8

The Mazda 3 hatchback is superbly refined and a more competitive package now previous faults are fixed

Find Used Mazda 3 2009-2012 review deals
Offers from our trusted partners on this car and its predecessors...
Used car deals
From £850
Sell your car
In partnership with
Powered by

The Mazda 3 lines up in a class that is arguably the most competitive of all, so being merely good can put you closer to the bottom than the top.

As a brand, Mazda does not come across with the kudos of Honda or Toyota, despite producing some cars that have all the right ingredients to merit admiration. Mazda MX-5 aside, maybe it’s a lack of memorable personalities in the brand’s history; maybe there have been too many dullard mainstream cars in the past. Whatever the reason, the Mazda 3 has not, in its career to date, resonated with people who actually like cars.

The Mazda 3 deserves to be a success

The hot Mazda 3 MPS version hardly helped by burying its impressive pace under a cloak of dynamic under-achievement. It was an opportunity missed. Now, though, the whole Mazda 3 range has been facelifted. It’s not a wholesale remake, as the Mazda 6 was, but a refinement: new interior, new outer panels with a dramatic nose, much detail honing under the skin and reduced CO2 outputs.

Mazda says that the 3 will be most popular in 1.6-litre petrol guise, closely followed by the 1.6-litre oil-burner.

Advertisement

DESIGN & STYLING

Mazda 3 xenon headlights

Mazda describes the 3 as an all-new car, which it isn’t. The inner structure, roof and rear quarters are carried over broadly unchanged, but the other skin panels have taken on an air of swoopy sculpture designed to make the car fit with more recent Mazdas.

The makeover was masterminded by Peter Birtwhistle at Mazda’s German styling studio and features a much larger front grille, whose myriad and complex louvres hint at Mazda concept cars from the latter stages of the past decade.

There’s no glossy lacquer around the tailgate aperture - a sign of cost-cutting. But you won’t find it on a BMW, either.

The front wings now follow the shape of the wheels and, aft of them, a wedgier waistline starts from lower down. A new ridge begins above the front of the sill and curves upwards in a hockey stick shape, helping to disguise the deep rear flanks, and the rear lights look more pointed. Like the headlights, they are somewhat over-designed. The contour of the front wings follows the wheels to evoke old-fashioned mudguards, a design feature first seen on the Mazda RX-7.

At the rear, the bumper protrudes well beyond the tailgate, making the Mazda 3 unusually long for its class. This rear spoiler helps towards an impressive Cd of 0.30.

The previous Mazda 3 had a gently rising waistline, but this one sports a very wedgy look. Nearly every skin panel has changed and there are some almost BMW-like concave/convex surface junctions.

Recent revisions to the car's exterior include a softer-looking front grille for added ‘sophistication’ and, at the rear, moving the bumper's light reflectors to its corners to accentuate the car’s proportions.

INTERIOR

Mazda 3 instrument cluster

The previous Mazda 3’s cabin had quite a technical look, with non-leathery textures for the (hard) plastics, some translucent knobs and plenty of sequentially flashing lights for the stereo controls. The new fascia is calmer and curvier, with a swathe of padded slush moulding ahead of the front passenger that continues behind the instrument cluster.

Beneath the hood that this forms is the same red-digit display as before – it contains stereo information and the settings selected by the round heater knobs far below – but there’s a new, small screen that can show trip computer information and, optionally, a sat-nav display. At centre stage, though, is a new-look stereo system with big, bold and simple knobs and buttons. It’s very easy to use, aided further by remote controls on the steering wheel, and it sounds excellent.

I didn’t hear a single beep or chime while driving this car. Either the operating logic is impeccable or there aren’t any

This interior is best encountered at night, not because its materials don’t stand scrutiny – they do, even if most of them are hard plastics chosen for their cheapness – but because it generates quite a light show. When you open the door, LEDs illuminate the footwells and interior door handles. The instruments and centre console controls also illuminate, then grow brighter. Thereafter, if you touch any stereo or air-con control, its background illumination intensifies.

As for space, rear room is adequate, with good foot space under the front seats, but a central passenger will have an uncomfortable ride because the rear seat and armrest are most definitely shaped for two. The backrests fold down to create a stepped load bay, and the boot itself is long, deep and high silled.

The front seats support their occupants well, with height and lumbar adjustment for the driver, who, if tall, might find the steering wheel too far away even on full rearward adjustment.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mazda 3 rear quarter

It’s hard to get excited about the way the Mazda 3 goes. The base 1.6 petrol engine idles quietly, it revs to 6600rpm before a soft limiter calls time, and its 104bhp hauls the Mazda to 60mph in 11.3sec – about the same as a 75bhp Vauxhall Astra 1.3 managed a quarter of a century ago.

Most annoyingly, the revs are very slow to drop when you throttle off (a crude way to reduce emissions). This and an ill-defined biting point for the clutch make fluid progress hard to achieve at first.

