The 3 excels dynamically and is one of the sharper looking modern day hatchbacks

When it comes to the business of making cars, Mazda choses the less travelled path to achieve either the same, or slightly different, results. That also applies to the engines it builds because at a time when manufacturers rely on turbocharging to downsize the cubic capacity of their engines, Mazda thinks there is a better way.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE ENGINE

It’s the one aspect of a car that often goes unnoticed but with the 3 hatchback it’s arguably the most interesting talking point. When the current car arrived in late 2019 it debuted the Japanese company’s space-age SkyActiv X petrol engine. Promising the fuel sipping qualities of a diesel and the power of a petrol, it adopted a system called ‘Spark Controlled Compression Ignition’. Put simply, an ultra-lean fuel-air mixture means a big bang from a tiny squirt of petrol which, in turn, increases miles-per-gallon and lessens the need to fill up quite as often. It was a good first effort yet it wasn’t perfect, so with this feedback ringing in their ears, those who toiled over the original went back to the drawing board and came up with the ‘e-SkyActiv X’.

BIG CHANGES, SMALL GAINS

Compared to the engine it replaces, Mazda has managed to push up the e-SkyActiv X’s total power by 6bhp, while total torque creeps up by 12lb ft. Granted, that doesn’t sound an awful lot, but it makes this naturally aspirated motor seem far less lethargic below 2,000rpm, and when you venture beyond 3,000rpm there is a solid level of useful performance that continues well into the 5,000rpm band. This shot of added oomph has been achieved by refreshing the pistons and camshafts and rebooting the software for the integrated 24-volt belt-driven starter-generator for sharper stop-start driving in, er, stop-start traffic. Depending on model and transmission, Mazda says CO2 emissions drop by between 5 and 11g/Km and, on average, eke two miles more out of every gallon of fuel. In our hands, it returned a respectable 44-45mpg.

A GOOD ALL ROUNDER?

The 2-litre unit is a touch more vocal than a downsized petrol engine but aside from this it’s one users are going to warm to pretty quickly. The throttle response is sharp, acceleration is smooth and the 6-speed manual is well-spaced and comes with a precise, snappy action. The last point is particularly important because most, if not all, overtakes call for a gear change – or two – irrespective of how much open road is in front of you. Thankfully, that sweet action and a light clutch make this a pleasant experience. The steering is nicely weighted and there is plenty of feedback to ensure it is as engaging and fun as a Ford Focus. We aren’t entirely convinced on the brakes, though, as the pedal has a mushy feel – a consequence of the mild-hybrid system. That can be disconcerting as you explore the 3’s utterly sublime chassis and light-footed front end that isn’t easily thrown off line by quick jumps or hollows.

ANY OTHER CHANGES OF NOTE?

Five 3 models are available with the three most expensive – ‘Sport Lux’, ‘GT Sport’, ‘GT Sport Tech’ – now getting a sunroof as standard. Otherwise, the equipment list is unchanged. Prices start at £24,955 and rise to £30,595 for the bells and whistles ‘GT Sport Tech’ automatic, although we’d save the £540 that transmission commands and spend it on a real eye-catching paint option such our car’s ‘Sonic Silver’ metallic paint. It really complements the piano black finish for the front grille surround, rear roof spoiler and alloy wheels. These little trinkets, coupled with deliberately smooth body panels that catch the light in magical ways, add up to make an already good-looking C-segment car a properly individual one.

INTERIOR QUALITY IS EXCELLENT

Mazda cabins are nice places to be – period. When you consider how the inside of a Ford Focus, VW Golf or Seat Leon are dressed up, the 3 triumphs hands down. The driving position is sporty, the seats are comfortable, the dash is made up of solid and simple switchgear, and many of the plastics are from the class above. Heated leather seats and a heated steering wheel, all-round parking sensors with a reversing camera, electronic climate control, a 12-speaker Bose stereo, a head-up display and an 8.8-inch multimedia system that is operated via a large wheel on the lower console all feature on ‘GT Sport Tech’ besides a whole raft of safety kit including autonomous braking and lane-departure warning.

PUTTING STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE

A steeply raked roof line guarantees a sporty profile but the payback is less head space for back seat passengers. In tandem with the black headlining, tinted windows and chunky C-pillars it certainly does feel claustrophobic. Leg and shoulder room are OK and the same goes for boot space. At 351-litres that is smaller than a Focus (375-litres), Golf (380-litres) and Leon (380-litres). You can still expect to load up two large suitcases and two small carry-on suitcases even if that process proves tricky. The ledges that support the parcel shelf tend to get in the way and the 4-inch load lip doesn’t help, either.

PROS & CONS

+ A good-looking hatch
+ Classy to travel in
+ New engine helps refinement
OTRP is still a little steep
Petrol needs to be worked
Rear is far from spacious

ENGINE: Marginally more powerful than before, the e-SkyActiv X petrol is a smooth engine that now has mild-hybrid assistance. Available with a 6-speed manual – or an automatic transmission – most of the unit’s shove comes on stream from 2,000rpm and remains largely civilised up to 5,000rpm where it continues to pull strongly. Small though they are, the revisions build on the 3 hatch’s key strengths.

STYLING: The 3’s pointy nose is dominated by slim adaptive LED headlights and large black grille that has a mesh arrangement, while the split LED tail-lights and silver-tipped exhaust pipes at the back are a nod to its predecessor. Black 18-inch alloy wheels and gloss black trim combine to give this Japanese hatch considerable kerbside appeal. At £570, our test car’s ‘Sonic Silver’ metallic paint doesn’t come cheap.

INTERIOR: ‘GT Sport Tech’ is not short on kit, with leather upholstery and a Bose sound system joined by a head-up display and a dash-mounted 8.8-inch screen that comes with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The dual zone climate control retains plenty of physical switchgear which is a help on the move, although all of the radio functions work through the lower console’s rotary wheel.

PRACTICALITY: Small rear windows that are tinted and have a high line might lead to some passengers feeling hemmed in. 3’s raked roofline looks the part but it exacerbates this problem and restricts head room in the back where shoulder and leg room are OK but nothing more. At 351-litres, the boot is a fairly decent size but it would benefit from a height adjustable floor given the size of the load lip.

SPECIFICATION

Price: £29,475 (as tested)
Engine: 2-litre, 4cyl petrol MHEV
Power/torque: 183bhp/177lb ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel-drive
0-62mph: 8.1 seconds
Top speed: 134mph
Economy: 53.3mpg
CO2: 121g/Km

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