It may be one of the smaller manufacturers but Mazda is a car brand that achieves more for each Pound spent than several of the rest put together and Iain Robertson tackles the Lowland roads of Scotland to put both petrol and diesel versions to the test.
With just 119bhp available from the 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine beneath the bonnet of the 1.4-tonne Mazda3, your performance expectations would not be high. Yet, this is no ordinary petrol engine. In fact, using technology that is broadly familiar, it is hooked-up to a mild hybrid system, which provides a practical bottom-end and through rev-range energy boost that obviates a need for a turbocharger and allows Mazda to prove its long-held theory that a larger capacity engine can provide smaller capacity benefits.
While the laboratory tests result in a stated Official Combined fuel economy rating of 45.6mpg (117g/km CO2), even extending the car’s performance envelope (0-60mph in 10.1s; 122mph) will seldom see a return of less than 40mpg and, having attained an excellent 58mpg by employing a few tactical frugality measures (light throttle depression, avoiding sudden acceleration and using the lie of the land), I can state categorically that there are few cars in the Mazda3’s class that are capable of better figures, all of which underscores the value of Mazda’s 2.0-litre petrol engineering.
To be frank, the 1.8-litre turbo-diesel alternative (113bhp, 56.5mpg, 107g/km CO2; 0-60mph in 10.0s;121mph) was only a little better in broad performance terms but lacked the smooth progression possible from the petrol unit, because the turbocharger only spools-up properly once the engine is exceeding 1,600rpm. The petrol-hybrid delivers from little more than idle speed. Again, I topped 70mpg in the diesel, when driven with care, but the petrol variant was most definitely my engine of choice.
The extra 21kgs of engine weight across the nose of the car make more of a dynamic difference than you might believe possible. The petrol car’s steering is lighter and the car also feels better balanced and wieldier, especially on some of South Scotland’s and the North Pennines’ more tortuous back-doubles. However, the differences are small on a car that is magnificently sprung and damped. Both versions can feel sportily firm but they iron out long amplitude bumps with a professional zeal, while retaining a few degrees of throttle-adjustability to their front-wheel drive chasses for those annoying small amplitude imperfections.
The Mazda3’s overall handling envelope is eminently engaging. Deliciously connected steering provides faithful feedback to the driver’s fingertips, as the car muscles sinuously across give-and-take surfaces, reacting with precision to driver input. Press-on and both cars reward the efforts expended, with fluency and near silent comfort. On the superbly quiet countryside roads around Moffat and into its surrounding hills, the 3 proved its capabilities with slick competence. Excellent grip helped the overall stability but, when pushed to its admittedly high limits, the car responded with skill enhancing confidence. I did not drive any automatic transmission models but the six-speed manual in either variant is positive and smooth in use.
The flipside of the new Mazda lies in its phenomenal styling. In a world dominated by CAD-CAM design technology, it is rare indeed to discover that Mazda still employs the services of its own clay modelling studio. In reality, there is no better way of checking out both form and functionality of a next generation model and Mazda has achieved that aim with its enticing new hatchback.
The ingenious use of convex and concave surfacing techniques can only ever be applied confidently by an artisan’s hands. Computers may provide decent renditions but they will always result in like-for-like dimensional representations, which is why most new cars can be mistaken for…most new cars. Mazda’s approach is significantly more ‘hands-on’ and the results are no less than uniquely and visually beautiful.
Yet, the design is imperfect…well, more impractical, than flawed visually. While an on-board 360-degree camera is available in some of the five trim levels (SE-L, SE-L Lux, Sport Lux, GT Sport and GT Sport Tech), it does not remove the over-the-right-shoulder blind spot that arises from a mix of narrow side glazing and chunky C-pillars. While it is an issue that will be obviated with the saloon variant of the car due later in the year and it is the only slight negative that I can perceive on the hatchback, arriving at an acute junction will create form-over-function visibility problems, which is unfortunate.
As to the rest of the car, from its aggressive but gorgeous front-end, along the reflective flanks, to the delightfully detailed rump, complete with multi-faceted tail-lamps, it is a stylish beauty. The interior is no less dramatic, with a strong centreline dominating the dashboard, within which are set the air-vents, a touch-screen and the main instrument pod, complete with stitched elements, soft-touch materials and compliant trim sections. It is a paragon of clarity and tactility of Audi proportions. In fact, it is of such high merchantable quality that it serves to underscore Mazda’s long-standing value-for-money subscript.
The wrap-around and bolstered seats are exceedingly comfortable and supportive up front and spacious for three-abreast in the rear, even though the narrow window-line can make the back seat feel slightly claustrophobic for some passengers. There is oodles of storage space within the cabin, with accommodating door pockets and oddments slots in the centre console. The driver’s seat and steering column also adjust through a wide range to enable a comfortable and safe driving position for the majority of users. Cloth trim is standard on the lower three trim levels, with leather available on both Sport versions. The boot is spacious enough for most requirements and split-folding rear seats almost treble the load capacity.
The forthcoming saloon model provides a modest response to the issues related to a safe view outwards from the driver’s seat, which is not reserved to right shoulder views but also those on the left. However, in terms of visual appeal, this new Mazda3 sets fresh standards not only in the mainstream sector but also in the classes above.