Parkers overall rating: 4.4 out of 5 4.4
  • Limited engine range
  • Petrol fine in town but weak acceleration terms
  • Diesel flexible, but you may struggle to find one

The Mazda 3 hatchback was available with either a 2.0-litre petrol or a 1.8-litre diesel from launch in May 2019, with a third engine option that uses compression ignition coming towards the end of 2019. The diesel didn't last long, however, going off sale around the same time the Skyactiv-X petrol was introduced.

Petrol engines

A 122hp 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol engine was your only option until the Skyactiv-X became available. In a world of downsized, turbocharged rivals the 2.0-litre’s performance feels pretty lacklustre, without the low-rev urgency of rivals’ forced-induction units. This tends to mean that in order to make brisk progress you'll have to change gear frequently, which given the short, slick shift-action of the 3's manual transmission, it's far from a chore when exploring a winding B-road. On motorways it's more frustrating - sitting behind a truck at 56mph tends to require dropping from sixth gear to fifth in order to make it back up to the legal limit without significant delay.

It’s smooth enough, and at urban speeds it’s not so noticeable, though with the 3 handling so well it’s quickly obvious if you want to enjoy that balanced, crisp chassis on an interesting road. While smooth, there’s so little torque until you get towards the top of the rev range - 4,000rpm to be precise. Even then, the pulling power available isn’t generous; in the age of motoring where a 1.0-litre turbocharged unit can produce the same, if not more, power than 122hp, the Mazda’s offering is paltry and feels inflexible.

Officially, versions of the 3 with this engine complete the 0-62mph acceleration benchmark in 10.4 seconds before pressing-on to a top speed of 122mph. Hardly scintilating figures and the 0-62mph drops to 10.8 seconds if you specify the optional automatic gearbox.

But, if you're happy to drive around its relative lack of gutsiness, the petrol-engined 3's an engaging car to spend time driving. It's quiet at low speeds, with a mild-hybrid system (it's 'mild' in the sense that the electricity available is to boost efficiency rather than allowing for miles of zero-emission running) helping in this regard, but work that gearbox, keep the revs high and it sounds intriguingly sporty.

If you want a petrol with more shove, the Skyactiv-X with 180hp and 224Nm could be of greater interest. It uses new technology that aims to replicate the kind of torquey performance you get from a diesel with the smooth, high-revving nature of a non-turbocharged petrol engine - something of a Mazda hallmark. 

On paper it's a useful amount quicker with a 0-62mph time of 8.2 seconds, but it doesn't feel all that rapid in action. There is a notable difference between it and the lower-output car, which is far more usable in most driving situations out of town. It's far easier to get up to speed on the motorway for instance, but it's not quite the revelation of an engine that Mazda promised it would be. It is, however, very quiet once you're on the move. And, in combination with a slick gearchange, it's probably the one we'd recommend of the two petrols.

There's also an AWD version available with this engine, but it's hard to see the benefits on most journeys. The 3 doesn't really struggle for traction anyway as it doesn't have huge reserves of power and torque to overwhelm the front wheels. 

Short-lived diesel engines

The only diesel offering was a 1.8-litre unit producing 116hp. Mazda only expected it to make up around 5% of overall sales such is the public's general shying away from the fuel, which is a shame as of the two engines available from launch, it's the one with the greater appeal. As sales proved so slow, Mazda removed it from sale towards the end of 2019 after less than a year of availability.

Yes, it's less powerful than the petrol motor with 116hp, but its higher peak torque figure of 270Nm versus 213Nm is available from just 1,600rpm thanks to it being turbocharged. How does this translate into the real world? Briskness when accelerating from standing starts or during overtaking manoeuvres feels much more urgent and requires less stirring of the gearlever to build-up pace, making it more accomplished on back-road and motorway drives.

Somewhat surprisingly, its key statistics are similar to the petrol models, with a 0-62mph time of 10.3 seconds (and a more leisurely 12.1 for the automatic) and a top speed of 121mph (119 if you pick the auto).

Handling

  • Excellent manual gearbox and pedals
  • Precise, well-judged steering
  • Ride is well-damped but a little lumpy

If you like driving, then, you’ll like the Mazda 3. The old one was good here, and Mazda’s significantly improved on it. The steering is well weighted and accurate, as is the snappy six-speed manual gearbox – something that seems as if it’s come straight out of the rather excellent Mazda MX-5 roadster. What it's really crying out for is significantly more power, but Mazda's long-since abandoned the hot hatch market - and more's the pity given the 3's fundamental ingredients. At least the Skyactiv-X engine ups the performance ante ever so slightly.

As for the suspension, it delivers excellent poise and control, despite having a slightly less sophisticated setup than its predecessor. It also has Mazda’s G-Vectoring technology that helps to keep the car stable around sharp, fast corners; the tech works well, making the 3 feel like it pivots around a central point and allows for a bit of extra fun when the mood takes you

Understeer - the tendency for front-wheel drive cars to push wide through corners - is notable by its relative absence compared with its rivals, with impressive traction at both lower and higher speeds. If you do manage to make the car understeer on a regular basis, you may well be interested in the AWD version, but it's unlikely you'll really need it. 

When the road surface becomes bumpy, versions of the 3 fitted with the larger 18-inch alloy wheels communicate many of the imperfections to the car's occupants. It's rarely uncomfortable, but it isn't as serene as something like the Citroen C4 Cactus is over similar stretches of asphalt. However, by choosing the Mazda, you're making a clear choice - it's designed to feel sportier, so it should't be a surprise that its firmer than many of its rivals. It’s agile, and fun, the 3 delivering real feel to the driver, making it among the most appealing driver’s cars in this busy segment