Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Without a turbocharger, the Mazda 3's entry-level 2.0 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. What does that mean in performance terms? Well, the Octavia 1.0 TSI 115 feels a little more flexible in the mid range, but the 3's engine still has enough shove that you're not constantly shifting gears to keep up with the traffic. In our tests, it proved quicker from a standing start than a 1.0-litre Kia Ceed or Skoda Scala – 0-60mph took a creditable 9.4sec.
In truth, however, we reckon most buyers would be better off with the 2.0-litre Skyactiv-X petrol engine. With 179bhp, compared with the relatively puny 120bhp of the 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G, it feels usefully stronger although it still lacks the low-down pulling power of turbocharged rivals. Impressively, it feels much the same as a regular petrol engine despite all the clever emission-reducing technology under the bonnet. Both engines offer the choice of a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox, depending on trim level.
Suspension and ride comfort
Ride comfort isn't one of the Mazda 3's strongest suits. It's set up quite firmly, you see, so it 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 Volkswagen Golf and Toyota Corolla are at the top of the tree, while the Skoda Scala also proves suppler 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 Kia 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 than more tenacious rivals that include the Ceed and Skoda Scala.
It finds less grip in the wet, though, and the extra traction of the four-wheel-drive model is fairly unnoticeable. The system also makes the car slower and negatively affects fuel economy and CO2 emissions, and, being available only with the most expensive trim level, is best avoided.
Meanwhile, 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 Ford 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 on ensuring that the 3 is one of the quietest cars in its class. Certainly, wind and road noise are well suppressed, only picking up slightly at motorway speeds, but the Volkswagen Golf is still a little more hushed at 70mph. Still, the 3 provides a quieter place to travel than the Skoda 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 Skyactiv-X is ever-so-slightly coarser than the Skyactiv-G when revved hard, sometimes there is a slight grittiness 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 to use, with a short throw and a satisfying mechanical clack into each gear. We haven’t sampled the automatic ’box yet, but it’s available with all engines and on all trims.