The Mazda 3 is very important to the Japanese manufacturer. Over 30% of the cars it sells are 3s and it’s shifted over 2 million of them since 2003. Now there’s a new one, with a stiffer chassis (albeit not a new one), new tech and much sharper looks. Can it compete with the new Golf, and Megane, not to mention the ever-present Focus and the forthcoming 2009 Vauxhall Astra? Read on for our Mazda 3 first drive to find out.
This new Mazda 3 looks like a very surprised, shrunken RX-8!
That is does. The slightly dowdy and dumpy look of the old car has been erased with a much sharper and smarter look. Elements like the triple-creased bonnet, bulging front wheelarches and character lines down the sides stand out, while there’s also Mazda’s new family face with that big five-point grille.
It looks good, though that big grille and black plastic bumper make it look like a pretty girl that’s smiling and bearing her braces. Some vertical rather than horizontal fog lights might have also made the 3 look more dynamic, and the rear lights look a little aftermarket. Still, it’s a good-looking car, and different enough from the old one to stand out – much better than the switch from old to new Mazda 6.
… You’ll find a dash inspired by the Mazda 6's, which means it’s clean and uncluttered, but can also come across as bare and barren. The Mazda 3s we drove were all pre-production cars, but the leather-wrapped wheel was lovely to hold and the general fit and finish was pretty good. Unfortunately for Mazda, its plastics just aren’t up to the standards of the latest Golf's.
The rest of the interior is also a mix. The seats are comfortable, with great side support, and the controls are easy and intuitive to use, with neat lighting touches that flash when you use the stereo or adjust the air-con. And you can spec cornering headlights, a blind-spot system and sat-nav if you wish.
But the sat-nav system can only be controlled by buttons on the steering wheel – Mazda engineers couldn’t answer whether there would be a separate controller for the passengers to use – and the dash that sweeps around the front passenger eats into their knee room nearest the transmission tunnel. The thick C-pillars also make it quite dark in the back, and while the seats fold flat, there’s still a high lip to lift loads over into the boot.
>> Click ‘Next’ to read the rest of CAR’s first drive review of the Mazda 3
What about one the road?
Mazda claims that its new 3 is sportier than ever before, thanks in part to a stiffening of the chassis and structural work that now joins the suspension towers together as if there were struts fitted. And the clever use of weight saving means the new Mazda 3 weighs almost the same as before.
It’s a decent drive. The ride is on the firm side, but controlled enough that it only jars and jolts on the very worst surfaces. There’s a little slack to the steering around the straight ahead and it’s also pretty light, but turn-in is precise and there’s loads of grip. And as with every Mazda the gearbox is among the best in the business; its short throw is easy to snick round the gate, and there’s a mechanical feel without it being notchy.
The engine line-up consists of 1.6-litre petrol and diesels, a 2.2-litre oil-burner in two states of tune, and a 2.0-litre petrol mated to an automatic. The 1.6 petrol should account for two-thirds of all Mazda 3s sold in Europe and it’s reasonably quiet and smooth, but the small diesel is punchier and a lot quieter than the big diesels. Plus it’ll do 62.7mpg (compared to the equivalent new Golf’s 57.6) and only produce 119g/km.
The new Mazda 3 is a good car. It steers nicely, has a great gearbox and decent engines, and it’s cheaper than the equivalent Volkswagen. But it doesn’t feel as richly luxurious or prestigious inside, the badge doesn’t have the cachet and many people will overlook it because of that. Definitely good – good enough to sneak four stars – but not great.