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First Drive

Mazda3 review: UK test of stylish new hatchback

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Published: 29 May 2019
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Bit of a looker, eh?

We think so. The new Mazda3 has sharp proportions, a reverse-teardrop silhouette and a swoosh of a windowline. The metalwork catches the light through smooth, liquid surfacing that's shorn of almost all creasework. Its calm but athletic confidence is contrast to the attention-seeking visual noise of a Civic or Focus.

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OK but what's it like to drive?

Just as distinctive as it is to look at. Almost uniquely, Mazda doesn't think turbos are the answer to making petrol engines more economical. Not in the real world anyway, and sure enough we did score a handy early-40s mpg on a swift drive, thanks in part to the standard-fit mild hybrid system.

It's a sweet, rev-happy 2.0-litre engine. Its output is modest though – 120 horsepower - and the torque peak is at 4,000rpm, which means you really do have to get busy with downchanges if you want to depart a corner smartly, or take advantage of a nifty overtake. Never mind, the gearshift is beautifully precise.

Want a diesel? There's one of those too, and it's free-revving for its kind and only slightly less powerful than the petrol.

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Quick steering confirms that this is indeed a product of the MX-5 people. Actually the wheel doesn't send you much detail about tyre grip, so you've just got to take that on trust initially. Then push on and feel the chassis loading up both ends of the car so you can trim the line tidily. Mazda has a system that pinches individual wheel brakes instantaneously to control understeer and diagonal pitch (Nissan does something similar). For a family hatch with apparently little sporty ambition, it's very composed and a bit of a hoot.

But not that quick?

Er, no. If you want that, wait for the rather revolutionary compression-ignition supercharged petrol engine that's coming along later this year. Called Skyactiv-X, it sounds hugely promising. Mazda is claiming eyebrow-raising fuel savings.

Meanwhile, what's the 3 like to be in?

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Cabin ambience is round-about class-topping. It's a calm, contemplative design, distinctive but fuss-free. The dash and doors are well-trimmed, and set into them is neatly turned-out switchgear and instruments. The screen system works as you'd hope.

The seat addresses the pedals and wheel in a friendly fashion, but the backrest is too narrow for my shoulders.

All-in then, these are classy and distinctive surroundings for the driver. A worthy reflection of the ambitions of the outside.

Well done – you avoided using the usual cliches about five-door coupe…

Why thank you. But you in turn raise a valid point. The 3 isn't exactly palatial in the back. While legroom is more-or-less OK, headroom is a bit tight. Most of all it feels dark and airless back there, the big pillars and high waistline constraining visibility.

Sounds like a slightly selfish 'family' hatch then.

You could say. Driver-centric certainly. And the thing is, when the driver isn't spinning the engine round the dial, something else becomes prominent. The ride. It's really quite firm and busy. Probably too much so for a car of this performance.

Might be worth waiting for the Skyactiv-X engine. Then the up-for-it suspension will have the right sort of power to sink its teeth into.

7/10

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