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Mazda 3 review

Auto Express logo Auto Express 13/08/2019 James Howe
a red toy car on the road: Mazda 3 - front © Otis Clay Mazda 3 - front

The Mazda 3 looks fantastic, drives brilliantly and rides well, but some rivals are better all-rounders.

The new Mazda 3 is a brilliant car and among the most desirable family hatchbacks you can buy. This is a car that you’ll never tire of driving, and it’s executed in a package that’s of immense quality for the money.

Granted, it’s not the most practical option, and while the new SkyActiv-X petrol engine employs groundbreaking technology, you’ll struggle to detect it at work.

But, if you can live with the minor downsides this will be a rewarding and exciting family car to live with. 

The Mazda 3 is one of the best-looking family cars on sale; its aggressively sporty styling isn’t too far removed from the Kai concept car that first appeared at the 2017 Toyko Motor Show.

As with other modern Mazda products like the CX-5 and MX-5, the 3 has been designed to look fast and powerful even at a standstill – the result is a family car that looks far sportier than its competition.

It’s a handsome car that looks decidedly up-market.

The Mazda 3 also sets itself apart by feeling more driver-focused than its rivals; its chassis has been developed with an engaging drive in mind, while the car’s interior is built around the driver’s needs, with great ergonomics and a fantastic driving position. 

a close up of a car: Mazda 3 - dash © Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Mazda 3 - dash

The 3 has a classy feel inside, with simple lines and a deliberate lack of buttons. The dashboard has a wrap-around feel and is topped with an infotainment screen that’s controlled by a rotary dial behind the gear lever.

Simple heater controls fall easily to hand, while the analogue dials are refreshingly simple. Build quality is great and the materials used are top-notch, especially on higher-spec models – there’s very little to complain about inside the 3’s cabin. 

There’s no real options list as such, rather a collection of well-judged trim levels that each come with a good level of equipment. Even entry-level SE-L models get automatic LED headlights, rear parking sensors, 16-inch alloys and radar cruise control.

The 3 feels just as well-built as a Volkswagen Golf and is arguably more interesting to both look at and sit in. It may not have the same scope for personalisation, but Mazda’s more simplistic approach is welcome in this class. 

Gallery: Mazda 3 SkyActiv-X 2019 review (Wheels Magazine)


Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment

The Mazda’s 8.8-inch infotainment is a massive improvement over the previous model’s. The screen is sharp and the graphics are excellent; modern and classy-looking, yet intuitive and easy to use.

That’s because the brand has opted for a rotary-dial control on the centre console rather than a touchscreen, so it’s more natural to use while driving than either of the rival systems.

It’s fitted with satellite navigation as standard, but you also have Android Auto and Apple CarPlay if you would rather use your smartphone’s mapping.

The system works well, and although it’s a bit more cumbersome than the touchscreen versions found in rivals like the Volkswagen Golf, it’s an easier set-up to use on the move.

There’s a digital dial display of sorts, plus slick-looking traditional dials at either side. It’s standard kit, but isn’t as feature-rich as the VW’s optional Active Info display. 

Mazda has carved a reputation for delivering family cars with a thrilling edge, and while the Mazda 3 lacks a true performance variant, it lives up to its reputation by feeling solid from behind the wheel. 

That’s apparent the moment you take a seat inside. The driving position is excellent and the ergonomics of the controls are perfect.

The wheel is well sized and the rim is thin; ideal for exploiting the Mazda 3’s tidy handling and steering. There’s little in the way of feedback, but few mainstream cars supply this these days.

At least the 3’s steering rack is weighted well and the speed of the steering motor is spot on, too, resisting the urge to re-centre too quickly like on a Ford Focus, but being snappier than a Golf in this regard. 

The six-speed manual gearbox is simply the best in class. The throw is short, while the action is tactile and mechanical feeling - it’s an absolute joy to use.

The six-speed automatic isn’t quite as strong as other auto options out there. Mazda still uses a torque converter compared to the faster dual-clutch transmissions that have become popular in the segment – and even with wheel mounted paddles it’s just a shade too slow and unresponsive. 

a car driving on a road: Mazda 3 - rear © Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Mazda 3 - rear

The 3 is responsive on turn-in, and by family car standards it’s extremely composed. A lot of that can be put down to standard G-Vectoring technology, which detects wheel lock and reduces engine torque as necessary, shifting weight onto the front axle and pushing the nose of the car into the tarmac. It doesn’t corner totally flat – there is a little body roll – but it’s communicative, and you’ll quickly learn the limits of the car’s grip. 

However, perhaps more impressive is how the Mazda 3 manages to be fun to drive while retaining excellent ride quality.

