► Slick new 2019 Mazda 3 review
► We've driven the new hatch
► Still waiting for UK's Skyactiv-X 2.0-litre
The MX-5 being A Good Thing is all well and good, but it’s cars like the Mazda 3 that still actually shift units. While the brand’s SUVs have been booming, the 3 hatch has been another quiet sales success in Europe, hitting more than 6m sales from 2003 by the end of the third generation’s lifespan in 2018.
It ‘marks the beginning of a new generation of cars’ from Mazda, according to the new 3’s project manager, Kota Beppu, as inspired by the likes of the RX-Vision concept of 2015 and Vision Coupe from 2017. And, while the previous three generations of 3 have been an okay-ish alternative to that Focus, Golf or even Astra you ended up buying instead, the fourth-gen model wants to be more to you than a half-arsed afterthought.
Crikey, would you just look at it…
You can’t deny it’s a gorgeous looking thing – there hasn’t been such a stylish looking regular family hatch since the original Ford Focus or Alfa Romeo 147. Design Director, Jo Stenuit, says the hatch is ‘condensed and emotional’, with Beppu adding that the brand ‘wanted to create an exterior design that provokes longing’. All of the designer bumf aside, it’s certainly up there as a truly handsome car – much more attractive than the current Focus, Golf or A-Class. ‘Longing’ is only for the hardcore Mazda fans.
Inside, it’s a similar story. The cockpit very minimalist but properly screwed together - a welcome change from the glitzy and OTT (by contrast) screens, ambient lighting and tech overload of the likes of Merc’s hatch or tinny plastics of a Ford Focus. It’s clean in here and designed to be driver-focused. Unusually, Mazda has bucked the current trend for touchscreens, actually removing it, and adding buttons. There’s no widescreen digital instrument cluster – just a display mounted inside the central speedo; the dials to the sides are physical and manual. A head-up display is standard on all models in Europe, with Beppu adding ‘we want people to keep their eyes on the road as long as possible’.
Stenuit says the plan was to make sure that the 3 had no ‘unnnecessary design elements to distract.’ While that’s true, when your eyes drift, it’ll be to the crisp and easy-to-use infotainment system complete with a welcome rotary controller on the centre console, or the fact that gigantic list of standard equipment includes a huge amount assistance tech; adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, lane keep assist, Mazda’s G-Vectoring and intelligent speed assist are all standard across the UK range.
Still, your eyes are drifting, because some of it becomes inconsistently intrusive to the point of the (ahem) driver becoming aggressive at being mollycoddled so much. Since when was Mazda so involved in driver safety tech and not just allowing folk to drive its cars? Ah yes, when it needed to pass the latest EuroNCAP crash tests. Duh.
How does the new 2019 Mazda 3 drive?
Usually, the more manufacturers talk about handling dynamics the more sceptical we get, but on the road the Mazda 3 delivers.
Quite simply, the Mazda 3 drives beautifully. The technically minded might spot torsion beam rear suspension instead of the old car’s multi-link rear axle, but you’ll not notice it on the road. The ride comfort is perfectly judged, that achieved, too, with the sort of precise agility that’s become something of a Mazda signature.
What else? A stubby and satisfying manual gearbox, precise steering and genuinely relaxing refinement at speed. Handling-wise, it’s as fun to throw around as it is just to bask in how quiet it is on a motorway. Mazda’s work on refinement is clear when wringing the conventional 2.0-litre engine out as is required. It’s quiet. Elsewhere that work on NVH pays dividends: the cabin isolating noise beautifully, be it wind, or road - the latter doubly impressive on the difficult combed concrete and expansion jointed surfaces that make up a good proportion of America’s highway network, or the huge suspension bridges of the European launch location – Lisbon.
Our first taste was in a European-specification 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol, with a six-speed manual, but in the USA. Specifically, Los Angeles Crest Highway, a ribbon of tarmac that meanders up the mountainside, in a manner most unbecoming of US roads. It’s twisty, brilliantly so, and the Mazda 3 reveals its beautifully balanced chassis, fine steering weighting and feel and easy, crisp gearshift. Those traits weren’t lost in Lisbon either.
Mazda 3's petrol and diesel engines
Given it’ll be the bigger seller, we spent most of our time in the 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol engine. In the case of the 3, it has 120bhp, which has tech that comprises a 24V ‘M Hybrid’ system that uses an integrated starter motor for quick restarts and smooth start/stop activation, stretching the phrase ‘mild hybrid’ to similar limits like that of Suzuki’s Boosterjet SHVS kit.
It's perfectly fine around town, bumbling around quietly and minding its own business. It’s when you demand almost anything of it does it not comply. That stubby gearshift is key here; the flat power band demands to be revved out through long gearing, as the juiciest bit of the powerplant is reserved for those comfortable reaching the top shelf.
Even so, the sweetest bit isn’t all that sweet; the petrol feels gutless, sounds strained and just isn’t all that satisfying. And while some car fans may still hold a valiant candle out for brands like Mazda that still stoically build naturally-aspirated engines despite changing trends, those whom have been weaned onto small capacity, turbocharged (and more powerful) units from Ford, VW Group and PSA et al. will wonder how on earth Mazda has only managed to squeeze out 120bhp out of two whole litres – especially given the brand itself already sells a 2.0-litre with 181bhp in the updated MX-5 now.
It’s a little bit of a shame, then, that Mazda’s UK division only expects the diesel variant to make up less than 5% of total sales in Blighty, as it’s arguably the better car out of the two initially available. The engine itself is no more intrusive than the petrol while revving and there’s a useful bit of extra torque in the low-to-mid rev range, egging you on to use that satisfying stubby and snappy manual shifter much more. There’s a 25kg weight penalty over the petrol (1299kg kerb weight instead of 1274kg) but you don’t notice the difference getting out of one and into the other, and the diesel manages the 0-62mph sprint 0.1sec quicker than the petrol when both are equipped with a manual ‘box.
Wait for the Skyactiv-X...
It is coming. Indeed, the Mazda 3 will also feature an innovative new Skyactiv-X 2.0-litre petrol four-cylinder when it’s launched in the UK. It uses a new SPCCI Spark Controlled Compression Ignition, mixing diesel combustion technology with petrol to enable super lean burn yet improved performance. The benefits are plentiful, with economy some 20-30% greater than the standard 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G we’re driving here, yet with more power and torque. They’ll arrive at the end of the year, along with the Saloon.
Any practicality comments?
Rear seat space is far from accommodating; the huge C-pillar and low roof makes it difficult for adults to get comfortable. And while the 3’s striking looks are hugely appealing; the trade-off is pretty poor over the shoulder visibility.
The boot’s a bit stingy, too, indeed, it’s not much bigger than the loadbay of its Mazda 2 relation. In fact, there's 6 fewer litres of boot volume here than a Mini Clubman - a car usually lambasted for its naff boot space.
New Mazda 3: verdict
Less packhorse, then, and more race horse – at least it should be when it gets the engine it deserves. Even without it though the new Mazda 3 is an impressive newcomer in the busy family hatchback marketplace, depending, of course, on your priorities.
Instead, you can be confident that your choice of mainstream hatch is a jaw-dropping, great-handling tech fest. The entry-level price is much easier to swallow than if you’re planning on getting a Focus (in outright cash, at least) due to all of the kit but if you can, wait for the best engine – the one that’s still to come.
More Mazda reviews by CAR magazine