Upgraded Mazda3 a refreshing change

Mazda's 3 hatchback drives as good as it looks. Andy Russell drives the new updated version.

There are a lot of cars that do a lot of things without being exceptional in any one field, but add all those talents together and they make a great all-rounder.

One such car is the Mazda3 which has played a big part in the Japanese car-maker's growth in the UK.

For all its worthy attributes it is always going to be in the shadow of the big-selling Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf which get so many sales from fleets.

And that is a great shame because the Mazda3 has so much to offer and its appeal has been freshened up with a mid-life makeover and a few tweaks to further improve its environmental credentials – vital for companies seeking fleet business while low running costs are increasingly important for hard-pressed private motorists.

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The Mazda3 is one of the most dynamic-looking cars in its class with bold, strong lines and sharp styling and, thankfully, Mazda has made it more muscular with new bumpers, front grille, wheel designs and colours.

The Mazda3 has a range of engines with wide appeal. On the petrol front there's 105PS 1.6, 150PS 2.0 and a fire-breathing 260PS 2.3-litre turbo, the latter in the high-performance MPS. A 115PS 1.6-litre turbo diesel is available across the range and there's 150 and 185PS versions of the 2.2-litre diesel but only in Sport trim.

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If you're looking for serious diesel performance you can do worse than the 185PS version which boasts class-leading power without paying the penalty at the fuel pumps.

It's a bit of a wolf in sheep's clothing for the tasteful Sport bodykit does not shout the performance potential of what lies under the bonnet. This a real diesel hot-hatchback with good low-down flexible pulling power, lots of mid-range punch and the ability to rev freely and happily. In fact, it's deceptively quick so keep a close eye on the speedo and use cruise control.

The upgrade also sees improved economy and lower emissions across the engine range – even the most powerful diesel ekes a couple of miles more out of a gallon while lower emissions knock one per cent off the company car tax rate. Overall I saw 45-48mpg in everyday driving without being economy-conscious.

The Mazda3 has always been good to drive – one of the more exciting offerings in its class – and as part of the makeover Mazda engineers set out to make it even better.

Suspension and steering have been tweaked to improve handling and straight-line stability and precision.

The ride is firm at low speed, highlighted by the bigger wheels and lower profile tyres on Sport models, but becomes more supple and forgiving of poor road surfaces as speed builds. If you're a keen driver you won't feel short-changed with the driving dynamics and roadholding. The stiff suspension makes the Mazda3 stable and well planted on the road so it flows through corners with good response from the well-weighted power steering, body roll kept well in check and confidence-inspiring grip.

The cabin can comfortably seat four six-foot adults, with adequate legroom and decent headroom, and five at a push but the middle passenger has a raised central tunnel to contend with.

There won't be any complaints about boot space either with a well-shaped, flat-sided compartment that has 340 litres of space with the seats in use and 1,360 litres with the 60/40 split seat backs folded totally flat.A low sill makes light work of loading and unloading heavy or bulky items.

The cabin, and particularly the modern fascia, also have a sporty ambience without being over-flashy. Instruments are clear and concise and controls fall readily to hand and are easy to use on the move with simple rotary knobs and big buttons but the controls on the steering wheel for cruise control, radio/CD and telephone are small and plentiful. The driving position, with its high centre console, feels more like a sports car than a family hatchback and has all the steering wheel and seat adjustment to make getting comfortable straightforward.

Unfortunately some hard plastics detract from the overall appearance, despite metallic-effect trim giving an interest factor, but they are well screwed together and feel durable.

The Mazda3 range gives a lot of kit for the money. On the safety front all models get front, side and curtain airbags, stability and traction control and an emergency stop signal system to warn other drivers.

Entry-level S includes air-conditioning and electric front windows, TS has 15in alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control and electric rear windows, TS2 adds 16in alloys, front fog lights, heated windscreen, automatic lights and wipers, cruise control and Bluetooth hands-free system while Sport is fitted with 17in alloys, Bose audio system, rear privacy glass and sports front seats. TS2 Nav and Sport Nav get satellite navigation and the latter also has rear parking sensors. There are also Tamura special edition launch models.

Mazda has freshened its 3 hatchback and at the same time its appeal. If you want a well-equipped hatchback that drives as good as it looks it's well worth checking out.

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