The firm’s engineers have struck a sweet spot between forgiving springing and damping and body control, and while a Golf is still the most comfortable family hatchback on sale, the Mazda manages its priorities better than the Ford Focus, by being just as fun from behind the wheel while riding better in the process.

Engines, 0-60 acceleration and top speed

In contrast to its many rivals the Mazda 3 totally forgoes any turbocharged engine options.

Instead, both the basic petrol and diesel options are naturally aspirated (the 2.0-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv-G does come with 24v mild hybrid assistance) while the new SkyActiv-X petrol uses a supercharger, as it’s an essential element of the all-new spark controlled compression ignition technology this 2.0-litre petrol engine debuts. 

Starting with the basic 2.0-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv-G engine, power stands at 120bhp with peak torque of 213Nm delivered at 4,000rpm.

Mazda claims 10.4 seconds from 0-62mph for manual cars, with automatic versions taking 10.8 seconds. Top speed stands at 122mph.

Figures like these won’t trouble any of the torquier alternatives on the market, but in practice we’ve found the SkyActiv-G adds up to be a little more than the sum of its parts.

On test against more powerful, turbo versions of the Golf (1.5 TSI 130) and Focus (1.0 EcoBoost 125), we clocked faster 0-60mph times, with the off-the-line pace boosted by the Mazda’s mild-hybrid system. 

However, in-gear acceleration lags behind, and the small amount of torque on offer exposes the 120bhp 2.0-litre petrol as a hampered overtaker. It is refined though, remaining hushed right through the rev band. In sixth at motorway speed it’s very quiet, pairing off nicely with the Mazda’s controlled wind noise and decent ride. 

The 1.8-litre four-cylinder diesel is a straightforward affair, developing 114bhp and 270Nm torque. Typically, some refinement is lost by virtue of the engine’s noisier combustion, and while the manual version matches the performance of the 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G petrol, the automatic dips significantly, taking 12.1 seconds to hit 62mph. 

In any case, the SkyActiv-X petrol is the engine to go for, developing 178bhp and 224Nm of torque. This 2.0-litre supercharged four-cylinder engine also uses mild-hybrid assistance mated with clever spark controlled compression ignition technology – a production vehicle world first.

Mazda claims 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds and a top speed of 134mph for the manual variant, with the benchmark dash taking 8.5 seconds for automatic versions. 

Start the car and it idles like a petrol, but as the engine reaches mid-revs it begins to mimic the sound of a diesel. Keep it going up towards the 6,500rpm redline and the noise turns back to that of a conventional petrol engine.

It’s not quite as refined as the SkyActiv-G engine, but it’s a much better performer and more than enough for day to day motoring.

It’s great to finally have a little bit of performance to go hand in hand with the excellent chassis, too, making it our pick of the line-up.

We recorded a figure of 41.4mpg over 464 miles in the SkyActiv-G-engined manual Mazda 3 used in our most recent road test, which is a number very faithful to the 45.6-44.8mpg figure claimed by the manufacturer.

It’s an impressive figure for a naturally aspirated engine, assisted not just by the standard mild-hybrid underpinnings but also by the long sixth gear.

At a motorway cruise, the drivetrain isn’t at all stressed, which helps return those favourable numbers.

The SkyActiv-X petrol engine serves up the best combination of efficiency and performance, with Mazda claiming up to 51.4mpg in the front-wheel-drive manual specification car we’d recommend. In the real world, it’s little more economical than the SkyActiv-G, but it is a far better performer without any real trade off in fuel economy. Even the all-wheel-drive version is said to return a respectable 47.1mpg. 

The 1.8-litre SkyActiv-D diesel engine remains out front as the most frugal option of the bunch, capable of up to 56.5mpg in manual guise. 

Opt for an automatic Mazda 3 and naturally fuel economy takes a slight hit across all engine types. Economy drops to 43.5mpg (best case scenario) for the automatic SkyActiv-G model, and 45.6mpg for the front-wheel-drive SkyActiv-X. All-wheel-drive buyers can expect 42.8mpg, and automatic diesel buyers will see around 50.4mpg should Mazda’s figures be truthful. 

All SkyActiv-G versions of the Mazda 3 produce between 117-128g/km of CO2, and due to the mild-hybrid system, it commands an annual VED rating of £135 (after a year one payment of £170).

Benefit in Kind rates for business buyers range from 27 to 29 per cent – on the money for this sort of car.

The SkyActiv-X Mazda 3 is also a mild-hybrid, commanding the same £135 annual rate after year one.

It’s easily the most tax friendly model both for private and fleet buyers, thanks to benefit in kind rates ranging from 24 to 29 per cent. 

a car parked on the side of a road: Mazda 3 - front cornering © Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Mazda 3 - front cornering

Manual diesel models emit between 107-109g/km, and with the diesel surchage, Benefit in kind rates rise up to 33 per cent depending on specification and equipment, so fleet buyers need to work out if the tax they’ll pay will outweigh any potential fuel savings.

