggishness at the start of turns. Once you're through that, it feels meaty and accurate enough, but nothing like as sweet and precise as the Focus's. Indeed, if good handling is your priority, the Focus rules the roost in this class.
Noise and vibration
Mazda says it worked hard to make the 3 one of the quietest cars in its class. Certainly, wind noise is well suppressed, only picking up slightly at motorway speeds, but the Golf is a little better at suppressing road noise at 70mph. Still, the 3 provides a quieter place to travel than the Octavia, in part because it has far less suspension noise.
The entry-level petrol engine is quieter around town than many of the 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol units used by the 3's rivals and settles into the background at a cruise. The e-Skyactiv X is ever-so-slightly coarser than the e-Skyactiv G when revved hard, sometimes there is a slight clatter that reminds you of a diesel. It's not bad, just not as quiet as the less powerful petrol.
If there’s one detail that Mazda’s engineers have paid attention to over the years, it’s ensuring that key controls, such as the clutch, accelerator and gearlever, have a consistent weight to them. The 3's manual gearbox is an absolute pleasure, with a short throw and a satisfying mechanical clack into each gear. The automatic isn’t as satisfying to use, and is reluctant to change down when you ask for a quick burst of acceleration.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Driving position and dashboard
Drivers of all shapes and sizes should have few issues getting comfortable behind the wheel of the Mazda 3. There's a good range of adjustment in the seat, and the steering wheel moves in and out as well as up and down by a good amount. We also think the perfectly positioned and wide central armrest is ideal.
The only issue is that adjustable lumbar support isn't available until you reach the top-end trims, which also add electric adjustment for the driver's seat into the mix. And without lumbar adjustment on the lesser trims, the lack of lower back support was an issue on longer trips for some of our testers.
The 3's uncluttered dashboard is easy to use, as are the physical buttons for all the frequently-used functions, including the climate controls. With familiarity, you can learn to use them by feel without having to glance away from the road; rivals that feature touch-sensitive buttons or hide such features in a touchscreen menu can be a lot more distracting.
Other neat features include the crisp, part-digital dials that are standard on all trims, supplemented by a head-up display. Between them, these put everything from your speed to the sat-nav directions where you can see them most easily.
Visibility, parking sensors and cameras
The Mazda 3 isn't the easiest car to see out of. Its front windscreen pillars are thicker than in the Skoda Scala while its thick rear pillars, shallow rear screen and angled-up rear window line conspire to make seeing out the back a bit of an issue.
Thankfully, there are features on hand to make life easier. Entry-level SE-L trim comes with rear parking sensors, while the next trim up (SE-L Lux) has front and rear parking sensors plus a high-definition rear-view camera to improve matters no end. The range-topping GT Sport Tech model adds a bird’s-eye-view camera.
Bright LED headlights are standard on all models, and they're upgraded to adaptive units if you opt for the swankier trims – Sport Lux and above.
Sat nav and infotainment
The Mazda 3’s infotainment system eschews the touchscreen interface that most of its rivals employ, on the grounds that this can be distracting to use while driving. We tend to agree with that, so it's nice to see that the centrally mounted 8.8in infotainment display is operated by an intuitive rotary controller and shortcut buttons mounted between the front seats.
It's standard across the range, and, compared against the touchscreens of the Ford Focus, Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf, the rotary controller makes it easier to scroll through lists and menus on the move, and the Mazda software is just as responsive and easy to navigate.
There's an impressive array of features, too. The entry-level model has a DAB radio, Bluetooth, sat-nav and smartphone mirroring (Apple CarPlay/Android Auto). The standard eight-speaker sound system is impressive enough, but higher spec models (from GT Sport upwards) get a more powerful 12-speaker Bose setup.
Only the Audi A3 has an interior betters the Mazda 3's in this class – and the A3 is pricier, so that's a credit to the Mazda. The interior feels solid and well put together, and it contains plenty of high-quality materials.
The dashboard combines dense, soft-touch plastic with attractive finishes and chrome trim highlights. You certainly won't feel short-changed compared with the Golf, and it's a big step up from cars like the Focus and Scala.
It's not just the immovable parts of the 3 that feel good. All the switches operate with a real slickness, including the infotainment system's rotary controller, which rotates with a satisfying click.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
Even tall adults will be spared any space issues in the front of the 3; there's plenty of leg and shoulder room, plus a generous amount of head room, thanks to seats that allow you to sit nice and low.
There's a good assortment of storage areas, too, including bottle holders in both doors, a rubber-coated non-slip area ahead of the gearlever and a reasonably deep glovebox that has enough room for the owner's manual and a small bottle. Oh yes, and a sizeable cubby under the front centre armrest.
This is an area of weakness for the Mazda 3. The best cars in the class, which include the Skoda Scala and Octavia, as well as the Ford Focus, allow six-footers space even if the front seats are slid well back. In the 3, anyone tall will find their knees are in close proximity to the front seat and head brushing the roof. It's tight for three adults across the rear bench, too.
Even if you’re smaller it's not great. The acutely upswept rear windows make it one of the more claustrophobic cars in this class, and even getting in and out through its comparatively small door apertures isn't as easy as it could be.
Seat folding and flexibility
There isn't much to talk about here. As with most rivals, the rear seatbacks can split 60/40 and they lie flat when folded down. However, you can’t access the release levers to lower the seatbacks without opening the side doors. Boot-mounted release levers, like those you can add to the Octavia, would be more convenient.
There’s no option of a fully folding front passenger seatback, either, for when you want to fit exceptionally long items on board. The passenger seat does feature height adjustment on all models, though.
