THERE are some extremely clever people working for Mazda that are capable of thinking very much “outside” of any box you may present them with.

It’s a company that is willing to follow its own path despite what conventional wisdom – and the competition – may be telling it. And without that attitude the world would not have the Mazda MX-5. Enough said . . .

But it’s not just ground-breaking sports cars that get unique engineering solutions and the “Kodo” (soul of motion) treatment; the new Mazda3 benefits too – and the result is one of the prettiest and best-driving family hatchbacks that money can buy.

It’s sweeping lines, resulting in a low-to-the-ground nose, is attractive from any angle. The sloping roof line appears to merge seamlessly into the rear hatch and when viewed from the side the Mazda3 looks as smooth as a pebble with no sharp, distracting crease lines. No wonder it won the World Car Design of the Year at the 2020 World Car Awards.

Mazda also go their own way when it comes to engines too by saying “no” to the turbocharger and instead using their own, unique Skyactiv Technology to create higher-capacity, balanced, frugal units that also enhance the overall driving experience.

The new Mazda3 benefits from 2 such engines, the 2.0 e-Skyactiv G (122 PS) and the 2.0 e-Skyactiv X (186 PS).

Both engines see the debut of Mazda’s M Hybrid system, a 24v mild-hybrid technology. In addition to improved economy, it also helps drivability by substituting engine torque for electric-motor torque when the car is starting, accelerating or coming to a stop.

The 2021 model Mazda3 sees an updated version of Mazda’s unique Skyactiv-X SPCCI (Spark Controlled Compression Ignition) petrol engine. Renamed e-Skyactiv X, the updated version delivers increased performance and even more efficiency – although the 2020 model I drove with 180 PS felt more than capable in all situations.

Trim levels start with the SE-L (from £21,805), SE-L Lux (£22,905), Sports Lux (£24,005), GT Sport (£25,805) and finally the GT Sport Tech from £26,705. If you want the more powerful e-Skyactiv X engine, then expect to pay around £2k extra – although the more powerful engine comes with better CO2 figures (manual models) and therefore better Benefit-in-Kind savings.

A 6-speed automatic gearbox is available on all but the SE-L model and all models are front-wheel drive – although there is talk of an AWD Mazda3 coming to the UK in the future.

Whichever trim level you choose you’ll find the Mazda3 is well equipped with even the entry-level SE-L getting LED lights front and back, 16in alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers.

It also gets a head-up display, 8.8in Infotainment screen with 8 speakers, integrated Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Sat Nav and DAB radio. There’s also Radar Cruise Control with a Stop and Go function if you have the auto gearbox.

Which is all very impressive for a car that is still great value, looks this good from the outside and – when you sit in it – feels more premium than any rival at this price-point.

My more expensive e-Skyactiv X GT Sport model will be a popular trim-level and features the likes of 18in black alloys, black leather upholstery, adaptive LED headlights, a 12-speaker Bose audio system, reversing camera, heated steering wheel and front seats as well as rear privacy glass. 2021 models also now include a tilt and slide sunroof.

Inside, the Mazda3 GT Sport feels very special indeed and, if like me you’ve owned an example of the previous model, it will feel very familiar for all the right reasons.

The ergonomics are, once again, spot on with the steering wheel and seat adjustment allowing you to find the perfect driving position. However, be aware that lesser models lack lumbar support.

Materials are mostly soft-touch with only lower-down items feeling a little scratchier. The fit and finish is up to Mazda’s usual quality and all the switchgear feels like it will last a lifetime.

The gear lever and Multimedia Commander rotary dial have been moved slightly more forward than on the previous model so the driver’s arm is at a more natural angle when operating them. In fact, you will find all controls fall easily to hand and I’m delighted Mazda have retained the intuitive Multimedia controller which takes away the stress of having to hit an icon on the infotainment screen whilst on the move. Much more relaxing and safer, too.

Climate control also features physical buttons that are easily found and used with minimum distraction. Great design all round by Mazda and something sadly lacking in the new Volkswagen Golf.

The semi-digital dials and head-up display ensure you have all the critical info straight in front of you, including sat nav directions and traffic sign info.

It’s not all good news though because there is a cost to be paid for the Mazda3’s swooping profile and this is visibility out of the back which is not great due to the shallow rear window and large C-pillars. You’ll be grateful for the rear-facing camera and parking sensors.

Also, rear passengers may find things a little gloomy in the back due to the relatively shallow rear windows. However, they get plenty of room to sit comfortably and only those over 6ft tall may have to sit stooped a little.

The rear seats split 60/40 and boot space is adequate for the average family outing with 334 litres and a good, square shape that allows more standard suitcases than the Ford Focus or the VW Golf.

But it’s how the new Mazda3 drives that may convince you that this is the 5-door hatchback for you – or saloon. Yes, the Mazda3 is available as a stylish saloon too with even more boot space but a bigger price tag.

The e-Skyactiv X engine is the one to go for if you enjoy your driving and is capable of hitting 62mph in just 8.1 seconds, although the G model is no slouch either at 10.8 seconds.

Power delivery is smooth and refined through a slick-shifting 6-speed manual box and I quickly noticed that this engine doesn’t complain even if you try to pull away at 30mph in 6th gear. No histrionics, just smooth, gradual acceleration. Of course, if you want to trap on a bit then work the gearbox and the rewards are there. Frugal it may be, but this engine can also be fun.

Then there is the ride quality that is on the firm side – but enjoyably so and allows for some sharp cornering on A-roads without the front-end wandering. The Mazda3 feels sharp and pointy with only the worst pot-holes causing a shudder through the chassis – although I suspect the 16in wheels on the lower-spec cars may address this problem better.

It’s quiet too in the cabin, even at motorway speeds. The Mazda3 appears to slip through the air without much fuss with only the tyres causing any noticeable noise.

The combination of excellent ergonomics, well weighted steering, accurate clutch and a top-class gearchange put the Mazda3 firmly in the “driver’s car” class – certainly as family-centric hatchbacks go.

You won’t miss a turbo and you won’t notice when the car switches off cylinders 1 and 4 to save you money while cruising – the Mazda3 does a lot of things you will quickly take for granted but miss like crazy if they weren’t there.

Perhaps Mazda’s true gift is to provide great-looking cars with unique technologies that make you love driving again – although you may not be able to put your finger exactly on why. It’s just a Mazda thing.

  • AT A GLANCE:  
  • Mazda3 e-Skyactiv X GT Sport
  • OTR Price: £25,805
  • Engine: 2.0 petrol  
  • Power: 186 PS  
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual
  • 0-62mph: 8.1 secs  
  • Top Speed: 134 mph  
  • Combined Economy: 54.3 mpg  
  • C02: 121 to 118 g/km

By Steve Berry

Freelance motoring writer and member of the Association of Scottish Motoring Writers with a love of cars, motorbikes and running. I lied about the love of motorbikes. They scare me to death - although I would like to own a Ducati 996 in red which I would just look at but never ride. No, not ever.

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