Insurance groups

The Mazda 3 occupies insurance groups 15, 16 and 17, with SE-L and GT Sport Tech models bookending the top and bottom of the range.

This is more or less in-line with most rivals, although the broader engine ranges offered by the likes of SEAT and Volkswagen see their family offerings break into the 20s.

Depreciation

Our experts predict that the Mazda 3 will retain around 42 to 46 per cent of its value after three years and 36,000 miles. By contrast, the ever-popular Volkswagen Golf can’t quite match the Mazda in this area – its 36 to 44 per cent range isn’t quite as strong, which is interesting given that car’s punchy list prices. 

As is so often the case with swoopier car designs, the Mazda 3 can’t quite match its rivals in the practicality department.

Its low roofline encroaches slightly on rear passenger space and the boot is not the largest, while small rear windows make the cabin feel a little dark and limit rearward visibility.

Interior storage is good, with a large cubby ahead of the gear lever proving particularly useful.

Elsewhere, the great driving position is set low in the car and can be adjusted to feel almost sports-car-like. There is lots of steering wheel adjustment, too. The seats themselves are great, offering plenty of support and comfort over longer journeys. 

a close up of a car: Mazda 3 - rear seats © Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Mazda 3 - rear seats

Those looking for a more practical Mazda 3 may be tempted by the saloon variant – a car that exists in a niche market that’s shared with cars like the Audi A3 Saloon and Mercedes A-Class Saloon. It offers a larger boot, albeit without the flexibility of a hatchback.

The Mazda 3 isn’t the best choice in this class if outright practicality is your priority – Skoda has that covered with its Scala and Octavia hatchbacks. However, the Mazda will still offer enough space for most, all the while offering a much sportier take on the traditional family hatchback recipe.

Size

The Mazda 3 measures in at 4,460mm long, 1,795mm wide (or 2,028mm with mirrors) and 1,435mm tall. It’s around 200mm longer than a Volkswagen Golf, and slightly lower, too, helping it look and feel more sporty.

That extra length seemingly accounts for the Mazda 3’s longer bonnet, as rear seat and boot space are not especially impressive.

Leg room, head room & passenger space

The Mazda 3’s rear seats are spacious enough; there’s more legroom than you’ll find in a Ford Focus, but not quite as much as in the class-leading Volkswagen Golf.

There’s enough headroom for six-footers in the rear but entry and egress is made difficult by a low cant rail and small rear doors – something that could prove problematic for owners with small children.

Kids might struggle to see out of the small rear windows, inevitably contributing to motion sickness.

Boot

There is 351 litres of boot space in the back of the 3 – less than you’ll find in the Volkswagen Golf or Ford Focus. The space itself is well-shaped, however, with a usefully wide opening, but there’s a high lip to lift items over, with a drop on the other side to the low boot floor. The rear bench folds with a 60/40 split to reveal extra storage space, with no real lip between boot floor and seat back.

Towing

All Mazda 3 models are rated to tow a braked trailer of up to 1300kg; no unbraked figures are quoted. 

The Mazda 3 was crash tested by Euro NCAP and was duly awarded a full five-star rating, with an impressive 98 per cent score for adult occupants and 87 per cent for child occupants. This puts it amongst the very safest family cars on sale.

Standard safety kit is generous: all models get nine airbags, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, hill-start assist, intelligent speed assist, lane-keep assist with lane departure warning and a driver attention alert system. There’s also an emergency calling system than can automatically alert the emergency services in the event of an accident.  

a car parked on a dirt road: Mazda 3 - rear static © Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Mazda 3 - rear static

The latest Mazda 3 is too new to have featured in our 2019 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey, but it’s safe to assume that the new car shouldn’t cause buyers too much trouble.

Mazda itself finished in a strong fourth place out of 30 manufacturers; build quality, driving experience and servicing costs were all praised, while 16.3 per cent of owners reported experiencing an issue with their car.

Warranty

All new Mazda models are covered by a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty. An unlimited-mileage paint and surface corrosion warranty applies over the same period regardless of mileage; a 12-year anti-perforation warranty is also included.

Mazda’s warranty matches that offered by most of its mainstream rivals, including Ford, Nissan and Peugeot – but it’s not as comprehensive as Toyota’s five-year, 100,000-mile coverage. Vauxhall, meanwhile, provides three years of coverage with no mileage limit in the first year.

Servicing

Mazda offers fixed-price servicing plans to help spread the cost of maintenance for up to three years. The Mazda 3’s service intervals are every 12,500 miles or 12 months, whichever comes first. Mazda states that these intervals may reduce depending on driving style and conditions.

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