Forbidden Diesel-drinking Mazda3 you can’t get Stateside is a smooth blend of style and efficiency

Mazda has created one of the most beautiful shapes in the compact hatchback segment, its new Mazda3 hatch, a shape that lifts it above any competitor in terms of design. It has a pretty face, nice sides, and a unique rear end that lends it a lot of personality, but at the same time, it also needs to do all the boring, practical stuff well in order to be a serious class contender.

Its interior feels upmarket, and the driving experience is precise and relaxed, especially if the power plant under the hood is Mazda’s latest diesel engine, still available in the 3 and other models the Japanese manufacturer sells in Europe. This latest model doesn’t feel as sharp as its predecessor nor is it the best in class, but it’s far more relaxed and refined than the car it replaces, and it exudes an overall desirable and premium feeling.

The car it replaces was a great all-rounder, although it suffered from excessive tire roar inside at speed (and generally not the best soundproofing), plus its interior didn’t feel as nice as some rivals’, and it also lagged behind in terms of tech. Mazda has addressed all these concerns and more with its new 3, and the result is a much better all-rounder with an even prettier face than before, plus that rear end that will sure to draw a lot of gazes.

Exterior

  • Sexiest sheetmetal in its class
  • This car has no bad angles in our book
  • Evolution of previous model’s design
  • Base headlights have LED high/low beams, but halogen DRLs
  • Optional "Machine Grey" paint is very suitable, less obvious than "Crystal Red"
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Mazda has opted to continue along the same Kodo design philosophy with its latest models, essentially the same look as its previous-gen models, but nipped, tucked, and sharpened up for 2019. And, it’s really worked, as I didn’t really find any bad angles around the new Mazda3, the more daring of the two available body styles (the other is the sedan that is nowhere near as original looking as the liftback).

But, while there is certainly a lot of style to admire here, it’s all somewhat subdued, and it’s very clear Mazda really likes simplicity and minimalism. Unlike some manufacturers that give their cars fake vents, intakes, louvers, or spoilers, the Mazda3 hatch has no superfluous details.

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Take the front end, for instance.

Its fascia is certainly similar to that of other modern cars in its segment, but unlike many of those, the Mazda3 doesn’t have separate outer intakes or vents in the bumper.

It doesn’t even have any fog lights, and while some manufacturers may have put some fake vents there, or some form of plastic trim to break the monotony, Mazda didn’t have to because of the sculptural quality of the new 3’s design.

The headlights on my tester were the basic ones. You can pay extra to get full LED clusters with LED daytime running lights, but my car didn’t have them. But this way I was able to notice that the standard headlights have LED high and low beams and they look almost identical to the more expensive ones. The main difference is the fact that they rely on halogen bulbs for daytime running lights and, to be honest, the warm yellowish light looks a bit out of place next to the colder light hue of the headlight beams.

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As your eyes run along the car’s side, smooth and flowing are the words that come to mind. Its roof tapers strongly towards the rear, and that chunky C-pillar really gives it a certain je ne sais quoi that cookie cutter rivals cannot match. And, obviously, there are no fake vents on the sides either, not even that extra crease on the doors that you see on pretty much all new cars - that crease is there because designers feel like the flat side of the doors is boring to look at, so they feel like some extra flair needs to be injected.

The Mazda3 hatch does have a subtle rising crease that gives the doors depth, but it’s far more subtle than what you see on most rivals. And it doesn’t need strong creases to make a statement because its sheetmetal has many subtle curves that you won’t notice right away, yet they will become more apparent as you spend more time with the car and look at it from different angles, under different lighting conditions.

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Moving to the back of the Mazda3 hatch, the car looks like it has wide haunches that lend it a very planted look. View it straight on from the rear, and you really notice this along with the fact that the back is by no means fussy. In fact, it is just as clean as the front - nothing is here that doesn’t deserve its place. Well, maybe apart from the dual exhausts that are just ridiculous on a car that does’t even make 120 horsepower and whose benchmark sprint time can be described as leisurely at best...

My tester had the basic rear lights that don’t have a full LED setup, yet again, just as the case was with the front light clusters, the difference between the basic lights and the more expensive option is really insignificant and hard to notice - maybe even harder to notice for the rear light clusters than the fronts.

