Model: Mazda 3 1.6;
Price: from approx £11,500. On sale January;
Engine: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 105bhp at 6,000rpm;
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive;
Performance: 113mph, 0-60 in 10.7sec, 39.2mpg official average, CO2 172g/km.
That tune is driving me up the wall. Zoom-zoom-zoom, zoom-zoom-zoom-zoom etc; catchy and grindingly banal. As an ad-line it has surely scored vast brand recognition, which is the idea. I have met the man whose idea it was, and he is pleased, thrilled even, at its success. But even he admits it is more than averagely irritating.
Those puerile word-sounds are more than just a marketing slogan, though. They are, we are told, right at the epicentre of Mazda's being, mantra and mission statement. Mazda's cars must be fun to drive, they must make you smile with the sheer buzz of making them go zoom-zoom, or vroom-vroom, or whatever. For a brand noted for the blandness of many past products, this is going to be some achievement. Just as well, then, that Mazda also has the semi-iconic MX-5 and the wackily left-field, rotary-engine RX-8 to call on for credibility. Their glamour is now intended to rub off on the car in which the profits lie: the new Mazda 3.
This is the third in Mazda's mainstream new-model offensive, the others having been the Mazda 6 (a Mondeo rival) and the Mazda 2 (a small-but-tall hatchback). This time the task is to appeal to someone who would buy a Ford Focus, but craves a notion of Japanese dependability and maybe some lively individuality.
What is on the surface and what lies beneath are very different things, of course, and as part of the Ford empire Mazda has made use of the platform that underpins the new Focus C-Max MPV and will do the same job for Volvo's new S40 and, yes, the next Ford Focus. As the current Focus has an above-average quota of zoom-zoom, the signs are good for the Mazda's conformity to its new brand values.
But do you think, looking at the hatchback before you, that maybe Mazda is trying a little too hard? The Mazda 6 is clean, sleek and handsome, but this one looks like a squashed Chrysler PT Cruiser from the front, especially if adorned with the ill-advised Sport body kit. And look at that rear side window with its reverse-slope trailing edge: it is the new hatchback cliché.
Now inside, we are confronted with what Mazda calls craftsmanship but is really just the neat, close-fitting assembly of some cheap-feeling plastics.
The cabin does have its moments, though. The textures, though hard to the touch, avoid the aesthetic bankruptcy of fake leathergrain; the three main dials have intersecting, metal-look rims like an Alfa 147's, and the centre stack contains a very neat built-in stereo with a central knob, sequentially flashing tuning lights and a pair of translucent heater control knobs below.
And the glovebox - one of several "intelligent storage solutions" that the Mazda "delivers" - is huge, even if the passenger compartment itself is not as roomy as the Mazda 3's surprising length (14ft 6in) suggests.
The underpinnings may be Ford-related but the engines, at least the first ones available, are Mazda's own. These are petrol engines; a 1.6-litre of 105bhp and a 2-litre of 150bhp. During 2004 a 1.4-litre, Ford-made engine will join the range, as will a pair of 1.6-litre turbodiesels which are part of a Ford/Peugeot-Citroën joint venture. A four-door saloon is also on the way, but there will be no three-door hatchback.
Both engines have a fair dose of zoom, with a quick, decisive response to the accelerator and rather more energetic pull from low speeds than many engines of today (emissions legislation plays havoc with "driveability").
Part of this punchiness is the result of unfashionably low gearing, which makes these Mazdas sound busy when cruising. Naturally the 2-litre engine is the livelier - it powers the Mazda 3 to 60mph in 8.8 seconds, against 10.7 - but the smaller unit spins more sweetly and feels keener than that figure suggests. The optional four-speed automatic, available only with the 1.6-litre, dulls the pace a lot and savages the fuel consumption, but its gearshifts are smooth enough and it does have a Tiptronic-like, push-pull manual selector.
It is on a twisty road that the Mazda 3 compromise works best. It feels much like a Ford Focus, which is a good thing; the steering is quick and crisp, the tyres grip hard, and you can interact with the Mazda in a way you cannot with, say, a stodgy Volkswagen Golf (although that should change with the imminent new model). The downside is the way you can hear the suspension's bumps and bangs, especially when dipping into holes in the road, and a constant roar of tyres.
This new Mazda is the spirited drive its maker claims and a far more memorable car than its dullard predecessor. But I sense a little too much has been sacrificed on the altar of zoom.
Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec: £12,500
Ageing and a little overstyled next to newer Fords, the Focus remains the class benchmark for driving pleasure. New one, with a higher-quality interior, is expected next year.
Renault Mégane 1.6 Authentique: £11,005
Current European Car of the Year has proved a huge success with its wacky, bustle-back styling and high-tech interior, but the shape compromises cabin space.
Corolla T2 1.6: £11,800
British-built, European-styled, Japanese-badged hatchback is well-made, reliable and pleasing to drive, if less incisive than the Mazda. A good all-rounder.Reuse content