There's a decent choice of engines in the 3 starting with the entry-level 1.4-litre with a modest 84bhp. Not surprisingly this needs to be worked hard and is only available in entry-level S trim. The 105bhp 1.6-litre is one of the most popular choices and although not particularly quick (0-62mph takes 11.2 seconds) it is refined and fairly economical too while there's also a larger 2.0-litre engine with 150bhp.
However while the 2.0-litre is sprightly it's not very frugal - if you want more performance the diesels will suit better. The 1.6-litre diesel comes in two outputs of either 90bhp or 109bhp and both are economical, returning around 60mpg. The higher power version can cover the 0-62mph benchmark in 11.6 seconds but it's the in-gear pace on offer that makes this model more relaxing to drive than it's petrol equivalent - especially on the motorway.
A 2.0d (launched in early 2007 with 143bhp) adds real punch to the Mazda3 range. It may not be the most powerful diesel in a car of this size (or the quickest - 0-62mph comes in 9.9 seconds) but it has pulling power where it counts with plenty of mid-range power for effortless overtaking. It's a convincing hot diesel and one that returns around 47mpg.
The 3 is based on the same platform as the Ford Focus and as a result handles neatly with well weighted steering and good body control. On more demanding roads the Mazda can be surprisingly good fun, with decent grip and predictable handling - it's certainly safe and composed. Unfortunately the ride isn't as polished and although good on the motorway the 3 fidgets over bumps and potholes with noticeable vibration through the cabin.
There are two steering systems - the 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre are hydraulically-assisted, while the 2.0-litre and diesel powered models get a more-sensitive electric/hydraulic set up. Cars built after the 2006 facelift benefit from a revised suspension set-up which provides more stability when making direction changes.
The cabin design of the 3 is fairly standard hatchback fare but it seems dated now and is dark and gloomy when compared to more stylish rivals. While there's no doubting the finish, some of the materials are questionable - the standard steering wheel isn't particularly nice to hold and some of the plastics appear cheap with an absence of soft-touch materials.
The stereo is a nice feature with it's red backlighting but this does little to life the atmosphere. On the plus side the driving position is good and there's plenty of adjustment in both the steering column and seat.
The ride is a little on the firm side, which isn't too noticeable on the motorways, but on rougher surfaces the lack of refinement is noticeable, as is engine noise from the smaller petrol engines. The cabin is spacious though and there's decent head and legroom for passengers in the back while the seats are fairly comfortable and those in the front offer good lateral support.
The 2006 facelift saw improvement in noise insulation and although things are better it's still not up to class leading standards.