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Overall, the Mazda3 is very easy on the eye, with lots of subtle details that keep it from becoming boring to look at over time.

This is maybe a risky approach for Mazda, as the new 3 hatch is in a segment that is shrinking and being taken over by the crossover segment. Even though it’s not obvious, it is undeniably pretty, and people who know design, I think, will really like the look of it and understand what Mazda was trying to achieve with it.

2019 Mazda3 exterior dimensions

Wheelbase 2,725 mm (107.28 inches)
Length 4,459 mm (175.55 inches)
Width 1,797 mm (70.74 inches)
Height 1,440 mm (56.69 inches)

Interior

  • Great comfort for front occupants
  • Mediocre comfort for rear occupants
  • Mediocre trunk with high load lip
  • Interior looks premium
  • Has the best (biggest/softest) front armrests in the segment
  • Build quality is only average
  • Infotainment is a peach
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Mazda has to be applauded for the sheer quality feel of the new 3’s interior. Assembly quality is not quite up there with the manufacturers that are class leading in this respect - there is a bit more play and movement in some of the interior panels and components than you wold like or expect. My biggest gripe is with the flimsy feeling glove box that, when closed, has ridiculous amounts of play. It doesn’t rattle while you’re driving along or anything like that, but compared to the impressive high-quality feel of the rest of the cabin, it really sticks out.

So, while assembly quality is not the best, perceived quality is exceptional by class standards - there are plenty of nice, soft-touch surfaces, the design is sculptural minimalism at its best, and there are enough touches to make it feel special. For instance, the area around the instrument binnacle (that has a standard 7-inch digital speedo) is similar in style to what you might see in a Ferrari 458 or 488, complete with the vents that flank it.

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Sitting behind the wheel, the first thing you notice is the steering wheel, though.

It is the first thing you touch after having climbed into the driver’s seat, and it too is suitably premium. The design is similar to that of a BMW M helm, and that includes the split vertical prong - you don’t even get this split spoke design in M Performance models, and you actually have to buy a fully-fledged Motorsport BMW to have something similar. And yet, this is the standard steering wheel on the new Mazda3.

It feels good in the hands too. The rim is the right size and thickness (even if it’s thinner than the aforementioned BMW wheel), the leather with which it’s wrapped feels pretty good, and the stitching is better than it used to be on older Mazda models where it felt not as well executed as some rivals’.

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One of the best parts of the Mazda3’s interior has to be the huge front center armrest. It is simply massive, you can slide it forward or back and it is about as soft and comfortable as you can expect from any car in the industry at any price. The same soft material is present inside the armrests on the front doors too, so both your elbows can rest comfortably while cruising on the highway.

The driving position is also about as good as it gets for a car in its class.

The seat is comfortable too, and you really feel like you’re in control of the car thanks to all the adjustments that are available, especially those for the steering wheel. I also noticed that in spite of the fact you can really get nice and low in the Mazda3, front visibility remains surprisingly good. The same isn’t true for rear visibility, though, as it is one of, if not the worst, in the segment. It is pretty enough from the outside that I can forgive this.

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From behind the wheel, there’s little to distract your attention. Climate controls are grouped where you’ve come to expect them in cars of the last few decades and are thankfully operated through a whole suite of physical buttons for all functions. You don’t have to scroll or swipe through infotainment menus to access the climate functions like you do in quite a few new cars these days - a trend that not all buyers or automotive journos are on board with.

And there are cars out there with infotainment screen-operated climate control schemes that run through slow, low-res, and annoying infotainment systems. But, Mazda’s isn’t one of those. I was actually really surprised and impressed by how well the new Mazda Connect works. Sure, it’s called exactly the same as the system it replaces, but it’s really an all new system that is much better in every single way.

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Showering infotainment systems with praise is not something I do often in my reviews because I either usually expect them to be good or bad, and I’m not often wrong about this.

However, I honestly didn’t have high hopes for the Mazda infotainment, yet it has a very simple and easy to learn menu structure, its 8.8-inch screen is high-res enough that you never see any pixels, it has plenty of processing power so it never lagged and, last but not least, the control method (skillfully copied from BMW’s iDrive) works a charm in this application tool.

