The Mazda 3 is a light, nimble and fun-to-drive family hatch that takes on the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Renault Megane. It looks fantastic, and is very economical, too, but not the most practical or refined car of its type.
The Auto Trader expert verdict:
If your head says you need a sensible, efficient and refined family car, but your heart wants something fun to drive that’ll turn a few heads, the Mazda 3 is an excellent choice. Most of the niggles we had with the old car have been put right, and only its slightly high list prices, and relatively small boot count against it. The 2.2-litre engine is a great performer, too. Well worth a look.
“If you want to avoid being another sheep in the herd, the striking Mazda 3 is a great alternative.”
Let’s face it, the usual offerings in this class – the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra – hardly set the world alight when it comes to their designs. That stems from being one in a long line of models that stretches back decades, but it’s also a result of what a common sight they are on UK roads. So, if you want to avoid being another sheep in the herd, the striking Mazda 3 is a great alternative. The latest model has been subtly tweaked for 2017, with a new grille, headlights, and bumper design, so it looks even sleeker and more dynamic than before. There is a sharp blade-like piece of chrome framing the swept back grille. The 2017 model also has larger foglight clusters, and LED headlights on the top-spec versions. The car also looks good in almost any spec, with entry-level models getting standard 16-inch alloy wheels. The SE-L Nav version has LED daytime running lights, while the Sport Nav models hold the most kerb appeal, with dual chrome exhausts, privacy glass, and 18-inch wheels. There are also (unusually) two body styles, a hatchback, and a compact saloon. Our pick looks-wise would be the more conventional five-door, but obviously this is subjective, and the fastback will be a much rarer sight.
Expert rating: 4/5
What's the interior like?
“The Mazda 3 scores well here, with an excellent driving position mounted low down in the car, and with plenty of scope to accommodate all shapes and sizes.”
The Mazda 3 scores well here, with an excellent driving position mounted low down in the car, and with plenty of scope to accommodate all shapes and sizes. It has a higher quality cabin than you might expect, too. The switchgear is pleasingly robust and easy to reach, the dash plastics are dense and squidgy, and all the main touch points feel solidly built. It’s not quite as plush as the VW Golf, but a big step up over the Renault Megane or Ford Focus. Every model comes with a 7.0-inch display that’s colourful, bright and easy to use via a combination of pressing the on-screen icons and a handy scroll wheel that sits on the centre console. The menu layouts take no time at all to learn, and DAB radio, Bluetooth, steering wheel controls and a CD player are all fitted as standard. In fact, the only black mark against the interior is with visibility: the front view is superb, but it’s a different story trying to reverse. The swooping design and small rear window mean big blind spots. Luckily, all but the SE model come with reversing sensors.
Expert rating: 4/5
How practical is it?
Purely in terms of capacity, the Mazda 3 stacks up fairly well. It might not have the Tardis-like luggage space of rivals such as the Skoda Octavia, but its 364-litre boot is bigger than those of many rivals. However, the boot shape makes it harder than it should be to utilise the space available. There’s a high lip to clear when dropping stuff down into the boot, the wheel arches intrude slightly into the load bay, and the seats don’t fold entirely flat. Also, there are no clever storage solutions for when you’re not stuffing the boot full to bursting. Passenger space is not a problem, though, with decent head- and leg-room for adults in the front and rear, regardless of the bodystyle you choose. Those travelling in the front will have lots of places to stow loose items, magazines and drinks, but in the back, a pair of small pockets for bottles and one magazine pouch is your lot – not ideal for longer trips.
Expert rating: 3/5
What's it like to drive?
“Another area the Mazda definitely manages to distinguish itself from a very competitive segment is the driving experience.”
Another area where the Mazda definitely manages to distinguish itself from other offerings in a very competitive segment is with the driving experience. It’s just that bit more nimble and responsive on a twisty road than your average family car, and as a result, it’s more likely to put a smile on your face if you are a keen driver. The steering is accurate and well weighted, and the suspension – which is slightly firmer than on the average hatchback – means tidy body control through tricky corners. That said, the tyres don’t provide as much grip as the nimble feel of the car deserves, so you’ll find your front wheels washing wide earlier than you’d expect. With more powerful versions, you’ll also find it easy to spin up the front wheels mid-corner if you aren’t super-careful with the throttle pedal, and that applies whether the road is wet or dry. The sporty suspension set-up means ride comfort is firm-but-acceptable with most versions, but you’ll find that Sport models – with their bigger wheels – will thump more over potholes and ridges.
Expert rating: 4/5
How powerful is it?
