Predictably unpredictable the Mazda3 provides Sport twist
Add up all of the cars that Iain Robertson has owned for longer than a few weeks and it exceeds forty different models, yet Mazda is one of those brands where he can claim to have enjoyed more than just a solitary example.
From the days when it was just, ordinary, if occasionally unusual Japanese rolling stock, as Toyo Kogyo, through its world-formative, if slightly troubled Ford years (1979-2010), to its current state of public ownership, I shall admit to being a Mazda fan. One of the first high performance cars I ever owned was a Mazda RX3 (in 1975), powered by the, then, revolutionary (if you can pardon the pun) rotary engine.
Mazda seemed to know better than other Japanese carmakers how to produce a responsive, satisfying and purposeful motorcar. In subsequent years, with a business of my own, I bought a small run of Mazda models, including the upright 1300 and the 818 (which shared the conventional, gutsy 1.3-litre petrol motor). Since then, I have simply appreciated the brand.
Mind you, my first MPG Marathon success came with a class victory in 2002 with a Mazda6 2.0-litre, followed by several class wins in a 6MPS, a CX7 and finally outright victory (for the greatest improvement on its Official Combined fuel figure) in a Mazda3MPS. I also won the Cape-to-Cape Rally in a Mazda6 Sport. Overall, I have enjoyed the Mazda brand immensely over the years, its often leftfield products encouraging me to support the company‘s endeavours.
Therefore, the prospect of driving the most recent, lukewarm version of the Mazda3, now that it has been confirmed that an MPS (‘hot’) model will not form part of its line-up, was not only long-awaited but actually long overdue. To be frank, I am not averse to a less road-burning, less dynamic, less punchy family hatchback, as long as the car is competent. While the former 256bhp MPS model was capable of returning well in excess of 50mpg, it was a figure not readily attainable by the normal driver, a factor that has led to its demise, as part of an effort to be more ’mainstream’, even though a ‘halo’ model is now missing from the range.
Being almost 100bhp down on its previous, significantly sportier, top-drawer 2.3-litre model (just a 2.0-litre unit, now with 162bhp and non-turbocharged) is not such a major demerit in today’s motoring environment. The promise of a slightly better throttle response than the former Turbo is a good one, or it might have been, had Mazda’s rivals not introduced some rather impressive, smaller capacity turbocharged units. Still, it makes a decent fist on the progress front, with enough verve to clock the 0-60mph sprint in just 7.9 seconds, before coursing on to a top speed of 130mph.
The original brief drive I had in a 3 Sport, in blizzard conditions, in the Caithness area of Scotland (in very late-2013), gave little away, other than underscoring the model’s excellent chassis dynamics. Stiff suspension, wide tyres and a sporting edge are not the best bed-partners while driving on ice and packed snow, which the 3 Sport handled significantly better than I figured it might. A Citroen 2CV is the ideal bad weather machine!
Yet, that drive was brief and I am afraid that the 3 Sport simply slipped my net since. Upon initial acquaintance, the new 3 presents strongly. Its good looking ‘face’, smart profile and equally crisp rear-end gift it a higher image than it warrants. Mazda’s design brief has always possessed a stand-out quality that lifts it above its core competitors. Crack open the driver’s door and the interior is attractive and welcoming, another important element of the Mazda premise. Fortunately, it is a comfortable and slightly cosseting environment, with plenty of soft-touch surfaces, hide trim and a conscious driver focus.
The large central rev-counter of the three-dial instrument pod highlights the sporting intent of the 3 Sport. Reflected on a Perspex panel atop the pod is a ‘head-up’ display of speed and, if called upon, the sat-nav arrow. Otherwise, the touch-screen in the centre of the dashboard-top matches the ‘pop-up’ types of several other, up-market models, even though this one is fixed (a la Merc). It is all very neat and focused.
Access to the car is very good, with good space in the rear bench, which split-folds to increase the already quite generous boot capacity. The hatchback (strangely for our market, there is a saloon variant) opens wide and high enough to make loading the boot an easy prospect.
There is little to complain about on the dynamics front either. The 3 Sport sits nicely planted on the road, with firm but still compliant damping and springs ensuring that ride comfort is not compromised too far by the Sport designation. Nicely geared and weighted steering makes wheel-twirling a veritable delight and there is a wonderfully ‘connected’ feel at the helm of the car that ensures corner clipping need never be less than surgically precise. Despite the sporty low-profile tyres, road noise is subdued and, allied to excellent wind noise suppression, travelling in a 3 Sport is mostly a refined and comfortable practice.
However, the engine is a soul-less device. Unusually for a Mazda, it lacks any aural pleasantness and simply gets about its business without an ounce of character. If this is the trade-off from the previous sporty effort, then I believe it to be an unfortunate one. While there is no denying the on-paper figures, matched by a 55.3mpg Official Combined fuel figure and 135g/km CO2 rating, I can only presume that Mazda’s insistence on meeting market expectations has meant that its energy and verve have been locked away in a substantial iron box, unlikely to be seen, or heard, until some bright spark within its engineering workforce proposes that it be returned to the forefront.
Sadly, the 55-ish mpg was not in reach during the test period of a ‘normal’ driving mix, although the car did return a best of 45.6mpg, a figure with which I am eminently contented, although its overall result was around 38.5mpg. Yet, I was also surprised at it, because the averagely acceptable 155lbs ft of torque produced by the engine is not at low speeds but at a more raucous 4,000rpm, which means that you need to rev it to obtain the best performance and lugging about at low speed in higher gears of the six available can be singularly depressing. As a result, overtaking is a slower process demanding precise timing and the right ratio, a bounty not always available on cross-country drives.
Fortunately, the Mazda3 Sport is well equipped, which includes its ‘keyless’ pushbutton start, HUD, dual-zone climate control, electric windows, central locking and the touch-screen for entertainment and accessing other aspects of the car. The sat-nav costs extra on top of the Sport’s £21,920 price tag. It is worth highlighting that, by comparison with rival products, the Mazda offers significantly better value.
Conclusion: The Sport model represents a very good top of the range to the current Mazda3. It is sad that an all-singing and dancing variant is not even on the cards from Mazda, despite a will for there to be one. However, the Sport makes a moderate fist of things. Its engine is fine, as is the rest of the car, although, even with the ingenious and realistic SkyActiv technology, its liveable frugality is not where it ought to be. Thanks to an excellent driving position, a comfortable cabin and plenty of on-board toys, it is not the worst place in the world to reside. I actually enjoyed the car a lot but I could not help wanting more.