PRICE: from £16,695 (£21,125 as tested)
ENGINE CAPACITY: 2.0l 4-cyl petrol
POWER OUTPUT (PS @ RPM): 120 @ 6,000
TOP SPEED (mph): 121
FUEL ECONOMY (mpg): 55.4
CO2 EMISSIONS (g/km): 119
Mazda is having a bit of a moment, first with a funky new cross-over in the CX-5, then with a great saloon in the Mazda 6. And now there's the new Mazda 3. The latest challenger from Japan is up against some pretty stiff competition, though.
You see, it's a small family hatchback, which means going up against the all-powerful trio of the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra in a particularly competitive and lucrative chunk of the new-car market.
Mazda's engineers have totally redesigned the new 3, so this isn't a slightly tweaked version of the model it replaces; it's a totally new car. That means it gets some rather sexy, slinky lines, a selection of three new diesel and petrol engines, a premium-feeling cabin and a cheery front grille that actually looks like it's grinning. Underneath there's a new lightweight but stiff body structure, which means it handles well, is agile on the move but retains great ride comfort.
It's what Mazda calls a SkyActiv system, which works by grouping together improved engines, sleek design and lightweight chassis components to bring some pretty serious fuel-economy benefits. The idea being to take proven technologies such as the combustion engine, say, over electric motors and push them to their limit. There's life in the old combustion engine yet, then.
The result is an incredibly solid, well-constructed car that is frugal with low emissions and comfortable. I'd go so far as to say it's fun as well as affordable and practical. Not because it has buckets of power (it doesn't) but because its stiff underbelly makes it nimble and eager to dart responsively from corner to corner, while being just as happy to cruise along comfortably when you dial it down.
Until recently, if you'd asked which family hatchback you should spend £15k-£20k of your cash on, I would have – depending on how much of a brand snob you were – recommended a VW Golf or a Ford Focus. I'm not sure whether the Mazda 3 is actually objectively better than either of those cars, but after a week and 700 miles in one, I'm seriously considering revising that advice.