Stylish, good to drive and beautifully built, the Mazda 3 is a great family hatchback

If you’re looking for a small family hatchback that’s fun to drive, then the Mazda 3 is well worth investigating. It’s relatively spacious, and offers a level of poise and agility that’s unmatched by many of its rivals, such as the VW Golf and Vauxhall Astra. Improvements to the suspension and cabin have helped improve comfort and equipment levels too. Entry-level 1.6-litre diesel engined cars return almost 70mpg too. At the top of the range, you’ll find the new Sport Nav equipped cars, which get a TomTom sat-nav and air conditioning. Only available as a five-door, the updated Mazda 3 is available to order now with first deliveries expected in early 2012.

Our choice:Mazda3 1.6D Tamura

Styling

A recent facelift means the Mazda 3 looks more sophisticated than before. The front radiator grille has narrowed slightly, and there’s a new bumper, specially shaped to make loading the boot easier. Inside, there’s plenty of room, but we found the driving position a little awkward – the seat feels as though it’s mounted very low to the ground. Cabin fabrics are no match for those fitted to the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, but the build quality, inside and out, feels first rate.

Driving and Performance

Steering is both accurate and light, so the Mazda 3 feels very nimble, particularly on winding roads. A new electro-hydraulic set-up offers a reasonable degree of feel, and sharp responses too. There’s very little body roll and if you hit a mid corner bump, the car’s solid suspension set-up means the car feels very stable. Even the entry-level 1.6-litre petrol engine feels quite sporty, with decent in gear performance. The gearbox has a smooth action for slick changes. A word of warning though: while lesser versions of the 3 make great drivers’ cars, it’s ironic that the sporties model, the MPS is no class leader. With 255bhp, it’s very powerful, but lacks the finesse of rivals like the VW Golf GTI.

MPG and running costs

If you steer clear of top specification cars, the Mazda 3 looks like good value for money next to rivals fom Ford and Volkswagen. The most fuel efficient Mazda 3 you can buy is the 1.6-litre diesel, which offers fuel economy of 65.7mpg. CO2 emissions are only 115g/km, meaning road tax is free for the first year of ownership and £30 a year thereafter. Watch out for steep depreciation, though. The experts predict it could lose up to 40 per cent of its value in three years.

Practicality

The driving position is a little uncomfortable. The driver’s seat is mounted low to the car’s floor, which means your legs seem to jut out ahead of you. That said, the front seats are comfortable and supportive, while the rear seats are spacious. The boot is generously sized, and there’s a split and fold rear bench, which improves versatility.

Safety and reliability

Mazda performed well in our 2011 Driver Power reliability survey, and there’s no doubt that the Mazda 3 feels very well put together. Panel gaps are ruler straight, while the controls and cabin feel built to last. It received a five-star Euro NCAP rating when it was tested in 2009. It comes with plenty of airbags and electronic stability control is fitted as standard, as is a seatbelt reminder system.

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