New Mazda 3 driven

* Ford Focus rival tested * On sale this spring * Prices from £13,000...

New Mazda 3 driven

Car stylists are without doubt the goalkeepers of the motoring world because everyone notices when they make a mistake.

Well let you decide whether Mazda has scored an own goal with the mildly plumped-up looks of its new 3 small family car, but what's not in doubt are the improvements to its interior.

With a swish new look, featuring a rakish dashboard, classier-materials and bigger seats, comfort and quality has taken a decided turn for the better.

Behind the wheel

Thankfully, the driving position remains spot-on, with the steering wheel and pedals perfectly aligned, while a slightly longer gearstick means the gearshift feels even more precise than before.

There has also been more thorough approach to refinement. There's significantly less wind- and road noise entering the cabin, which means Mazda has addressed the previous models biggest flaw.

Look even deeper, and the use of high-tensile steel, additional bracing and increased welding means the body structure is stiffer than before and yet it's also lighter.

Lighter and stiffer is the perfect recipe for enhanced precision, and it shows. The 3 steers accurately, corners with minimal roll and flows over dips and crests without ever threatening to upset your breakfast.

It's all great for the driver, but things aren't quite so rosy for those travelling in the back. The centre rear seat is so narrow that even size zeros will struggle, plus legroom is on the tight side and the shallow windows mean things feel a little claustrophobic.

The boot isn't exactly huge but it'll easily carry a few bags of rubbish down to the recycling site, while flicking down the 60/40 split rear seat backs will enable you to dispose of that clapped-out washing machine, too.

Engine line-up

There are some new engines in the range, too, including a 2.2-litre diesel engine that's available with 148bhp or a rip-snorting 182bhp.

It's smooth and free revving, and even the lower-powered version delivers bags of power, so you can surf through the gears with minimal effort and make deceptively rapid progress.

A 2.0-litre petrol is available with a standard automatic gearbox, but, undoubtedly, the cheaper 1.6-litre cars will be the biggest sellers.

The most economical engine on offer is the 1.6-litre 89bhp diesel, which is capable of 62.7mpg on the combined cycle and with a CO2 output of just 119g/km, it slots into the 13% taxation band. We'd stick with the petrol, though, because the diesel is a bit on the noisy side.

The petrol 1.6 may lack the ultimate punch youll often need to change down a gear or two and work the accelerator hard to get past slower-moving traffic but it revs eagerly and is more than man enough for the job.

Mazda 3
Price: £13,000-£18,000
You'll like: Great all-rounder; better refinement
You won't Rear accommodation is rather tight