Mazda is not like other car companies. While its rivals rush headlong into PHEVs and full EVs, Mazda has only just started playing around with mild hybrids. It didn’t bother with the whole downsizing craze, either, opting instead to stick with comparatively large naturally-aspirated engines.
The Japanese company is even developing an all-new, naturally-aspirated straight-six, for Pete’s sake. And that’s all lovely, but what we like most about Mazda is the way it insists on making everything - whether it’s an MX-5 sports car or a CX-3 crossover - drive properly.
This ethos, you’ll be pleased to hear, is immediately evident with the new 3 hatchback. As soon as you pull away, it’s clear the pedal weights are spot on, that the short-ish-throw six-speed manual gearbox feels as lovely as it does in the MX-5, and that the seating position is just right.
The 2.0-litre N/A inline-four is good for all of 120bhp, giving a fairly leisurely 0-62mph time of 10.2 seconds. For most, though, that’s going to be plenty fast enough. Plus, normal people who aren’t as interested in driving quickly will appreciate the smoothness of the unit.
It sounds a little unpleasant from idle to around 2000rpm, making a weird, strained sort of noise, but it’s a likeable lump overall. And it’s an economical one - thanks to the addition of a mild hybrid system and cylinder deactivation, it gets a combined 44.8mpg economy figure. You should actually be able to replicate that in mixed driving - we managed nearly 50mpg on a long motorway cruise without really trying.
It requires a little recalibration of the brain since you actually need to (gasps) change down a gear occasionally due to the mid-range torque being a little lower than that of a turbo engine. But that’s just fine when you get a lovely linear sweep up to the soft rev-limiter.
Save for the novelty of being turbo-less, the engine isn’t really a standout feature. Where the 3 really shines is when you show it a corner or two - for something that’s not a performance car in any shape or form, it drives brilliantly.
All the stuff mentioned earlier about control weights and driving position comes to the fore, along with properly good steering. It’s a fairly slow rack, with Mazda avoiding the modern trend of making EPAS setups over-assisted and darty. It’s satisfying and predictable, with just the right amount of resistance as you turn the wheel.
The body control is really well sorted, too. It doesn’t have the stiffest suspension setup, but that doesn’t matter, as the 3 settles down beautifully even when tackling undulations and dodgy bits of camber at speed. Grip and traction are reasonable, and if you lift at the right time, you will even feel a little bit of rotation. Put all that together, and you have what might just be the best-driving ‘normal’ car you can buy right now.
You could argue that the average punter isn’t going to give a damn about this sort of thing, but you’d only be half right. Yes, they might not be setting out to buy something with natural steering and well-weighted, nicely-spaced pedals, but anyone who samples this will recognise that it’s nicer to drive than something like a Golf, even if he or she can’t nail down why.
Importantly, this isn’t the only thing the Mazda 3 has going for it. Not by a long shot. It has a beautifully understated cabin that’s really not all that far away from a lot of Mazda’s recent concepts, and the seats are very comfortable. It rides well, and the infotainment system’s decent, if not class-leading.
I like the way it looks from the outside, too, with its soft, flowing lines being a nice departure from all the pointlessly aggressive angle-fests we’re seeing too much of right now.
Downsides? Well, rear visibility is pretty poor, and it’s not the most commodious C-segment hatchback. Space in the rear is just about acceptable rather than generous, and at 295 litres the boot isn’t huge. Plus there’s a weird button on the boot lid which locks the car even if the keyless fob is still inside, which is surely asking for trouble.
It gets most of the bread and butter hatchback stuff right, though, ensuring the average C-seg buyer isn’t unduly punished for trying to be a little bit different. Quite the opposite.
For us lot, meanwhile, it’s great news that a bog-standard 3 with a mere 120bhp is so good to drive. Why? Because Mazda is apparently cooking up a fast 3 to take on the Golf GTI.
You wouldn’t want to bet against Mazda seriously upsetting the hot hatch order when that arrives.