“Third time’s the charm” is an idiom that can be applied to the third-generation Mazda 3, because it’s more charming and more compelling than the two preceding models. It might become the favourite car in its class.
The first 3 has a good reputation for handling, but doesn’t deliver in terms of practicality due to its relatively cramped cabin. The succeeding model is better in terms of roominess, but its “smiling” face suggested a less-than-serious design attitude.
Mazda appeared to be a lot more serious with its latest 3 design, which has ditched its predecessor’s permanent “smiley” in favour of the automaker’s Kodo design language, which “speaks” athletic swept lines and well-defined fenders. The new 3 is also a dead ringer for its mid-size 6 sibling.
The 3 has grown, too. It’s wider by 60mm and sits on a wheelbase increased by 40mm, with the added millimetres not only improving the proportions of the car, but also boosting interior space. Indeed, the backseat is more spacious than in the old 3, which is short on legroom. Taller passengers would be happier in the new 3, although they might ask for more footwell space to park their feet. Three occupants can be accommodated easily enough in the rear, but there’s a sizeable floorboard protrusion you won’t find in the new Corolla Altis, a roomier saloon than the 3 despite having the same wheelbase length. The other cabin upgrades in the 3 are impressive – the materials are of noticeably good quality, the dashboard is well constructed and the door panels feel solid.
Drivers will appreciate even more the MZD Connect infotainment system, which comes as standard on the Deluxe variant tested here. Mirroring BMW’s iDrive, this new-gen Mazda gadget features a control knob that lets users navigate through the system’s menus. There’s also a touchscreen interface, but we found the dial to be a lot more intuitive.
Apart from a navigation function, MZD Connect can also display the current status of the car’s i-Eloop regenerative braking system, which helps reduce fuel consumption by capturing the energy normally lost during deceleration and using it to power the car’s electrical components once the driver accelerates again.
Also helping to improve efficiency is the i-Stop system, which shuts off the engine when the car comes to a complete stop and restarts it when the driver releases the brake pedal. For motorists who do plenty of city driving, the fuel savings can add up over time – the only “cost” is the slight shudder that accompanies every engine restart.
The biggest factor in Mazda’s quest for better economy is the 3’s new Skyactiv 1.5-litre powerplant. Compared to the previous 3’s 1.6-litre engine with a combined consumption figure of 12.7km per litre, this 1.5-litre unit is claimed to be capable of 17.5km per litre. The new motor is more powerful, too, producing 120bhp and 150Nm – an increase of 15bhp and 5Nm over the superseded 1.6-litre unit.
The key to this enhanced power and efficiency is the powerplant’s high compression ratio of 14:1. Simply put, a higher compression increases the force of the pistons’ downward stroke, without increasing the amount of petrol injected into the cylinders.
Even though the 3’s performance figures look lackadaisical on paper, the actual drive will make you think otherwise. Because the powerplant and 6-speed automatic are both so responsive, the only time the 3 feels slow is when accelerating from a standstill. Prod the throttle and the revs climb promptly, but if you nail it, you’ll see the tachometer needle literally jumping from 2000rpm to 4000rpm. The only downside is the rough engine note, which increases in tandem with the revolutions-per-minute.
Thanks to a well-sorted suspension, the 3’s ride is composed rather than jumpy. Although the dampers are tuned in favour of handling rather than comfort, the ride is never jarring. Dynamically, this 3 is far superior to its predecessor – it tackles corners with greater ease, while its steering is faster and more precise. Among its Japanese rivals such as the Toyota Corolla Altis, Honda Civic and Nissan Sylphy, the 3 is the most driver-focused in my opinion.
To its rivals, the latest 3 is a triple threat with its good looks, high efficiency and nice driveability. “Threatening”, too, is the 3’s competitive pricing, which starts from $132k for the standard variant, compared to $135k for the Toyota Corolla Altis and $137k for the Honda Civic.
TYPE Inline-4, 16-valves
BORE X STROKE 74mm x 85.8mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 14:1
MAX POWER 120bhp at 6000rpm
MAX TORQUE 150Nm at 4000rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 90.7bhp per tonne
GEARBOX 6-speed automatic
with manual select
DRIVEN WHEELS Front
0-100KM/H 11.7 seconds
TOP SPEED 185km/h
CONSUMPTION 17.5km/L (combined)
CO2 EMISSION 135g/km
FRONT MacPherson struts, coil springs
REAR Multi-link, coil springs
FRONT / REAR Ventilated discs / Discs
TYPE Toyo NanoEnergy R38
SIZE 205/60 R16
TRACTION CONTROL ABS with DSC
KERB WEIGHT 1339kg
TURNING CIRCLE 10.6m
PRICE INCL. COE $138,988 (after $10k CEVS rebate)
WARRANTY 3 years/100,000km
+ Responsive powertrain, attractive design, great steering feel
– Cabin smaller than rivals’, gruff engine, tiny storage points