My tester also had a head-up display, but it wasn’t one of those cheap ones you usually see on cars on the more affordable end of the market. The one in the Mazda3, though, is projected straight onto the windscreen (and not onto a separate, plastic screen that pops up), and it’s very big, bright, and clear. It’s actually one of the better HUD systems out there on any car, at any price.

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However, it’s not all good news inside the Mazda3 hatch. As I tried to sit in the rear seat behind the driver’s seat set for my driving position (I am 183 centimeters / 6-foot tall) and I just about fit. But, space for my knees was not very good, even by class standards (although the Peugeot 308 feels even tighter) and headroom wasn’t terrific either as my hair was not just brushing the headliner, but giving it a good, thorough sweep every time I moved my head.

Speaking of the headliner, I really liked the black headliner fitted to my tester. I think it’s one of the easiest ways to spice up a car cabin and also make it feel sportier. It doesn’t really help for rear passengers in this instance, though, as it adds to the feeling of claustrophobia accentuated by the sloping roofline and small, tapering rear side windows (that look great from the outside, yet from the inside the compromise is clear).

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Finally, the trunk is not this car’s strong point. It has an unusually high load lip that really makes putting heavy items in the back more difficult than it should and, even after you’ve overcome it, load volume is below average. The trunk is also devoid of any additional accessories, like elastic netting, D-rings, or tie-down hooks like you get in some other (more practical) rival models.

Drivetrain

  • New Skyactiv-D 1.8-liter diesel replaces both older 1.5- and 2.2-liter units
  • Pulls well in-gear, but it’s not the fastest off the line with the automatic
  • Get it with the excellent six-speed manual, avoid the auto unless you really have to get it
  • Efficiency is predictably awesome, since it is a diesel
  • Great long-legged character suitable for cruising
  • Engine is surprisingly refined once warmed up
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Mazda has replaced both the older and quite unremarkable 1.5-liter diesel it used to offer in the 3, as well as the much more powerful and enjoyable to drive 2.2-liter with a new 1.8-liter that’s only available in one power output.

It makes 116 horsepower and 199 pound-feet (270 Nm) of torque, and it can be had with either a standard six-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic transmission.

My tester was powered by this new diesel and the six-speed self-shifter. It is worth noting that with the standard manual gearbox, the car sprints from naught to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 10.1 seconds (a pretty respectable time for something with this little power), yet that figure is increased by two whole seconds (to 12.1 seconds) if you opt for the automatic.

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It doesn’t feel this slow in the real world, though, as the oil burner has plenty of grunt low down (peak torque arrives at 1,450 rpm) to keep the car going. However, it really makes me wonder just how much better the car is (and feels) with the six-speed stick that Mazda is renowned for. Not opting for the automatic also improves fuel efficiency - during my test drive, my automatic-equipped example achieved 7.5 l/100km (31.36 mpg U.S.), and I did by no means try to drive it efficiently; quite the contrary actually, so the figure is reasonably good for what I put the car through.

The engine is quite refined for a diesel once warmed up, thanks in part to what Mazda describes as “a rapid Multi-stage Combustion technique, featuring super-high-response, and multi-hole piezo fuel injectors that shorten the combustion period and reduces knock noises. A single, variable geometry turbocharger delivers efficient boost from low to high rpm... The engine also features a number of other Skyactiv-D technologies, such as High-Precision DE Boost Control, Natural Sound Smoother and Natural Sound Frequency Control, to improve control of engine torque and reduce combustion noise.”

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And, they really seem to do the trick as once you get going.

The fact that the engine is a diesel isn’t as apparent as it is at idle when you simply can’t escape the familiar clatter.

It’s nowhere near as bad as you might think it is if you haven’t experienced a modern diesel in the last decade - you might just be surprised. On the move, you do hear some drone under hard acceleration, but it is accompanied by more enjoyable turbo noises that prevent it from sounding completely dull and uninteresting.

