Steering Column 29.05.09

Spark of the latest Mazda3

Mazda has launched the latest version of its best selling car, the family-sized challenger to Ford’s Focus and Vauxhall’s Astra known as the Mazda3.

We are told that in all its guises it’s more efficient, better performing and even cleaner than before.

When the entire range is up and rolling later in the year, there will be 16 hatchbacks and four saloons with a choice of four petrol and three diesel engines, one automatic and two manual gearboxes, and seven packages of trim and equipment. The majority will be everyday family cars but there will be a range-topping MPS per­formance version launched later this year.

Prices will be between £13,500 and £21,500, power will range from 104 to 256bhp and the official combined fuel economy figures will mostly fall between 37.2mpg and 62.8mpg, though no figure has yet been released for the per­formance model.

The 3 has been given a similar makeover to that already given to its siblings, the 2 and the 6 so it has long, sleek lights, a wider grille across the front and a lot more subtle sculpting, creasing and mould­ing along the flanks, round the nose and around the tail.

Its facial expression has changed from a simpering chirpiness to a wide-mouthed manic Disney-esque smile.

As for the engines, the baby of the petrol range is the 1.6-litre that turns out 104bhp which has an official combined fuel consumption figure of 44.8mpg. It will take the four or five-door model to 62mph in 12.2 seconds.

Next up are two two-litre engines, one with 148bhp fed through the new five-speed auto­matic gearbox or 149bhp piped through the manual box. The latter is a new Direct Injection Spark Ignition or DISI engine which is despite its minute power hike, is significantly more efficient and cleaner than its more basic and cheaper sibling.

King of the heap though is the 2.3 turbo-charged engine in the MPS performance version which will crank out 256bhp. We’ll find out what that means for performance nearer the launch date however we are told it will be more eye-catching than the outgoing MPS.

Despite being a rip-snorting motor that would burn off the majority of other hot hatches, the old model looked disappointingly like its lesser sisters. I’m told the new one will have a bonnet vent, flared arches and a wing.

Diesel engines also start with a 1.6 turning out 108bhp which will reach 62mph, a full 1.2 seconds sooner than its petrol counterpart yet still return on average, almost 20mpg more – the official combined figure is 62.8mpg. It is £1500 more than the petrol model in similar trim, but I think it would be money well spent.

There are two versions of the 2.2-litre diesel unit, turning out either 148 or 182bhp. The price of that power hike is about £1,500 taking the on the road price up from £18,440 to £19,900 in Sport trim.

Indoors, across the range, the dash has been given more swooping lines to make it more modern and less boxy. The in-flight computer and ancillary data is now displayed in an information centre that squats under a long, low cowl that rises like a glass-fronted split in the upper dashboard. Bad news is that there doesn’t seem to be much knee-room for passengers in the back. I’m not sure what’s happened there – these things usually get better with up­grades but from memory it appears to be worse.

At the launch event in Scotland, I first drove the 182bhp 2.2-litre diesel Sport five-door, six-speed manual which bears a price tag of just under £20,000. On a 300-mile trip through stunning Highland scenery, the engine proved so strong that the driving got lazy. I found I could rely on the deep well of torque to keep the little car pulling strongly on all but the steepest inclines.

The suspension set up made a quiet job of smoothing out the patched and pitted mountain roads and straightening the curves on the west coast route. The gearshift felt a bit clunky and mechanical but it was swift, thanks to the short shift stick. The whole experience was one of comfort and ease but perhaps because of our eager progress I got no more than 40mpg out of it – well short of the official average of 50.4mpg.

I also ran an automatic two-litre petrol TS2 with 148bhp in reserve. Extremely quiet and smooth it was, but I found it didn’t actually feel that powerful for a two-litre in such a small car and my spirited drive down the east coast meant it was travelling less than 30 miles on a gallon of unleaded.

The official sprint time of 0-62mph in 10.6 seconds is nothing to write home about.

The automatic gearbox though was excellent, changing through the five cogs so smoothly it was almost imperceptible.

The best response was elicited by using the stubby shift stick in sequential mode. Changes were so rapid and smooth I actually preferred using it in this mode to fully automatic.

Mazda has been making the 3 since 2004 and it is the company’s top selling model in Europe. Last year it moved up to overtake Nissan in the sales chart to become the third biggest seller of Japanese cars, behind only Toyota and Honda.

Whether the new 3 is special enough to keep it there remains to be seen. It’s kind of up to you, the buyer.

Mike Grundon


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