Although it's not especially adaptable, the Mazda 3 isn't bad for boot space. The 3's boot is a usefully square shape that helps it accommodate a solid tally of six carry-on suitcases. That's one more than the Focus and Volkswagen Golf can manage, although the Scala will manage seven and the Octavia 11.
It's not the easiest luggage compartment to access, though. You're likely to find the 3's very high load lip an issue if you're lifting heavy items in and out, and loading aperture is relatively narrow. Unlike many of its rivals, the 3 doesn't offer a height-adjustable boot floor, either. The Mazda 3 Saloon offers more boot space, but at the expense of a smaller and more awkward boot opening.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Costs, insurance groups, MPG and CO2
The Mazda 3 is fairly keenly priced compared with, say, the VW Golf and Mercedes A-Class, but rivals such as the Skoda Octavia, Skoda Scala and Vauxhall Astra are cheaper still. The automatic gearbox is a pricey addition, while the e-Skyactiv X petrol engine is a bit costlier than the less powerful e-Skyactiv G. If you're a cash buyer, it's worth remembering that the 3 is predicted to resist depreciation better than the Octavia, Astra and Ford Focus. That makes its PCP finance and leasing rates lower.
On paper, the official fuel consumption is impressive for the class. Our preferred e-Skyactiv G manages high 40s, while the most efficient manual e-Skyactiv X returns a figure in the mid 50s, although this drops to 47.1mpg when fitted with an automatic gearbox.
The 3's CO2 emissions are fairly low, but overall they're not the best if you're a company car driver paying benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax. That's where the e-Skyactiv X comes in, with impressively low CO2 emissions for the manual version that beats the Seat Leon 1.5 150 and is a match with our preferred 1.5 150 TSI Octavia. It’s not quite as low as the less powerful 1.0 155 Ecoboost Focus, though.
Equipment, options and extras
Helping to justify the 3’s fairly high price, Mazda is relatively generous with standard equipment. We've mentioned in previous sections that you get a comprehensive infotainment system, parking aids and LED headlights on all models, and entry-level SE-L trim also has adaptive cruise control, power-folding door mirrors and air conditioning. If you can, we'd suggest aiming for SE-L Lux, though; it adds dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and heated front seats for a small premium.
Sport Lux adds more luxuries, including rear privacy glass, adaptive cruise control, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for the automatic gearbox. The 18in alloy wheels are also standard on this trim level and above.
Mazda reckons that the more expensive GT Sport and GT Sport Tech trim levels will be most popular with buyers, and to be fair, even these don't appear desperately expensive considering that their added equipment includes leather seat upholstery and a heated steering wheel.
Every new 3 comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, which is pretty standard for the class, although there’s nothing that compares with the seven-year cover you get with the Kia Ceed.
Safety and security
All versions of the Mazda 3 come packed with safety kit. As standard, you get automatic emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance and a system that alerts you to traffic crossing your path when reversing. On top of that, you get traffic sign recognition and an emergency call service (eCall).
Range-topping GT Sport Tech trim also gives you smart city braking, which automatically applies the brakes if it senses that you’re about to reverse into an obstacle, as well as a driver attention monitor, which issues a warning if your mind begins to wander from driving. It also brings front cross-traffic alert, a system that alerts you if you start to pull out in front of an unseen vehicle.
The 3 received the full five stars in its Euro NCAP safety tests, which you'd expect, but it scored particularly highly for adult occupant safety and well in the other areas. That puts it up at the top of the class in our book.
For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here
The latest Mazda 3 finished 15th out of 24 models in the family cars section of our 2021 What Car? Reliability Survey so it’s fairly reliable but there are quite a few more dependable options. Mazda itself has a good overall reliability record, finishing eighth out of the 30 manufacturers included in the brands section of the survey. Every Mazda 3 comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty. Read more here
The Mazda 3 is not available as a fully electric car or as a full or plug-in hybrid (PHEV) but its engines have mild-hybrid technology to improve performance and fuel economy. That means there’s a small battery and electric motor to assist the engine (you can’t run on electric power alone, though). Read more here
The 120bhp 2.0-litre e-Skyactiv G petrol engine is our pick of the Mazda 3 line-up because it’s significantly cheaper than the more powerful 2.0 e-Skyactiv X (183bhp). We recommend equipping it with a six-speed manual gearbox (it’s a little cheaper than the automatic) and choosing the SE-L Lux trim. Read more here
The Mazda 3 SE-L Lux gets dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and heated front seats, and we think it’s the best value trim. If you go for the more expensive Sport Lux, you get more luxuries, including rear privacy glass, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and 18in alloy wheels. Read more here
It’s fantastic. In fact, you won’t find many better infotainment systems. Every Mazda 3 gets an 8.8in screen that’s operated using an intuitive rotary controller and shortcut buttons mounted between the front seats. That’s a far simpler way to use the functions than with the fiddly and distracting touchscreens you get in many rival cars. Read more here
The Mazda 3 has 351 litres of boot capacity. By family car standards, that’s not a bad size, and it’s a useful square shape that allowed us to fit in six carry-on suitcases (one more than in the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf). If a large boot is important to you, the Skoda Scala and Skoda Octavia can take seven and 11 cases respectively. Read more here
|RRP price range||£23,945 - £33,190|
|Number of trims (see all)||5|
|Number of engines (see all)||2|
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)||petrol|
|MPG range across all versions||47.1 - 56.5|
|Available doors options||5|
|Warranty||3 years / 60000 miles|
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)||£1,326 / £2,039|
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)||£2,652 / £4,077|