Richard Aucock
08/07/2009 06:04 | By Richard Aucock, contributor, MSN Cars

Mazda 3 1.6 review (2004-2009)

Mazda 3 (© Mazda)


Bodystyle: Hatchback
Engine: 1.6-litre In-line 4-cylinder
Fuel type: Petrol
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Date of test: October 2003

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What is it?

The final piece in Mazda's jigsaw of resurgence. Things kicked off with the superb Mazda6 range, continued with the Mazda2 hatchback and RX-8 sports coupe, leaving the only hole in the family hatchback sector; the Mazda3 fills it. Developed alongside the next-generation Ford Focus, it's a far more interesting and likeable car than the 323 it replaces, and carries many of the styling cues already seen on the rejuvenated range. It's certainly one of the sector's stand-out models.

Where does it fit?

Mazda has had a presence in the family hatchback sector for two decades; it's just that the designs have been so dull, few people noticed. But not anymore. The Mazda3 is sleek enough to offer a viable alternative to the Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra, as well as the next-generation Ford Focus it's based upon. Certainly it's livelier than Toyota's Corolla, though Mazda has decided not to make it quite as mega-space-efficient as the Honda Civic. Strong competition may also come from Renault's equally stylish Megane.

Is it for you?

The Mazda6 rejuvenated the entire Mazda range; its presence alone seemed to encourage people to buy previously-ignored models such as the Premacy and MPV. So the Mazda3, which has real talent to support this sharp new image, should be attractive to a wide market. Certainly it's bang up-to-date and on the dynamic pace of rivals, while the roomy interior offers impressive dimensions; kneeroom is class-leading, other figures are well up there. The 1.6-litre model is likely to be the best-seller and thus the model which will make the Mazda3's fortunes; it's certainly a more likeable model than the faster 2.0-litre, almost as if Mazda has optimised the car around the smaller engine. Those on a budget may consider the 1.4-litre petrol, while bearing in mind it could struggle against the car's weight.

What does it do well?

Stand-out design shrouds a very well-rounded car indeed. Immediately apparent is a spot-on driving position, with plenty of adjustment offered by seat and steering wheel. Build quality is also very good and trim materials high quality; arguably, it betters the Mazda6 in this respect. And a slick gearchange, easy clutch and smooth power delivery make it feel sophisticated around town. But it's the car's ability when pushed hard which impresses most; rapid driving reveals an unflappable chassis which rarely descends into shabbiness, no matter how challenging the roads. Bumps are absorbed without fuss, grip is ample and electronic stability control deals with slip at the limits easily. It feels almost like a shrunken big car, so commanding is its performance, yet offers just enough interaction to have fun.

What doesn't it do well?

The 1.6-litre engine is not torquey at low revs, nor particularly rapid at the high revs it needs to get into its stride; the punch you expect is never quite there, and it becomes noisy above 4,000rpm too. It's efficient, but will probably struggle when fully-laden with, say, a holidaying family. The family may also find fault with the '80s interior styling cues - good build and attractive design is ruined by garish seat trim, an LED-laden stereo and red highlights in the unerring black dash trim. The stereotypical '80s designer pad is paid homage here. But otherwise the Mazda3 is competitive; certainly the styling makes it an attractive alternative for those who don't want a Ford/Vauxhall/Volkswagen.

What's it like to live with?

Space is ample front and back, while the boot is roomy if, seemingly, a little shallow. Blame sophisticated rear suspension, derived from the Mazda6? Equipment levels are likely to be reasonably generous, as Mazda strives to improve its market share in this sector. There should be more kit than on more 'mainstream' rivals. It's probably worth selecting a model with climate control though, as it makes the dash look far neater - shame the same can't be said of the sat nav controller, which looks like an add-on and is at odds with the fold-away Lexus-style colour screen (a seriously good-looking option). This car is built in Japan to, it seems, a very high standard, so there should be no issues with reliability.

Would we buy it?

The Mazda3 in 1.6-litre guise appeals; engine seems perfectly mated to car, all the controls working slickly and the general feel being one of sophistication. Certainly the 2.0-litre, though faster, seems less refined and 'complete'. We'd consider it if we were in the market for a family hatchback which will turn heads. But it wouldn't top our list, as the 1.6-litre engine doesn't quite have the zest we've come to expect in a car of this size. It needs a bit too much work to perform well, which is at odds with the abilities of the chassis. No, our Mazda3 money would go on one of the diesel models, with the easy-going torque to match a car with surprising sophistication. Parts of the interior may be tacky but, overall, this is a car that's well worth a look.

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