Engine 1.8D Skyactiv-D
Displacement 1759 cc
Bore x stroke 79.0x89.7 mm
Maximum output 116 HP @ 4,000 RPM
Maximum torque 199 LB-FT @ 1,600-2,600 RPM
Valves per cylinder 4
Compression ratio 14.8:1
Acceleration (0-60 mph in sec) 10.1 sec.
Top speed (mph) 121 mph

Driving Impressions

  • Not as sharp to drive as the outgoing model or sportiest rivals in class
  • Steering is good, but you have to apply more lock than in most modern rivals
  • Suspension is quite soft and the car rolls in corners
  • Torsion beam rear suspension has no benefits
  • Needs more powerful engines, stiffer suspension to exploit its chassis more
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While this car is an improvement over its predecessor in pretty much every single way, I don’t think it’s as fun to drive as the Mazda3 hatch it replaces. Firstly, the steering now has less feel than before and, while it may still be one of the sharper feeling steering systems in any car in its class, I honestly didn’t find it as fun to drive as its predecessor.

There is plenty of precision in the steering, thankfully, and making fine adjustments to the car’s line mid-corner is easy and rewarding.

However, it does feel like you have to apply a bit too much lock to it to get it to do what you want - driving my nearly two decades-old Ford back home after dropping the Mazda3 hatch off, I didn’t have to readjust to its steering as I have to do returning to it after driving a sharper, more modern car. I would have liked the Mazda3’s steering rack to be just that little bit sharper to make the car feel a bit more eager to turn than it currently is, and I would have preferred the suspension to a be a tad stiffer too - the car rolls a bit too much in the corners for my taste.

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Then there’s the problem of the rear suspension. No matter how much Mazda (or any other manufacturer) will go on about how moving from an independent rear suspension setup to a simpler and cheaper-to-make torsion beam rear suspension setup doesn’t negatively affect the car, you always need to stay grounded and remember that’s pure BS. I noticed how this setup negatively affected the car immediately after picking it up from Mazda and going over some railway tracks and over some potholed, uneven roads on my way out of the city.

There’s no getting around the fact that having a big girder connecting both rear wheels will result in less comfort and a more fidgety ride, simply because if you take a pothole with one wheel, the jolt from that will be transmitted to the other wheel and, inherently, into the cabin too. But, even so, for a car with such a suspension setup, the Mazda3 hatch is decently comfortable on most types of roads, especially on expressways or highways where it feels most at home. At least this setup is supposed to be a bit lighter than an independent one - the only advantage other than the cost-cutting for Mazda.

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I really wanted to rave on about how the new Mazda3 driving experience is a cut above rivals, it is more fun and more engaging.

But I cannot state that because it wouldn’t be true as I think that cars like the new Ford Focus feel far more agile, for instance. And, on the comfort front, it is overtaken by the aging VW Golf or the new Kia Ceed.

But it is still a decent performer, just not really class leading in any dynamic sense. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of grip on the front axle of the Mazda3 hatch, and it gives the driver plenty of confidence to throw the car into corners and brake late, but it is by no means the best car in the segment at that. It offers an accomplished handling package, but it will not set your heart on fire - for that, you will have to look elsewhere. And I don’t think any of the higher powered versions will help it too much in this respect as the car just seems set up more for comfort and cruising than for corner carving.

Pricing

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If you want the new Mazda3 hatch with the 1.8-liter Skyactiv-D power plant, the starting price is €21,990, but if you want the automatic transmission, you’ll have t move to the “Plus” version that starts from €25,790. To that price tag you can add the €500 Bose sound system with 12 speakers, the €1,100 style pack that adds the full LED front and rear light clusters, glossy plastic exterior trim for the B-pillar, additional interior ornaments, and paddle shifters on the steering wheel. The €1,500 luxury pack adds leather upholstery, an electrically adjustable driver’s seat with memory function, the €900 Safety pack adds a 360-degree around-view monitoring system, rear cross traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control.

My tester’s Machine Grey paint finish adds another €540 to the final tally, but it’s really worth it, and it suits the car just as well as the deep Soul Crystal red that’s also available (and more expensive, at €690).