The Mazda 3 is one of a dwindling number of cars in which you don’t have to press the clutch pedal before it will start. That’s good news as far as wear is concerned

The engine does have an even spread of torque, though, so its pull from low speeds is consistent, if hardly vigorous. But you are left with the impression that you’re having to goad the engine into action rather than blipping it with shared enthusiasm.

Refinement was Mazda’s main goal with the most potent diesel 3, and the 2.2-litre unit fits into that programme nicely. Yes, it’s a diesel, and there is some clatter at start-up, but the engine is far from intrusive when you’re pushing on and it remains a relaxed cruiser at motorway speeds.

The performance of the hot MPS model can be described in one word: quick. Essentially, the turbocharged 2.3-litre, four-cylinder engine is the same as before, albeit updated to ensure it meets Euro 5 emissions requirements. That means 256bhp, so there’s considerable thrust. Torque feels limited in both first and second gears, but slot the MPS into third and you are hit by a swell of energy over 2500rpm. It fires you up the road before it tails off at 6000rpm.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mazda 3 cornering

Previously, there was an artificial, exaggerated feel to the 3’s eagerness in a corner, as though Mazda had to impose some form of distinct dynamic personality to stop it from feeling just like a Focus Mk2, the 3’s sister car. This new one is calmer, more measured and more satisfying.

There’s a light-footed, pointable feel to the way it handles a bend, with remarkable grip from the front tyres. So understeer is rarely on the agenda and the standard-fit traction and stability systems stay largely dormant on a dry road, even under major provocation.

The 3 is calmer, more measured and more satisfying than the previous car

You can trim the balance with the throttle, enough so to bring the Mazda alive, but suddenly lifting off provokes nothing more than a neat tucking in of the nose. It’s just right for a mainstream family hatch.

Precise, consistent steering adds to the impression of accuracy and fluency. Its weighting feels a touch artificial at speed, but this electro-hydraulic system has little of the glutinous resistance that spoils the all-electric systems of many of today’s cars, so it doesn’t fight fine movements.

The Mazda disguises its nose weight well, then, and this latest model’s ride quality helps in this respect, too. The old one used to thud heavily into road depressions, but the new one copes much better, smothering all but the worst shocks. The damping is very well judged and the reduction in road roar is remarkable. This new Mazda 3’s ride is now up with the best.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mazda 3 2009-2012

At £14,995, the base Mazda 3 S undercuts equivalent mainstream European-badged 1.6s, so it represents good value. A group 12 insurance rating should attract low premiums, too.

Its rated CO2 level of 147g/km is impressively low, and during moderate driving conditions around towns, B-roads and motorways, we averaged 36mpg, which is competitive compared with its rivals.

Mazda has a hard-earned reputation for build quality

The 1.6 petrol Mazda sits in tax band F. There is an automatic gearbox offered with the engine, but just four forward gears make progress strained, worsen mpg and CO2 figures by 7mpg and 29g/km, thus moving it from tax band F to I.

For the 1.6 diesel, CO2 drops to 115g/km and tax band C, but you'll need to produce an extra £2200 for the privilege. Other engines include the 175g/km 2.0-litre petrol (which drops to 159g/km with Mazda’s i-stop stop-start system equipped) and the 144g/km 2.2-litre diesel. As expected, the 3 MPS isn’t exactly cheap to run or insure (group 34).

If immediate cost is an issue, the £14,995 Mazda 3 is a solid investment, offering a simple but functional interior, positive on-road characteristics and handsome looks.

Mazdas have historically held their value well because they haven’t been sold in large numbers to fleets, but part of the company’s push towards lower CO2 levels has been to make the cars more fleet-friendly, with some knock-on effects to residuals.

VERDICT

4 star Mazda 3

You might expect this car to be forgettable, but it ends up getting under your skin. Its base petrol engine is noteworthy only for its frugality, but if your route includes bends and bumps, you soon realise that the Mazda 3 has some deep talents. It is genuinely entertaining and satisfying when you want it to be.

Among the diesels, the only real debate is whether many buyers will actually need the potent 2.2-litre unit in this area of the market. The 1.6-litre diesel – sourced from Peugeot-Citroën – lower in the range does the job pretty well already.

Most of the fun of the Focus, but for a lower price. Well worth a look

It’s easy to mark the 3 down for some cheap interior materials, but the overall impression is rosier than the sum of its parts — besides which this Mazda is usefully cheaper than many rivals. The exterior styling is contrived, more so than that of any other Mazda, but it’s certainly distinctive and we could live with it, especially after the recent toned-down changes.

With bags of standard kit, the Mazda 3 MPS is good value, although ultimately it would probably be better with slightly less power and a more compliant chassis. It is a scorchingly rapid but slightly crude alternative for those who cannot face buying a Golf GTI.

Mazda’s engineers clearly have open minds. The original Mazda 3 was short on ability and credible character, but this latest one comprehensively addresses its predecessor’s faults.

Mark Tisshaw

mark-tisshaw-autocar
Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, autocar.co.uk website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.

Mazda 3 2009-2013 First drives