To say the Mazda 3 is an important model for the Japanese brand is probably the understatement of the decade. Actually, make that two decades – well, almost.
Since 2003, Mazda has sold more than six million globally. Here in Australia, where the brand has always had a strong following, that number is nudging 900,000. In fact, it’s still the company’s biggest seller, closely followed by its popular mid-size SUV, the CX-5.
The arrival of this all-new fourth-generation version as a ground-up design will only serve to increase that number by some margin. That is, if my time in the hatch version (there’s also a sedan) is any indication of how buyers might react to what is definitely at the pointy end of the small-hatch segment in so many ways.
Oddly enough, I was going to start out by saying it’s a bit of a polarising design – at least, compared with the graceful sedan version. But after living with it for a week, I’m not so sure. For sure, it’s a departure from previous Mazda designs, and even more so with the hatch.
Clearly, there’s been a shift in direction with this new-gen Mazda 3, forgoing character lines for more appealing aesthetics with a greater emphasis on curves in the sheet metal.
About the only issue I’ve got is the view from the rear three-quarter – it’s almost too smooth with an excessive expanse devoid of highlights to break it up. As a result, it tends to give the car a bit of a drooping profile (from that rear three-quarter profile only), unlike the Giugiaro-designed Alfa Romeo Brera Mazda’s designers might have had more than a peek at when sketching this latest Mazda 3. At least, it looks like that to me.
Either way, it’s a forward design that blends a thoroughly contemporary look with overtly sporty intentions, and in a way that should appeal to plenty of new-car buyers in this segment – even in this base-model G20 Pure guise we have here.
Few would argue with the view Mazda represents the premium choice when it comes to Japanese car manufacturers these days. And that’s no more evident from the moment you climb aboard and experience what is a first-class look and feel – even without the likes of leather upholstery.
It might be at the very bottom of the Mazda 3 range, but it certainly doesn’t present as such. If you were none the wiser, you’d probably call it out as a mid-level trim, and that’s before you run your eyes over the exhaustive list of standard features, some of which you might expect to find only on European prestige makes.
It’s not something you can pin down to a single bit of kit, either, like the infotainment system (as good as that is) or even the quality of materials used inside. It’s the whole shebang with this car, from the high-level build quality down to the comfort and support of the front seats, for example.
They’re specially designed to straighten the driver’s pelvis for extra comfort and a more natural driving position. Even the bolsters have been properly thought out despite looking too shallow to be really effective, but they offer good support from hip to shoulder, without feeling overly snug.
It’s all part of Mazda’s proprietary SkyActiv vehicle architecture to enhance the driving experience. We also like the driving position itself – naturally low-set, but not too low as to restrict vision.
Up front, the cabin design is particularly inviting with horizontal lines throughout the dash. Again, you have to keep reminding yourself of its base-trim status. It’s beautifully clean the way the designers have blended several different materials – all of them soft to the touch, and way beyond that of any other entry-level car in the small-car segment.
Even the hard materials have a quality look and feel about them. It’s hard to fault in this regard – it really is. There is one thing, though, that spoils the overall appeal in my view – a nasty plastic-rimmed steering wheel with visible seams. A big oversight in my book and a real shame, entry-level or not.
The switchgear, though, feels European in texture, even down to the way the rotary dials are damped and the knurling effect. Again, the materials are first-rate, especially the metal accents on the door trim. The infotainment system isn’t far off BMW’s iDrive system, and you get the feeling Mazda has used it as a benchmark with its own tweaks along the way. It’s equally intuitive and nicely executed.
I’d defy anyone (industry or other) to pick the G20 Pure as the base variant – not with the likes of LED headlamps with high-beam control and auto on/off function, radar cruise control with stop and go, auto-folding power door mirrors, auto one-touch up-and-down power windows on all doors, and an 8.8-inch widescreen display with Mazda Connect as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. And trust me, that’s just a sample. There’s plenty more to get excited by.
The partial digital instrument display, but still with the old-school binnacles, offers crystal-clear information. It's further enhanced with a head-up display to help keep the driver’s eyes front and centre on the road.