Competition

Ford Focus

2019 Ford Focus Exterior Interior
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If you want the sharpest driving vehicle in its segment, then the Ford Focus is right up your street. Its interior doesn’t look quite as nice as the Mazda’s but it is more spacious and practical and, dare I say it, better built too. Plus it has a much wider array of engines to choose from (including the more performance-oriented, more powerful engines the Mazda3 is so sorely missing right now). You can also have the Focus in several flavors (standard, ST Line, Vignale and Active) and even as a family-friendly wagon too. In the future, Ford will also launch hot hatch and all-wheel drive hyper hatch versions of it too and so far Mazda has not announced anything of the sort (in spite of some rumors that a hot Mazda3 is on the table).

Read our full review on the 2019 Ford Focus

VW Golf

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The seventh-gen VW Golf may be gettin a bit long in the tooth, yet it’s still the best built hatchback you can buy. No other offering from another manufacturer even comes close and despite the fact that it is quite boring to look at, both inside and out, it does everything you ask of it really well. It handles very well, it is comfortable, refined and, like the Focus, it has a wide array of powertrain options. You can even get one with all-wheel drive without it having to be the hot Golf R model, should you need extra traction, but the low fuel consumption figures of a diesel. Oh, and the automatic gearbox available on the Golf is just better than what you get in the Mazda (and the Ford, for that matter).

Read our full review on the 2019 Volkswagen Golf

Volvo V40

2017 Volvo V40 High Resolution Exterior
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Mazda is lightly treading in premium territory with the new 3 hatch. Its interior looks properly premium (and also feels it for the most part) and its exterior style is unmatched. Yet there is another car with premium aspirations in the segment, the Volvo V40, a car that is competent to drive (although not as fun to throw around as any of the other cars mentioned here), it has a quirky yet high quality interior with unique style and safety credentials that place it above its rivals. The Volvo badge has become quite cool in recent years (ever since they stepped up their design game), I think, and this just nudges the V40 ahead of rivals in terms of image and how the car is perceived.

Read our full review on the 2019 Volvo V40.

Final Thoughts

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Mazda has tried really hard to make the 3 hatch a sexy silvery bullet squarely aimed to kill its class competitors. But, while it is certainly sexy, you can’t actually have it in silver, and it isn’t actually class leading in any area apart from design. In terms of the way it looks, it’s certainly class-leading, as I think it is by far the prettiest compact hatch to look at from any angle. It has a lot of subtle detail in its body that isn’t immediately apparent, but as you spend more time with the car, you start to notice it.

Its interior looks like that of a premium car, but if you start to pull and prod around the cabin, you realize that it’s only about three-quarters of the way there. It lags behind some rivals in terms of assembly quality, although it must be mentioned that the Mazda3 is still built well enough for what it is.

The driving experience, especially in an example powered by the new Skyactiv-D diesel engine, is best described as precise, comfortable, and refined. It’s not the last word in driving sharpness, but it is by no means bad either, and it actually has more grip than you think. It has impressive amounts of grip, so much so that once you get into a rhythm with it and really start to lean on it, you won’t feel the need to brake hard for some corners, as you know the pointy front end will help you out.

It’s definitely a car to consider if you’re looking for a compact hatch, and even the diesel engine that I got to drive might make sense for some people (although projected sales for it are low, under 10 percent of all the models they expect to sell will drink from the black pump). But I would advise against the automatic gearbox simply because it is an unremarkable unit by modern standards, whereas the six-speed manual makes the car faster, more frugal, and more fun - you can’t beat that combination, especially in a car that looks like it goes pretty fast.

The pick of the range will undeniably be the 2.0-liter Skyactiv-X engine that will be added to the range in the coming months. If you want your Mazda3 hatch to at least try to match its visual impact with performance, then go for the most powerful power plant available. Hopefully, Mazda will green light the hot hatch version of this car because that has the potential to become something truly great.

  • Leave it
    • Not as sharp to drive as the best in class
    • Needs more powerful engines
    • Needs sportier versions with stiffer suspension, grippier tires
    • Avoid the automatic because it negatively affects performance and efficiency
    • It’s not as practical as the best in class

Further Reading

2019 Mazda 3 Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2019 Mazda 3.

2019 Mazda 3 Sedan Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2019 Mazda 3 Sedan.

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