Road test: 2014 Mazda 3

Mazda’s compact is a great runaround, if lacking a little power, writes Kevin Hackett.

The Mazda 3’s curvaceous design, coupled with an abundance of kit inside and affordable prices, make it one of the best options in its class. Courtesy Newspress
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What a gorgeous little thing the Mazda 3 is. Wading into the properly crowded waters that make up the compact car sector, the Japanese car brand for the thinking consumer has evidently pulled out all the stops with its new baby. The Mazda 6 and the CX-5, as good as they are, were simply precursors to this, the intended volume seller, and there’s a hefty weight of expectation on its shapely shoulders. Mazda’s sales across Europe have recently been half of what they were in their heyday and this, the company hopes, is the car to resettle the scales.

On looks alone it’s arguably the best of its kind – an intelligent and curvaceous design that eschews the vulgar angularity of Lexus and the blandness of Toyota’s, Nissan’s and Honda’s mainstay products – and in the striking metallic red of my test car, replete with gorgeous 18-inch alloy wheels, it bears close examination and proves that, with actual effort, a company can overturn its mundane past in one fell swoop.

There’s a look of shrunken prestige about it, as if this is a much more expensive car than its proportions suggest, and this is continued once you open a door and take a seat. The scratchy plastics have been confined to the lower parts of the car’s interior trim, while anything that you’re likely to come into physical contact with on a day-to-day basis is soft and squishy to the touch, with a Germanic feel throughout. The dashboard design is plain and uncluttered, dominated by a generous seven-inch infotainment touch-screen, and the instrument binnacle houses a large central speedo, flanked by a smaller rev counter and other dials.

Granted, the demonstrator that I’ve been loaned for a few days is a top-of-the-range 2.0L model, but the fact remains that this car is equipped with kit normally associated with large luxury motors like those peddled by Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. There’s keyless entry, adaptive cruise control, a reversing camera, Bluetooth connectivity for your phone and MP3 player, a premium, six-speaker sound system, an adjustable head-up display, electric seats, supple leather upholstery and a clear, concise and intuitive satnav.

The 1.6L model starts at Dh63,000, with this 2.0L starting at Dh88,000, topping out at Dh90,000. Seriously, when you’re sat inside this car it seems like the bargain of the decade. But before you go tearing off to the dealer, there’s also an even more handsome saloon version to consider, with more powerful engine options – Mazda is on a charm offensive and, from where I’m sitting, there’s little in the marketplace to compete with these cars – especially at this price point.

On the 3’s shapely rump there’s a badge that reads “SkyActiv”, which refers to Mazda’s much-lauded new platform technology. It’s an all-steel monocoque using 60 per cent high-,­­ or ultra-high-, tensile steel, which blesses the structure with 30 per cent greater torsional rigidity when compared to its predecessor.

This translates into a driving experience that does nothing to sully the feeling of quality, with everything nice and tight, balanced and precise. The steering is lovely and light, with some semblance of feel, and the six-speed auto ’box shifts around without kicking up a fuss. It handles sweetly, with little body roll but plenty of composure and it’s quiet and refined at moderate speeds. But still there’s something missing here. For all the quality feel, the good looks and the premium cabin, this 2.0L could do with a bit more pep.

Which is frustrating because, as is so often the case these days, there’s a plethora of engine options for the 3, globally speaking. Europe has the opportunity to spec a more powerful engine that’s fitted into the Sport model, as well as a punchy 2.2L twin-turbo diesel that, by all accounts, is the one that offers the most punch, along with parsimonious fuel consumption. So in the UAE, we’re left with a slightly asthmatic motor, which needs constant goading to extract anything like a sprightly performance – something quite at odds with the rest of the car’s persona.

I’ll wait until I’ve driven the saloon (otherwise known as the “Fastback”) with its more powerful drivetrain before settling on a final verdict but, putting performance to one side for a moment, this is a brilliant little car and I can heartily recommend it. If all you’d use one for is pootling around city streets then you really wouldn’t need any more oomph anyway, so it’s worthy of your attention when you’re thinking about spending money in this particular section of the market.

Mazda has always been a most fascinating company – any manufacturer that doggedly carries on developing rotary engine technology merits brownie points in my book, and its RX-8 and MX-5 models have proved beyond doubt that it understands what makes a fun driver’s car. If this region could just be granted a more powerful engine for the hatchback 3, then there’s no reason that it couldn’t steal plenty of customers from the established hatchback hierarchy – in every other respect, it’s a truly excellent car.

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