The Mazda 3 is offered with a single 2.0-litre petrol engine in two different outputs – and unlike the motors you'll find in the majority of the 3's rivals, neither of them is turbocharged.
The 118bhp version of the 2.0-litre engine has enough power to make swift progress but you'll need to rev it hard to maintain it. However, the power delivery is progressive, and the engine doesn’t really labour unless the revs drop below about 1300rpm.
The 148bhp 2.2-litre turbodiesel is seriously impressive. It pulls hard from low revs but, unusually for a diesel, it's quite happy to rev right through its range – and offers pulling power impressively close to the redline. In fact, with this engine equipped, the 3 offer near hot-hatchback levels of performance.
The 103bhp 1.5 diesel is fine for everyday use, and actually feels reasonably peppy at low speeds, but it doesn’t rev as willingly as the 2.2 and it can feel a bit gutless if you want to accelerate from higher speeds. You’ll need to drop down a gear if you want to accelerate out of trouble on the motorway, for instance.
All cars get a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, and it's an impressive transmission, with a precise, short shift action. There's also a six-speed automatic that's available with the 2.0-litre petrol engine and both diesels; it does bring a hit in performance and CO2 emissions, though, and it can feel slow to react.
Mazda 3 ride comfort
The 3 has clearly been set up with comfort in mind – and that means that it rides pretty well on all surfaces. This is particularly true of versions with 16in alloy wheels; you'll be aware of bumps in the road but things never become crashy or uncomfortable, either at motorway speeds or on slower, pock-marked urban roads.
Move up to 18in alloys and the 3's ride does get busier, with more of the road surface imperfections being transmitted through to the cabin. Even so, it never becomes unbearably harsh; there's at least as much sophistication in the damping set-up here as you'll find on many of the 3's rivals.
Mazda 3 handling
Don't expect the 3 to match the VW Golf or Ford Focus for handling prowess, because it won't. That said, thanks to a new system which uses engine torque to put weight over the car's front wheels, it does feel eager to turn into corners - and you don't need to make any steering adjustments through them.
There's still some body roll, though, and you'll find yourself lurching around in the seat if you try to hurl the Mazda down a B-road.
The steering is perhaps even more frustrating; it's quite responsive around the straight ahead, but it doesn't weight up consistently as you turn in, making it difficult to judge what's going on at the front end.
Mazda 3 refinement
This is where the 3 falls short of the class benchmarks. The petrol engines aren't too noisy but you do need to work them harder than you would a small turbocharged motor, and they're certainly noticeable at those higher revs. The 2.2-litre diesel, meanwhile, is a constant companion regardless of how hard you're pushing; it never really settles down, even when it has warmed up. The 1.5 is quieter when it’s at a steady throttle, but is just as guttural-sounding when you accelerate.
The engine rumble is only part of the story, too, because the 3 suffers badly from wind noise on motorways and, in particular, tyre roar at anything beyond urban speeds.
The entry-level petrol engine has just 99bhp but it looks a bit gutless compared with the 2.0 – and doesn't offer a gain in fuel economy or CO2 emissions, since they're the same for both motors. No turbo means it needs to be worked very hard.
Our pick 2.0 120
This normally aspirated petrol motor doesn't have the low-down shove that you get in turbocharged rivals, but it revs freely and smoothly, and quietens down once you're up to speed. Impressive CO2 and fuel economy for a petrol, too.
While this engine has more power than the 120, it has the same torque figure so it's unlikely to be much quicker from A to B. It has considerably higher CO2 emissions, too, and is available with only the expensive Sport Nav trim level.
This super-efficient diesel model is a good choice for company car buyers, as it’s very cheap for company car tax, and is perfectly peppy enough to satisfy in normal real world use. Private buyers should look to the 2.2, though, as it’s much more potent for not much more cash, and will still deliver very good economy.
Diesel power brings useful levels of torque – enough for this to feel comfortably the fastest model in the line-up. Its CO2 emissions and economy are strong, too, although it's disappointing that it doesn't dip beneath 100g/km. The trade-off is refinement; the diesel rumble never disappears, even when the motor warms up.