The beauty of a relatively wide design, like the latest Mazda 3, is there’s plenty of shoulder room for driver and passengers. It really does feel spacious, at least up front. Out back, it’s not quite so accommodating with no centre armrest, a single map pocket only, and zero rear air vents that I can see (airflow is supplied by under-seat vents).
Boot space is down on the previous generation equivalent, too - from 308 litres to 295 litres, so it would be wise to check that prams and other gear you need to carry actually fits, though, you can always lower the rear seats (if that's an option) to free up more luggage space.
It’s all a bit claustrophobic back there with its tapered roof line and mandatory narrow rear windows that go with the styling. Rear head room might also be a touch on the tight side for those taller frames. Thankfully, there’s decent leg room and space to slide your feet under those front seats for longer journeys.
Mazda has never been a big fan of turbocharging, and nothing has changed in that regard. But while some of its competitors have downsized to smaller three-cylinder turbo engines for packaging and power benefits, Mazda prefers a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre four-cylinder mated to either a six-speed manual or, in this case, a six-speed auto with a manual mode that shifts the way all cars should – pull for upshifts and push for downshifts.
Its 114kW and 200Nm might not sound like much, but there’s little to complain about from behind the wheel. There’s good response from the throttle and plenty of pull in the mid-range. It’s more than what I would have expected and quite engaging. It's fuel efficient, too, even when you drive it with a fair degree of enthusiasm – try 7.1L/100km, which is about what we expected, compared to an offical 6.2 L/100km rating.
There are a few drawbacks. Despite Mazda going all out with noise and vibration suppression with this new Mazda 3, you won’t like the mechanical racket at full throttle – like 10 blenders flat stick all at once. This is an engine that rewards smooth throttle applications rather than a boot-in approach.
And, do yourself a favour, leave the Sport switch alone. The noise only gets more painful, as all it seems to do is hold the gear ratios to a higher RPM, and you definitely don’t want that.
There’s more power if you want it, but it’s going to cost you more than a few thousand for the privilege. Stepping up to the $30,490 G25 Evolve gets you a 2.5-litre (again, naturally aspirated) four-cylinder with power jumping to 139kW and torque up 52Nm to 252Nm.
Mazda has a reputation for generally firm suspension settings, and while this new Mazda 3 is certainly sporty, the damping is truly excellent and a pleasant surprise for this tester.
Body control is also very well balanced with bump absorption – even broken roads and sharp edges are effectively cushioned. It’s not quite as adept as the current VW Golf in that regard, but I’d argue this feels more sporty and fun to drive. Either way, it’s a close call with what is often regarded as the benchmark small car.
Steering weight and response are also ‘bang on’, and so too is the ratio. It feels naturally linear and relatively quick to respond to steering inputs. Shame about this plastic wheel, then.
Clearly, Mazda chooses to treat safety as a high priority, equipping the ‘3’ with a full suite of all the latest active systems on top of the radar cruise and high-beam assist we’ve already mentioned. There’s even Mazda’s driver-attention alert, which monitors the driver’s attention levels via an in-cabin camera in real time, and will sound an alarm if sensors detect the driver is taking his or her eyes off the road.
But, there’s also forward obstruction warning, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert and traffic sign recognition. It’s an awful lot of kit for an entry-level variant.
At just under 26 grand plus on-roads, the Mazda 3 G20 Pure certainly isn’t the cheapest small car around. Almost all other Japanese- and Korean-branded rivals offer a significantly less expensive entry point, and that goes for the VW Golf, too.
However, I’d argue none of them offer the overall refinement and equipment levels of this latest Mazda 3 – not even close.
2019 Mazda 3 G20 Pure: Specification snapshot
Engine: 2.0-litre in-line four-cylinder with i-stop
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto
Wheels: 16-inch alloys
Boot Space: 295 litres (down from 308)
Equipment highlights: LED headlamps with auto on and auto high-beam, fully digital instrument display, radar cruise control with stop and go, one-touch power windows (up and down) on all doors, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and heaps more
Safety highlights: Head-up display, driver-attention alert, forward-obstruction warning, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert