– Decent power and economy
– Cabin trim and features
– Decent ride, great handling
– Highway noise
– Average rear space
– Multimedia learning curve
The Mazda 3 is a Japanese compact offering that’s been unfairly sidelined for the past decade, if only because not much was done to promote its virtues. It also used to be saddled with a wheezy engine and a cheap interior, none of which did it any favours. But this new one set out to change all that. And it did that very well.
First off, the 2015 Mazda 3 is truly all-new. The stiffer and lighter “SkyActiv” platform was designed in-house by Mazda and supposedly does not share it with the Ford Focus any more, although it mysteriously still has the same old wheelbase. The sedan looks a little tall in profile, but the details make it stand out. The sharp new styling has a front-end aggressive enough to make douchey luxury cars move out of its way on the fast lane.
Inside, the design and trim choices give off a very BMW-esque ambience, at least in the top-spec 2.0 sedan we tested. The black dash-top and front doors are soft-touch trimmed, looking sharp alongside the contrasting beige leatherette-padded door inserts and armrests that match the leatherette seats. The window-sills of the rear doors are hard plastic, but at least there’s padded armrests and inserts. All the buttons are concentrated on the steering wheel and around a rotary knob on the shifter console, leaving a clean button-free dash below the tacked-on multimedia touchscreen.
Space up front is great, with moderately-bolstered seats. In the rear, there’s good headroom and decent legroom, although by no means class-leading. The boot is of a good size, with a split-folding rear bench. Inside, there’s four cup-holders, door bottle-holders, seatback pockets and more.
There’s a solid amount of tech in the top-spec Mazda 3 sedan. The tablet-looking touchscreen is sharp and colourful, with a secondary rotary-dial below the shifter to use when driving. However, the icons on the screen are all unlabelled, so you’re basically guessing what each one does, and you have to look down at the audio and navigation “shortcut” buttons next to the dial to speed things up.
Aside from the 3D navigation and good stereo, there’s also a sunroof, Bluetooth, USB/AUX ports, auto bi-xenon headlights, fog lamps, smart keyless entry and start, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, a full set of airbags, rear camera and parking sensors, decent auto a/c without rear vents, rain-sensing wipers and, in a segment-first, a basic heads-up display that puts up the speed and other readings on a transparent plastic screen on top of the pretty gauge cluster.
While the base engine remains a wheezy 1.6-litre, the top-spec model gets a buzzy 2.0-litre 4-cylinder making 153 hp at 6000 rpm and 200 Nm of torque at 4000 rpm. Mated to a 6-speed automatic with paddle-shifters, it’s a responsive engine-gearbox combo, although you have to put a bit more effort to get the most out of it, as otherwise it likes to stay in the higher gears in the interests of fuel economy. It is spritely in first gear, feels very lethargic in second gear, and then offers decent passing power in third and fourth. We managed to get an ESP-off 0-100 kph time of 9.4 seconds in hot May weather, which is among the best in its class, helped by its reasonably-low 1315 kg curb weight. Even fuel economy is respectable at 8.8 litres/100 km during our occasionally-aggressive run.
The handling is also easily among the best in this segment. Body roll is limited in sharp corners, with no awkward rebounds, as the 215/45 tyres on 18-inch wheels grip rather well in most conditions. Clean understeer follows any overcooked corner, but it’s also easy to turn in tighter with the right braking inputs, more so than dull rivals such as the Hyundai Elantra and the Nissan Sentra. Only the Ford Focus or the Peugeot 308 may be able to keep up with it on the twisties.
The steering is direct and mildly weighted, but while there is noticeable feedback, the feel can be a bit uneven, depending on the road surface. Also, the brakes are decent and the pedal-feel is mildly firm, but it’s also uneven, depending on speed. Still, the Mazda 3’s electric power-steering and brakes are better than most in this segment. And it’s even got four-wheel-independent suspension, a rarity among its peers.
The suspension tuning is done well enough that they’ve also managed to keep the ride reasonably smooth. There are smoother rivals, but the slight firmness is a small price to pay for the top-class handling. The only niggling issues we noticed was the abundance of road and wind noise at highway speeds, and the mild sway we felt every time we crossed an untoward gust of wind or slipstream.
Barring the highway-cruising factor, the Mazda 3 is otherwise excellent in every possible way, as long as you have regular-sized friends and don’t intend to carry basketball players in the back seat. The 2.0 is a bit pricey, but for what’s on offer, it is competitively priced and rather entertaining to drive.
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