Given the hatch-buying public’s often slavish devotion to the likes of Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford, it must be immensely frustrating for a firm such as Mazda to be sitting on the sidelines. In recent years, the firm has built up a portfolio of models that are daringly styled, precisely built and pleasurable to pilot. But still the spotlight is all too often undeservedly swerved away from the Mazda3.

Now, with the launch of its impressive new 3, Mazda is determined to ditch the understudy label and take centre stage. We got our hands on a pre-launch homologation unit to see if the new car will meet with rave reviews, or sporadic applause from a hard-to-please audience.

Mazda’s Kodo design language has proved a hit across its products and its evolution in the new 3 is especially appealing. What few sharp edges were present in previous designs have been smoothed back but the appearance still accommodates just a hint of aggression where the front sheetmetal is carved to meet the headlamps and shield-shaped grille. Factor in scalloped taillamps and a sportily long-bonnet and cab-back profile (not to mention that eye-catching pearlescent red paintwork), and the 3 makes its rivals look pedestrian by comparison. This UK-spec homologation unit is about 95% accurate to the Astina variants coming our way, with gloss black alloys featuring locally.

That balance between sportiness and class is similarly reflected in a cabin that’s ergonomically spot-on. You sit low in sports seats that are both supportive and contoured to be comfy for miles on end, confronted by a tiered dash upon which controls are logically labelled and sited.

Where the Germans often set the benchmark for the material quality of their cabins, the new 3 has closed the gap. You’ll have to hunt about the 3’s interior to find anything resembling hard, scratchy plastic; pretty much everything is either hewn from substantial-feeling materials or slush-moulded sections seamed with stitching.

The architecture of Mazda’s Connect infotainment system – which in our market will integrate sat-nav – has undergone subtle changes that make it look sharper on screen and largely free of operational latency.

Quibbles are minor: those thick C-pillars do impinge a bit on rear three-quarter visibility; utility volume is modest for a car of the 3’s dimensions; and, while rear legroom is acceptable, that rakish roof means taller folks will find headroom a bit pinched.

The Astina model destined for our shores won’t ship with this UK-spec car’s front PDC, heating for the steering wheel and seats, and DAB radio. Instead, local units will feature rear air vents, a parking camera, sunroof and a suite of active safety features. In typical Mazda fashion, the Astina’s standard specification is impressive and even the lower-rung Active models are generously appointed.   

Much of the international fanfare surrounding the new Mazda3 centres on the company’s innovative SkyActiv-X engine, a four-cylinder petrol unit that utilises both a petrol engine’s spark ignition with a compression-ignition setup similar to that of a diesel. Along with a 24 V mild-hybrid system that scavenges decelerative energy, this unit not only promises greater fuel efficiency and less exhaust gunk, but it also serves up 132 kW and 224 N.m, some 18 kW and 24 N.m up on the more conventional SkyActiv-G unit.

The ever-frustrating issue of poor local fuel quality has meant the X has not been given the nod for our market. That leaves a range comprising three 1,5-litre models with 88 kW and 153 N.m on tap, plus the Astina as the sole recipient of the SkyActiv-G naturally aspirated 2,0-litre engine. Its application in the 3 is very much a mixed bag. Its level of mechanical refinement, at both idle and motorway speeds, is deeply impressive, and in fluid driving conditions it’s a pleasingly capable engine.

Its connection with the six-speed torque-converter automatic transmission is where things go a bit awry, though. Once a speed has been settled on and the pace is steady, the ‘box acquits itself well, serving up smooth and measured gearshifts. But the journey to that civilised space sees the engine’s modest outputs pitted against a transmission that becomes somewhat erratic. Its tendency to rush through the ratios at moderate speeds means there’s a paucity of low- to mid-end punch, while its penchant for hanging onto a lower-than-desired ratio on even slight inclines and modest overtaking throttle inputs causes the engine to become strained and drone. Given our test car’s pre-launch homologation unit status, the jury is out regarding final software tweaks to the transmission, but there was a feeling that this particular car’s shift mapping seemed geared towards a more powerful engine.

In isolation, the powertrain’s foibles are irksome, but the wonderfully engineered platform to which it’s mounted seems to draw further attention to those shortcomings.

Drive any of Mazda’s cars, be it a hatchback, crossover or SUV, and there’s a common thread running through the driving experience of each one. It presents in the new 3, too. While it continues to mount a MacPherson suspension arrangement up front, Mazda has dispensed the previous 3’s multilink rear suspension in favour of a more straightforward torsion-beam setup. On paper, it appears to be a step backwards, but in practice it’s an absolute delight. Although firm, the ride shows no crashiness when presented with pockmarked road surfaces and is consistent in its performance across road conditions.

Well-weighted and sportily geared steering? Check. Supple chassis and balanced ride characteristics? Check and check. Everything is present and correct for a car that adapts effortlessly to whatever’s thrown its way. Find an engaging stretch of road and the 3 laps it up. The bit of body roll present under fast cornering doesn’t intimidate but rather communicates with the driver as to the 3’s attitude. It’s such a well-tuned setup that it gives the impression it could handle a good deal more power … that’s an MPS-branded anvil of a hint being dropped to the folks at Mazda.



TEST SUMMARY

 

There’s good reason to be excited about the 3’s arrival here. Behind that handsome styling and the 3’s beautifully crafted interior is a driving experience that’s balanced yet involving enough to entertain when called upon to tackle twisty roads. It’s a thoroughly impressive package with just a couple of quirks that affect overall practicality, albeit to a minor degree. We have our reservations regarding the occasionally erratic transmission, though, plus the price on this Astina derivative makes it ever so slightly vulnerable to vehicles with more illustrious badges (although the Mazda knocks them for a six with spec).

 

Even so, the new 3 is a deeply impressive package with more than enough capability and craftsmanship to make it a viable, and more distinctive, alternative to the normally go-to Golf and Audi A3. Mazda, take a bow…

 

ROAD TEST SCORE

Mazda3 Mazda Mazda3 hatch 2.0 Astina
78 / 100
  • Price: R474,000
  • 0-100 km/h:
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 121 KW @ 6000
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 213 N.m @ 4000
  • Top speed:
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 6.3 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 146 g/KM