There are four different engines to choose from in the Mazda 3, two petrol and two diesel. Both petrols are 2.0-litre units, and unlike most of the cars in this class, they do without turbocharging. The 118bhp model is nippy enough, but you need to wind it up to maintain your progress, and work the slick manual gearbox regularly. The 161bhp model is obviously stronger, and a better motorway performer, but both are smooth, relatively quiet and surprisingly economical (more on that below). The top-spec petrol is also available with an automatic gearbox, but unless you really need it, we’d recommend avoiding this transmission, as it’s slow to react, and has a penalty both in terms of CO2 and fuel consumption. On the diesel front, the star performer is the 2.2-litre model with 148bhp. It’s a unit that is shared with the CX-5 SUV and Mazda 6 saloon, and in a smaller car it feels really quick. It has a massive amount of mid-range shove, and like the petrol cars, it’s very refined. In fact, the only engine we would avoid is the 1.5-litre diesel with 103bhp. It’s just not as refined as the bigger model, and feels a bit gutless by comparison. The only drawback to having such hushed engines is that road- and wind-noise are more noticeable than you’d find in some of the 3’s hatchback rivals.
Expert rating: 3/5
How much will it cost me?
“The Mazda 3 is competitively priced – undercutting quite a few rivals – but both the Vauxhall Astra and Skoda Octavia are cheaper still.”
The Mazda 3 is competitively priced – undercutting quite a few rivals – but both the Vauxhall Astra and Skoda Octavia are cheaper still. One positive is that Mazda won’t charge you anything for choosing a different body style – the Fastback (well, saloon) and the Hatchback cost exactly the same. Even so, all the engines are economical given their relative power outputs, and efficient enough to keep your tax bills low. The 1.5-litre diesel might not be the strongest performer, but it is the cheapest to run, with sub-100g/km CO2 emissions that will make it an attractive choice for fleet buyers keen to keep their tax contributions low. The 2.2-litre is not far behind, though, with a figure of just 107g/km and an official fuel economy of over 70mpg in mixed use; seriously impressive stats. It does cost a fair bit more than the smaller diesel engine, and both petrols, but justifies its price tag with an excellent blend of performance and economy.
Expert rating: 4/5
How reliable is it?
Mazda has an excellent and deserved reputation for mechanical reliability, and for building cars that really last. The brand performs well in customer satisfaction surveys consistently as a result, and the previous version of the 3 was known for its durable engines and gearboxes. This model has been around long enough that you should have few worries about it going wrong, and the interior feels like one of the best Mazda has made in years, so hopefully the cabin will also stand the test of time. Mazda provides a three-year/60,000 mile warranty as standard: that’s quite a bit less than you get with the Hyundai i30 or Kia Cee’d, but it is about par for the course compared with most hatchbacks. The servicing intervals are also fairly regular, so your 3 will require yearly check-ups to change its oil and filters, and check the belts thoroughly.
Expert rating: 5/5
How safe is it?
“Every version of the Mazda 3 comes with a comprehensive roster of safety aids.”
Every version of the Mazda 3 comes with a comprehensive roster of safety aids. As standard you get six airbags, traction and stability controls, and a tyre pressure monitoring system. That kit helped it to a five star rating from crash testing body Euro NCAP. The SE-L Nav models and above also benefit from a ‘Smart City Brake Support’ system, which helps you to avoid minor shunts in town traffic. It uses a camera to anticipate and intervene if it senses a collision, braking for you if necessary. It’s perfect for stopping the kind of low-speed shunts that occur when you get distracted in the congested rush hour traffic, but it’s a shame you are unable to add it as an option to the SE version. Likewise, the Sport Nav model has an optional safety pack, which includes a colour head-up display, lane departure warning, and adaptive LED lights – which is great, but only available in conjunction with optional leather upholstery and only on the most expensive trim. Toyota and Nissan, by contrast, offer their safety technologies across the range.
Expert rating: 4/5
How much equipment do I get?
Trim levels are simple, with four to choose from: SE, SE Nav, SE-L Nav and Sport Nav. This simplicity makes it easy to pick the car you want, and also limits the amount of options you need to add; the price is the price, and you don’t need to go adding loads of kit after you choose your trim. The entry-level SE version gets essential kit including Bluetooth, manual air-con and 16-inch alloy wheels, as well as two USB sockets and a 7.0-inch touch-screen. No prizes for guessing what the SE Nav version adds to that roster. SE-L Nav trim brings dual-zone air-con, privacy glass, automatic lights and wipers, cruise control, reversing sensors, LED rear lights and front daytime running lights. Sport Nav adds 18-inch alloys, which fill the wheel arches far better, as well as a subtle body styling kit, adaptive front lighting, front parking sensors, silver interior trim, a head-up display and a premium sound system.
Expert rating: 4/5
“It’s impressively engineered and satisfying to drive, and should garner passing glimpses from drivers in the aforementioned cars.”
With family hatchbacks regularly topping sales charts, it’s a super-competitive market, dominated by the Golf, Focus and Astra. While the Mazda 3 might not storm to the top of the charts, we certainly think it’s good enough to compete. It’s impressively engineered and satisfying to drive, and should garner passing glimpses from drivers in the aforementioned cars.