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Driven: Hat trick for next-gen Mazda3

Worthy follow-up: Mazda has come through with the goods with its new '3'.

Now in its third iteration, the all-new Mazda3 throws down the gauntlet to Golf

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Mazda logo12 Jul 2013

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

NEVER mind the Toyota Corolla and company, because premium small-car competitors such as the Volkswagen Golf, Volvo V40 and even the Audi A3 are also in the brand new Mazda3’s firing line.

Out in February, the third-generation of Australia’s favourite car over the past two years brings improvements in almost every area, from dynamics to cabin quality, refinement to efficiency.

We know all this because we’ve driven it, in Los Angeles of all places. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that while pricing and other specification details won’t be divulged until the end of this year, it is likely that the base 2.0-litre hatch will probably kick off from at least $1000 more than before, to help pay for all the advances.

But trust us, holding out for the all-new – and we mean all-new – BM-series Mazda3 will be worth it, if our day driving in and around Los Angeles in pre-production prototypes proved anything.

These early build test hatchbacks (the sedans are still nowhere to be seen) are said to fairly represent the eventual proper production car, even though the trick new multimedia and satellite navigation systems were not yet functional.

Nor was the fit and finish anywhere near Mazda’s hard-won reputation for quality – but since they’re early build cars, we’ll reserve judgement.

We can say with surety the lower and wider exterior design appears far more upmarket than before, fusing Japanese detailing with Italian-esque proportions for a far more visually compelling style.

Sure, the Mazda3’s complex curves and carvings are thematically inspired by the original BMW 1 Series, but there’s a hint of Alfa Romeo Giulietta elegance here and dash of latest Benz A-Class spirit there.

As the posh brand name-checking affirms, Mazda’s in an expansive mood and wants to show its 3.5 million-strong customer base how haute its couture can get.

That ‘Signature Wing’ grille isn’t any less goofy in real life, however.

Stepping inside the new-comer continues the premium theme – as evidenced by the very Audi-style T-section dash layout, complete with stylish single-dial digital/analogue instrumentation, ‘floating’ central touchscreen and welcome lack of the fussiness that cheapened the outgoing model.

Indeed, the Mazda3’s cabin appearance is a league ahead of the comparatively drab item found in the closely related CX-5 and Mazda6.

Since none of the seven-inch touchscreens were connected, we can’t tell you how well any of their various functions work, except that a video demonstration during the press conference impressed us with the ergonomics, logic and ease of their operation.

We’ll wait and see what the Australian cars serve up.

What is in perfect operating order is the Mazda-first and mainstream small-car segment-leading heads-up display screen, that only features vital driving-related info, and on a need-to-know basis at that.

Kudos, too, goes to the BMW iDrive-style controller, created especially to minimise distraction and maximise utility. As with every button we pressed, twisted or prodded, the movement felt well engineered.

Yet the Japanese firm’s past is also present.

Look at how low the cowl is, with horizontal dash themes redolent of the original version. There’s a hint of RX-8 in the disc-embossed climate-control fascia in upmarket models, the attractive steering wheel and smart materials bring to mind the Mazda6, and there’s a proper old-fashioned handbrake – just like virtually every Mazda both good and bad have had since the beginning.

All but one prototype was fitted with a sunroof, yet even the inevitable loss of headroom didn’t seem an issue in the low, wide, and spacious cabin. There are tonnes of places to store stuff (including larger bottles in all four doors), and the child-seat restraint straps don’t foul cargo space since they live directly behind the rear seatbacks.

However, despite this jump, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

While up-spec Mazda3s are snappily attired with leather and contrasting metallic bling, heaps of gadgets like sat-nav, internet radio, a parking camera and blind-spot/lane-change/emergency city stop driver-aiding tech, the base models must make do with too many blacks and greys.

Some colour is sorely needed to spice up the interior of 2014’s Neo equivalent.

Of more concern is the poor reverse parking vision, since the daylight opening is severely restricted by the window-line upswing. After a raft of glassy new vehicles this year such as the Subaru Forester, the restricting rear pillars come as a disappointment.

So is the marginally smaller boot (sedan is up to 22 litres behind the outgoing version at 408L while the sedan’s 408L capacity is up to 32L shy), even though Mazda installs a temporary spare wheel to help maximise available space.

