Swap out of the old Mazda 3 and into the new Mazda 3 and it feels as though the fast-forward button has been pressed through not one, but two generations.
The new Mazda 3 sedan and hatch range are identical length to the five-year-old models they replace, but the wheelbase extends by 60mm and overhangs are reduced by 35mm front/25mm rear on both bodystyles.
Body width is up 40mm, while clever packaging means front shoulder room extends by a full 57mm – or about a third of the typical centre console width. Rear shoulder room is up 9mm, too, though second-row legroom actually falls by 10mm.
The larger interior reflects the newfound maturity of this Mazda 3. There’s more soft-touch dashboard plastics, although enough hard ones remain for its rival Volkswagen Golf to retain its benchmark interior quality status quo.
Beautiful touches abound, though, including the central tachometer and electronic speedometer nestled inside it, all encased in silver-finished binnacle.
The highlight is the new MZD connect seven-inch colour screen, which boasts a high resolution and is simple to use (but will only be available on higher grades).
With the diesel ditched, there will be two petrol engines and two transmissions in the new Mazda 3 – a 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre and 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre linked to either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission.
The first two new Mazda 3 models to arrive in Australia, and to be tested here at a private proving ground at Anglesea, Victoria, are a ‘middle grade’ 2.0-litre manual and ‘high grade’ 2.5-litre automatic.
Mazda also provided the equivalent previous-generation Neo Sport manual and SP25 auto models for back-to-back comparison testing.
The extra width and new interior of the third-generation Mazda 3 are backed by hugely increased refinement levels. Not only does the new car feel bigger and more stylish inside, but road roar on the coarse-chip and dirt parts of the proving ground, especially, are reduced.
That said, the previous Mazda 3 was one of the noisiest cars in its class, and the road and wind noise improvement with the new one still doesn’t quite match Volkswagen Golf or even Holden Cruze standards.
Perhaps even more noticeable is the engine noise reduction. Where the previous 2.0- and 2.5-litre engines are buzzy and loud as they segue through the upper and middle rev range, the new same-capacity units are both quieter and sweeter to the ear.
Being up to 90kg lighter than its predecessor – in addition to being 30 per cent more rigid – means the new Mazda 3 also feels faster.
An extra gear over the SP25 auto and the addition of proper steering-wheel-mounted paddles also better taps into the 2.5-litre’s power band, while the manual shift for the 2.0-litre is slicker, with a noticeably longer second gear that now stretches to 100km/h.
On the long, speed bowl at the proving ground the old Mazda 3 steering required only a tiny input to get the car to turn in, but the weighting was so light that delicate movements of the hands are needed. The new steering system is far more progressive on-centre, requiring more lock on turn-in, but also being more meaty and consistent once the front wheels bite.
The steering in the new Mazda 3 is quicker overall, though, so despite more initial input being required on turn in, it also takes less time to reach full left or right lock. That can be appreciated on the handling track’s couple of hairpins, where the driver doesn’t need to have their arms crossed-up.
Not only did the old Mazda 3 turn in quickly, but it also felt light on its feet, and was keen to quickly roll onto its outside rear tyres and oversteer after a mid-corner throttle lift. Some of that friskiness has been dialled out of the new Mazda 3 – in the same way it has between the most recent Mazda 6 generations – but although it now feels more planted and secure – thank the extended wheelbase – it’s also beautifully balanced and, more importantly, still fun.
Cornering limits are higher with the new Mazda 3, and the car responds less aggressively once they are reached. The stability control calibration remains excellent.
The lesser model on 16-inch alloy wheels and no-name tyres also rides noticeably better than the higher-grade car on 17-inch alloys with lower-profile Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres.
Both models lose the slight jiggliness that came from the old car’s firm suspension rates, but the newfound softness isn’t reflected by inferior handling, which is crucial for a manufacturer that retains the tag line ‘zoom-zoom’.
Mazda Australia is remaining tight-lipped about the launch line-up of the new Mazda 3, except to confirm that the entry car won’t have MZD connect and won’t cost below $20,000 (the current 3 Neo Sport is clearing out at $19,990 driveaway).
The middle grade model tested still had manual air-conditioning, but did include cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift lever, in addition to the aforementioned alloy wheels.
There was also a suggestion that the SP25 may not be the flagship Mazda 3 range, indicating that the top 2.5-litre may wear Akera or Atenza badges, following the new Mazda 6.
That’s especially likely considering the new Mazda 3 will be available with blind-spot monitoring, head-up display and auto braking between 4km/h and 30km/h, features standard in the Akera versions of Mazda 6 (and CX-5).
Those safety technologies, supported by the new HMI that features app and internet integration and an iDrive-like controller, further makes the previous Mazda 3 feel more than a generation behind.
Add excellent ride and refinement, terrific new drivetrains and the all-important new design that will no doubt help with showroom appeal and, if priced right, the third-generation Mazda 3 looks set to continue its sales success.