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Mazda 3 (2016) review

Published:21 October 2016

Mazda 3 (2016) review
  • At a glance
  • 5 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 3 out of 5

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, automotive design graduate, Radical champ

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, automotive design graduate, Radical champ

► Subtle updates for 2017 model year Mazda 3
► Improved interior, reduced lag in diesel versions
► Is the 3 a good option in the hatchback market? 

The Mazda 3 came out of nowhere to nick the spoils from Focus, Golf and 308 in CAR’s hatchback giant test back in 2014. Now it’s been given a booster shot of updates for 2017, we thought we’d better check in to see if the C-segment applecart remains upturned. 

So what’s new?

Not so much evolution over revolution as Spot the Difference, level: Expert. Changes include LED headlamps in place of the previous xenons, with a freshly frowny half-circle design that makes the 3 look a bit like it’s left a village fete with its face painted as a Golden Eagle.

An altered grille pulls the badge down among its redesigned strakes, the indicators now live in the door mirrors, and the bumpers have changed slightly. With a comparatively long bonnet, and pointed ellipses everywhere, it’s still a distinctive-looking car three years after launch – and to these eyes a handsome one.

Inside, it’s time to mourn the passing of another proper handbrake, killed off by an electric parking brake switch – which admittedly frees up space for XL cupholders, and a better-shaped cubby beneath the centre armrest. Essentially, the 3’s cabin has been given the same set of updates visited upon the recently smartened-up 6’s interior, with new switches, handles, trim inserts, a colour head-up display with traffic sign recognition and a heated steering wheel. Oh, and bigger door bins.

Meanwhile, the automatic emergency braking system gains pedestrian recognition and a wider range of operating speeds, and extra sound deadening’s been crammed into the transmission tunnel, headlining and bonnet. It works – on the move, the 3’s pleasantly hushed, whichever engine’s under the bonnet.

And those engines are?

As before, a choice of three: 2.0 petrol (with 118bhp or 163bhp), 1.5 diesel (103bhp) or a 2.2 diesel (148bhp).

Mazda still shuns the trend for downsized turbocharged petrol engines in favour of naturally aspirated ones with larger capacities that are nicer to drive – and we’re all for that. The 3’s 2.0 petrol is a bit short on torque but blessed with naturally zingy throttle response and clean, smooth journey to the redline. Every now and then you might wish it had a bit more shove but its flexible drivability is a fair tradeoff.

It’s claimed to emit a credible 119g/km of CO2, with the standard manual gearbox rather than the optional auto, and averages 55.4mpg. I’d wager it’s more likely to get close to the latter figure in the real world than most turbocharged engines, too.

Likewise, Mazda’s diesel options plough their own furrow, using lighter components – including aluminium blocks, rather than the more commonplace cast iron ones – and a comparatively low compression ratio (14.1 on the 2.2, 14.8:1 on the 1.5).

The 2.2 is a fantastic engine, feeling almost like a petrol thanks to its flexible, free-revving character, and it somehow doesn’t sound as rough as most dervs either. The 1.5d is far less muscular, and has a narrower power band, but it remains quiet and smooth. More to the point, it’s the only engine to dip below the 100g/km CO2 threshold, and benefits further from a claimed fuel consumption of 74.3mpg. You’ll pay the price for the 2.2’s extra athleticism, with 127g/km and 58.9mpg – but you’ll probably be enjoying yourself too much to care.

Anything else new?

‘G vectoring’, which sounds like some kind of advanced technology derived from fighter jets or dragsters, but is actually a more prosaic system that gently holds back the engine’s torque output in certain scenarios.

It’s not brake vectoring (à la Ford Fiesta/Focus ST) and it doesn’t vary the amount of torque split wheel to wheel – it just backs the torque off slightly, using existing sensors for steering and throttle input among others, to induce a bit of weight transfer toward the front tyres and settle the car on its springs. This helps keep the tyres evenly loaded in cornering, and also reduce a bit of pitch on rougher roads.

It’s very subtle in practice on the road, and you have to concentrate very hard to notice it at play, but the 3 certainly controlled its mass well on the fast, flowing roads of coastal Scotland we tested it on. Slight revisions to the front anti-roll bar and other similarly minimal suspension tweaks certainly haven’t done any harm to either the pliant ride or keen handling.

It does handle well, the Mazda 3. It’s one of the most nimble-feeling C-segment cars out there and feels like a car that’s been designed by people who care about driving. From the central rev counter to the floor-hinged throttle pedal, excellent brake feel and short-throw gearshift, it’s a much more tactile thing to drive than most family hatches.

How much?

Model for model, the updated Mazda 3 costs a couple of hundred pounds more than the pre-October 2016 cars it supersedes. Base SE petrol models start from £17,595 and you’ll pay £24,195 for a top Sport trim 2.2 diesel with an auto ’box. As before, there’s an identical saloon-shaped ‘Fastback’, priced identically to the hatch.

For context, Ford’s Focus stretches from £16,445 for a base 1.6 petrol to nearly £27k for a top-whack Titanium X 2.0 diesel with sat-nav; a 1.2 petrol VW Golf kicks off at around £17,600 and tops £27k for 2.0 TDI auto; the latest Astra starts at £15,915 for a 1.4 petrol but doesn’t stray much above £24k for a top trim 1.6 diesel with sat-nav (prices as of October 2016).

All Mazda 3 models get sat-nav as standard, but… Remember the days when factory-fit sat-navs were so bad you had to buy an aftermarket unit so that you didn’t have to suffer them? Those days live on in the Mazda 3, with a system that’s off the pace in terms of interface, graphics, and apparent intention to get you lost.

That said, the rest of the 3’s click-wheel controlled media system remains an excellent, intuitive setup.

Verdict

The Mazda 3 remains a quietly very good hatchback. It drives better than most, with some lovely engines, and has a likably different character.

Other than the driving dynamics and subjectively still-handsome styling, however, there’s not much to make the 3 stand out. It’s no more practical than most, its interior still feels cheap and it’s priced relatively stiffly against some very capable competition. By no means a class-leader it’s still well worth considering if you fancy a break from the hatchback norm. 

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Specs

Price when new: £19,695
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 1998cc 16v 4-cyl petrol, 118bhp @ 6000rpm, 155lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual (auto available), front-wheel drive
Performance: 8.9sec 0-62mph, 121mph, 55.4mpg, 119g/km CO2
Weight / material: 1351kg/steel
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4465/1795/1465mm

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  • Mazda 3 (2016) review
  • Mazda 3 (2016) review
  • Mazda 3 (2016) review

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, automotive design graduate, Radical champ

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