What’s hot: Great lines, on-road zest and classy interior.
What’s not: It looks bigger… like it’s encroaching on the 6.
X-FACTOR: It’s still got it: Mazda’s new 3 keeps its youthful appeal, but adds a bucket-load of refinement.
Vehicle style: Small hatch (and sedan)
Engine/trans: 2.0 SkyActiv petrol | 6spd manual (2.5 litre also available)
Power/torque: 114kW/200Nm (2.0 litre); 138kW/250Nm (2.5 litre).
Drive the new Mazda3 and you will immediately notice a few things. Like the tight cockpit feel; everything feels closer, more ‘square-on’ and focussed on the driver than in the previous model.
It also feels more solid and substantial, both for interior feel and in the settled way it engages with the road.
It’s like the 3 has grown up; that it’s a wholly more serious car.
But no question: this new Mazda3 is a car that young Aussies are going to like. And when it lands in showrooms early next year, the new model will continue the barnstorming ways of the first and second-gen models.
We drove it in Germany - in pre-production European spec - and have good things to report.
The up-spec Euro model we drove, aside from a new minor detail differences, largely matches the model we’ll see at the top of the range in Australia.
As for the entry and mid-spec models, we’ll have to wait to report on those.
But look around this interior and it’s clear that Mazda is intent on answering the quality challenge slapped down by the Golf and Audi A3.
It doesn’t have the same understatement or precise organisation of these interiors, but the look and feel everywhere is really smart.
Nowhere can you find a ‘hollow’ surface. The dashboard top feels deeply textured as do the door trims; and the interior chrome and brushed-metal highlights have a flawless solid feel.
The piano-black console, switchgear and controls also look and feel first class.
So, no skimping there.
In the model we drove, the leather seats were also as good as you’ll find among premium small cars.
And it’s surprisingly roomy; the cab-back style creates a nicely shaped cabin with an airy feel. It also has what must be among the best shoulder-room in the segment.
The head-up display (HUD), projected onto a small screen that rises from the instrument binnacle works well – it’s hard to overlook when driving – but it looks a bit of an afterthought design-wise.
It’s a feature currently not found in any of the Mazda’s price-point competitors.
Also among the new 3’s big-ticket items is a new-gen car connectivity system, MZD Connect. It can be accessed via a free smartphone app and provides access to over 40,000 cloud-based audio and information presets.
Through it you can access a range of services including internet radio, podcasts, audiobooks, Facebook and Twitter feeds.
ON THE ROAD
Just a few hundred kilometres at the wheel on German roads is not going to reveal all about the new 3’s handling and dynamics.
But, after our drive, a few things are clear. Slide behind the wheel and it feels more dynamic, solid and classier, compared to the old.
Snick it into gear, nose it onto the road, and you’ll also notice the sharper dynamics through the wheel.
It’s ‘firmer’, points more accurately, and is more alive than the old 3 (which could feel a little lifeless and coarse on rougher secondary roads).
The six-speed box is taut and the throw was slightly notchy in our tester. But it ‘centres’ really well in the gate – like a sporting box should – and can be slotted rapidly and accurately when being hustled through the cogs.
The SkyActiv 2.0 litre engine is well enough known to Aussie buyers not to need too much comment.
In the smallish 3, the 117kW and 200Nm of the Euro-spec engine we were piloting had no trouble moving things along (it has three more kiloWatts than Aussie-spec cars).
But we’ll also see the 2.5 litre SkyActiv in Australia – with a meatier 138kW and 250Nm.
The 2.0 litre though is lively away from the line, will happily howl its head off with a shoe-full of revs, and, with six-speeds under the shifter, is easily kept in the sweet spot.
We particularly like the way it hits its straps above 4000rpm. From 4000rpm-5500rpm, this nicely balanced 2.0 litre zings freely between gears.
If you're prepared to work the gears, there is ample power there to hustle things around a winding road, or if you have to get quickly out and around slow-moving traffic.
The exhaust note has also come in for attention. It’s now deeper and ‘growlier’ when working hard, and burbles on the overrun.
And it's quieter - much. The tyre noise that's apparent in the old 3 has been tamed and attenuated in the new.
But best of all, and the biggest change, is how ‘rock solid’ and refined the new 3 feels on the road. This where it has grown up most, and is the better for it.
There is a feel of firm elasticity from down below – it’s much more sophisticated than the outgoing 3 (itself not bad): firm, not hard, free of juddering but with a classy balance and a strong sense of the wheels tracking the contours of the road.
On the basis of our limited test, it’s one of the better suspension tunes in the small car segment.
We’d need to put it side-by-side with the Golf Mk VII to make the definitive call on which is better, but the Mazda is absolutely up there.
EUROPEAN DRIVE VERDICT
The Mazda3, Australia’s top selling car for the better part of the past four years, is now surrounded by a brace of vastly improved small cars.
To keep that lot at bay, Mazda Australia will have been hoping for something special with this new model.
And it’s been given it. The new Mazda3 has style in abundance, a sporting character and Euro-quality sophistication and refinement.
At the wheel it works. This is the best-driving commuter hatch ever to come from Japan.
The Australian love affair with the 3 looks set to continue.