It's a quieter, smoother and more comfortable ride in the new version of the Mazda 3 – and the fun has come back into driving

There's a lot going on at the front of this new Mazda. Slats, mesh, vents, swoops, edges – all are here. Remember how, in the 1990s, all cars seemed to have the same face, an apologetically smiling air-intake slot flanked by headlights which couldn't decide if they were rectangular, trapezoidal or ovoid? Mazda was one of the worst offenders. Not now, though.

The Mazda 3 – I can't bring myself to write Mazda3, as its maker would wish – has been around since 2003, so it has lasted two years longer than the Japanese norm before getting its facelift. It made much use of engineering expertise from elsewhere in the Ford empire, of which Mazda was then a more significant part than it is now. For example, its underpinnings were broadly those of the second-generation Ford Focus, whose launch it pre-dated, so it was always going to be pretty good to drive.

The first Focus had, in its body styling, "a lot of surface entertainment", according to Chris Bird, the stylist of the much duller second one. Well, that entertainment seemingly migrated to the first Mazda 3 instead, a car which bordered on the overstyled. But even it looked meek next to the latest one, whose nose is a visual onslaught of most of Mazda's recent motor-show concept cars' louvre-heavy design themes. The rest of the new car, which goes for about £15,500, seems little changed in shape, but in fact nearly every exterior panel is new. As is the interior. Mainstream Mazdas have always seemed good value next to European opposition, but in the Mazda 3 as conceived it showed in the cheap, hard cabin plastics which translucent knobs and a futuristic array of moving lights, activated as certain controls were operated, didn't quite disguise. This time there's less disguising to do because simple, gentle curves have replaced the former straight-edged brutality. The plastics look more expensive even if most are still hard, and the light show is raised to new levels of intrigue.

Opening the driver's door causes LEDs to illuminate the footwells and interior door handles. Simultaneously the instruments and the controls on the centre console light up and briefly grow brighter. If you then touch any control for the air-conditioning or the excellent, easy-to-use stereo, its background lighting again intensifies. Clever stuff.

Previously, more evidence of cost-cutting emerged as you drove the 3 over coarse or lumpy road surfaces. It's not that the ride was harsh – although it was quite taut as befitted Mazda's infernal "zoom-zoom" slogan – more that your ears were too often assaulted by road roar and thumps over bumps or, worse, as the wheels fell into depressions. This has been remedied, mainly by making the structure more rigid by means of glued joints and by strengthening the attachment points of steering and suspension. Dampers and rubber bushings are recalibrated, too.

The result is a car that rides smoothly and quietly yet has lost none of its eagerness and agility. Instead it's actually more fun to drive, because the steering feels more natural and it flows better through curves. This is a genuinely entertaining car to point along a challengingly twisty road. The Mazda 3 is right at the top of the class here.

Unfortunately, the engine plays but a minor role in this entertainment. One of the major thrusts of the new 3's marketing effort is a reduction in CO2 output, down from 162g/km to 149 in the case of the 1.6 TS2 model I tested, but this car's 105 bhp is unimpressive for the engine size and it doesn't deliver its outputs willingly. Fluent progress is hard to achieve at first, because the accelerator's response is mushy, the engine revs tend to "hang on" when you want to decelerate, the clutch take-up is indistinct and the gearchange is rubbery. At least the engine is quiet at speed.

Nevertheless, this will probably be the most popular engine. Others offered are a 2.0-litre, 150bhp petrol unit now with either a stop-start system (helping towards an impressive 159g/km CO2) or automatic transmission, and three diesels: a 110bhp 1.6 with 119g/km CO2, and a pair of hefty 2.2s with either 150 or 185bhp. As before, there's a four-door saloon as well as a five-door hatchback.

Lacklustre 1.6-litre petrol engine apart, this remake of the Mazda 3 is impressive for fixing nearly every one of the previous version's failings. And it still looks very good value next to European-badged offerings. Worth a serious look, I think.

THE RIVALS

Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec: £17,695. Consistently the best-handling car in the class, but Mazda matches most of the abilities and costs £2,000 less while holding its value better.

Hyundai i30 1.6 Premium: £15,200. Good-looking, high-quality car with lots of equipment. Comfortable, fun to drive, and the cause of many a European carmaker's headaches.

Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI SE: £16,520. Solid quality with design to match gives Golf an air of permanence. This one's downsized turbocharged engine is impressive.

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