Mazda has bold ambitions for the new 3. Ambitions made patently obvious by the choice of venue for the UK launch of its new VW Golf and Ford Focus rival; Silverstone. As makers of world-renowned sports cars such as the MX-5, and until recently the RX-8, Mazda wants to inject its mainstream models with some of the same driver-oriented “Zoom-Zoom” characteristics.
Track hot rod
Three laps of Silverstone’s International Circuit isn’t the longest to get to sample the car’s handling characteristics but it is clear that the new lightweight ‘Skyactiv-Chassis’ and ‘Skyactiv-Body’, first seen on the CX-5 and Mazda6, have had a positive influence.
Levels of grip are high, with a positive turn-in thanks to a lower gear ratio on the electric power steering, 14:1 versus 16.2:1 on the previous 3, inspiring real confidence at speed and allowing later braking and more speed to be carried into the apex. The car then hangs on well through the corner with a neutral chassis balance, understeer only making its presence felt under power towards the exit, and even when it does come it is predictable and nothing more than would be expected from any front-wheel-drive family hatchback.
High-tensile steel is used for the lower suspension arms on the front MacPherson struts and rear multi-link trailing arms which makes the suspension lighter, part of weight-saving measures throughout the car, and is designed to smooth load transfers and g-forces during rapid changes of direction. Despite this, body-roll is still a limiting factor when it comes to making swift progress although it never feels excessive or alarming, it simply acts as a reminder that what you’re driving is not a hardcore, track-focused sports car.
Carry too much speed into a corner and instead of simply ploughing straight on in a world of tyre-sqealing understeer, the rear end is brought into play in a subtle drift, allowing the driver to tuck the nose in and get on the power sooner. The new 3’s brakes are improved over the previous generation’s, providing solid stopping power, however a greater pedal feel would be welcome. Included in the braking system is i-ELOOP energy regeneration which collects and stores power in an advanced capacitor rather than a battery.
Power to the people
Power comes from a choice of three engines; the 148bhp, 280lb ft 2.2-litre Skyactiv-D diesel engine and 98bhp, 110 lb ft 1.5-litre and 118bhp, 154lb ft 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol engines. There is also a high-power version of the 2.0-litre petrol engine which produces 162bhp but the same 154lb ft torque. The 2.2-litre diesel and 2.0-litre petrol engines are available with either six-speed Skyactiv-MT manual or six-speed Skyactiv-Drive automatic gearboxes, while the 1.5-litre petrol engine is available with only the manual transmission. All engines are capable of around 50mpg, while the 2.2-litre diesel combined with six-speed manual gearbox is the most frugal, managing 72.4mpg.
The car we tested here was the 2.0-litre petrol engine with six-speed manual. Power delivery is strong and acceleration is good if unspectacular, reaching a top speed of 105mph at the end of the Hangar Straight. More exciting though, is the engine-note which provides great aural encouragement every time you get on the throttle. The gearbox takes clear inspiration from the MX-5, with a short and positive shift action that makes changing gear an enjoyable part of the driving experience rather than simply a means of making progress.
The Mazda3’s new interior is much improved over previous generations but still leaves a little to be desired against the competition from the likes of VW. The seats are supportive and comfortable but space is at a bit of a premium, not in terms of headroom as it’ll easily accommodate six-footers plus a helmet, but the dashboard, which Mazda describe as driver-focussed just came across as slightly cramped.
Equipment levels are good though, including Smart City Brake Support, which senses objects and can stop the car from 18mph, as standard as well as a surprisingly useful head-up display and an infotainment screen with dash-mounted controls, although even the Mazda employees were spotted trying to use it as a touchscreen on more than one occasion.
The exterior is much better though, providing a stylish and athletic look incorporating a low, long bonnet, high waistline and pronounced arches.
The new Mazda3 is now a genuine choice for those looking for a more stylish and driver focused alternative to segment leaders like the Golf and Focus. It wouldn’t be our first choice on a race track such as Silverstone, but it acquits itself well in such a baptism of fire, just as it does when enjoyed on more sedate roads.
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