Note, also, that Aussie-bound 3s aren’t getting the i-eloop system that debuted in the recent Mazda6.

Mazda Australia managing director Martin Benders says it adds complexity and cost in cars that are already efficient.

We didn’t get a chance to put the latter to the test, but there is no doubt in our minds that the next Mazda3 should be on your next small-car short list just on the strength of its steering engineering and above-par driving capabilities.

Take the base 2.0-litre SkyActiv petrol engine. While it doesn’t sound especially seductive, it has sufficient torque down low, doesn’t mind an aggressive bootful of revs and is quite happy cruising at freeway speeds.

The new six-speed SkyActiv auto switches between gears quickly and seamlessly and has a manual mode with the lever set in the ideal position.

Mazda’s first new manual gearbox since the 1980s, meanwhile, has a crisp action familiar to any MX-5 owner. The two examples we flung about had us wanting more after each drive.

More-so than its smaller sibling, the rortier 2.5-litre version of the SkyActiv four-cylinder direct-injection petrol unit shines, trading a dash of refinement for a dollop of low-down torque and high-end flexibility.

No 2.5-litre/manual combinations were available for us to test here in LA (Australia is the only market in line for it so far), but the auto mates just as swimmingly as it did with the smaller powerplant.

Mazda’s SkyActiv drivetrain and ‘chassis’ components are a modular exercise, with cost-cutting commonalities between model lines.

The first version – the CX-5 – sits close to the top of its class, while the current Mazda6 that followed is also a medium-segment benchmark. We believe the BM Mazda3 will usher in an even brighter dawn for the Hiroshima company.

Let’s make this perfectly clear. Even though the vehicles we drove aren’t full-production examples, have US-spec suspension and tyres that prioritises all-weather security, and were sampled on roads that Mazda says were used for honing the 3’s dynamics, we feel confident enough to call the electric power steering magnificent.

Yep. The Japanese family hatchback’s helm is more fun than a Ford Focus’, more communicative than a Golf’s and – in this scribe’s opinion – more satisfying than any current small BMW or Mini.

Mazda’s engineers explained their goal was to make the steering heavier mechanically, lighter electronically, and highly communicative.

It’s light as a feather in a carpark, but adds weight at speed as all good systems do. There is excellent feel-and-feedback, and perfect linearity to boot.

Not an easy compromise to achieve, but since Mazda began with a clean sheet of paper, every component was honed and/or optimised to literally connect with the driver.

Our excitedly scribbled test notes tell the story: “Crisp, poised, controllable, yet light on its feet, with lush feedback and perfect weighting, as well as exceptional grip and security.”

Could we really be talking about a Mazda3? We raced up and down lonely mountain roads, with rapidly undulating surfaces and unexpected camber changes, and all the while the reinvented hatchback scurried along just sticking to the road, taking most of the unexpected bumps in its stride, and resetting the non-GTI handling rules for a small car runabout.

With the stability and traction controls left switched on, fast tight turns often saw the rear lightening just a little bit for an added realm of adjustability, but the car just clung on in there.

Considering that this model is about 70kg lighter than before, that all-pervasive sense of agility and alacrity wasn’t just in our head. The new Mazda3’s brilliant handling had our enthusiasts’ hearts soaring.

Fatter tyres (from Yokohama all-weather 205/60 R16s to Dunlop SP Sport 215/45 R18) traded some of that playfulness for additional grip (and a tad more road noise intrusion – though it was hard to ascertain how much quieter the newcomer is than the noisy current one on these US roads), but the overall dynamic satisfaction remained intact.

After experiencing just how invigorating and electrifying the next Mazda3 is to drive, and in concert with all the design, comfort, refinement, quality, ergonomic and efficiency gains it has managed, we reckon that the new Golf 7’s reign as the world’s best small car might be seriously under threat.

Of course, we have to make that decision based on Australian road conditions.

But even if the next best-seller costs upwards of $1000 more than before, all the signs are strong that the 2014 Mazda3 might be the best car the company has ever sold in this country, and so worth every single extra cent.

“This is a really, really good car so it will get the price it deserves,” Mr Benders believes. “It will reset the benchmark in the small-car segment.”

It isn’t just Corolla and co that have something to fear.

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