What is it?The Mazda 3 is one of our favourite small family hatchbacks, but with a wave of new rivals imminent or recently launched, Mazda has given it a timely mid-life makeover.
Youll need a trained eye to spot them, but there are several visual tweaks. The front-end and rear bumper have been subtly restyled, plus there are some new alloy wheel designs.
The tweaks haven't just sharpened up the car's looks, either. Theyve also improved aerodynamics, which helps efficiency. More on that later.
Whats it like to drive? As before, the 3 comes with a choice of three petrol engines and three diesels.
The entry-level 1.6 petrol has 104bhp and is available with either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic, while the 148bhp 2.0 and 256bhp 2.3 MPS come with six-speed manuals.
The diesels also get six-speed manuals; theres a 113bhp 1.6 and 2.2-litre units with either 148bhp or 183bhp.
Weve driven the one thats always been our favourite, and a favourite with buyers, the 1.6 diesel. Its just as good as before, providing strong acceleration and good flexibility.
True, it's not the quietest diesel engine around, sounding a little boomy at speed, but its still pretty smooth.
Good suppression of wind- and road noise make the 3 a decent cruiser, and the car's settled motorway ride also helps on that score.
Things feel a bit firmer at lower speeds, but the 3 stops well short of being uncomfortable.
It also handles very tidily, with solid body control and strong grip.
Mazda has fine-tuned the suspension to improve both the ride and handling characteristics of the car. If were honest, it feels barely any different, but thats no bad thing.
The steering has also been revised, but again, youll struggle to tell the difference. Its still too light at speed, and short on feel. It's the only real black mark against the 3s otherwise impressive dynamics.
Whats it like inside? Again, youll need a trained eye to spot the differences. The centre fascia is now finished in black rather than silver, and the information display and instrument panel are backlit in white rather than orange, making them slightly easier to read.
The dash is still a little overloaded with buttons, but most of the controls are logically laid out and easy to use.
You also get lots of adjustment for your driving position, decent all-round visibility and good (if not class-leading) space for passengers and luggage.
The car feels very solidly put together, too, so it should stand up well to the rigours of family life. However, while some of the materials have a nice, touchy-feely finish, others are hard and unappealing.
Should I buy one? The Mazda 3 has always been aggressively priced compared with other cars in the class, and that's still the case. Prices range between 14,995 for the 1.6 S and 23,395 for the MPS hot-hatch, while the diesel weve driven starts at 17,195 and rises to 19,945.
Every 3 comes with generous standard equipment. Entry-level S models have remote locking, electric front windows, air-conditioning, six airbags and stability control. TS trim adds climate control, alloy wheels and powered rear windows. TS2 brings Bluetooth, cruise control and automatic lights and wipers, while Sport trim adds a bodykit, privacy glass and a stereo upgrade.
The 3 is good value, then, and itll also be affordable to run. With the exception of the 1.6 automatic and the MPS, all versions are cleaner and more fuel efficient than before.
The 1.6 diesel, for example, has had its emissions cut from 117g/km to 115g/km, which is enough to drop it into the lowest possible company car tax bracket for diesels under next year's rules. Average economy of 65.7mpg isnt half bad, either.
So, the 3 is affordable to buy, affordable to run, well-equipped, well-made and good to drive. That makes it a pretty impressive package. If you have the money to spend, wed still recommend paying the extra for a Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf, but the 3 really is an excellent budget alternative.
What Car? says