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Steve Sharpe drives the Mazda 3

Mazda’s 3 model is an important car for the company.

For one thing it’s the Japanese manufacturer’s biggest selling model here in Europe.

And because the hatchback market is the most popular one on these shores, Mazda’s entry in that sector is coming up against some serious compertition.

Its importance to the company is most illustrated by the fact that its main rivals include two of the most popular and sought-after cars on the market, in the shape of the all-conquering Ford Fiesta and the perennial favourite the VW Golf.

Mazda’s hatchback has lost ground over the last few years and so this new model, which emerged at the start of the year, was going to have to go some to compete.

It’s the third generation of the 3 since it first arrived more than 10 years ago, although the second was only slightly more than a facelift of the original model.

This new version looks very different to its predecessor, replacing its general curviness with a more angular look.

Pinched side grooves, a long bonnet, almost vertical front grille, tapered window line and a rear end that drops away gives it a stronger, sportier, more defined look.

Slightly longer, wider and lower than its predecessor, It bears a similarity to BMW 1, another of its premium rivals, from the front.

Its lines swoop and swirl, giving it a coupe-like profile.

Step inside the cabin and you’re in smart, well put-together surroundings, functional yet attractive,

The quality of the materials is spot on, with cushioned surfaces on the upper sections of the cabin. The speed gauges are positioned directly in front of the driver, and are viewed through the steering wheel.

There’s a digital readout underneath, and there’s also a small heads-up panel just below the windscreen.

A seven-inch touchscreen media screen rises out of the centre of the console, which is also be operated by a knob between the front seats, while the heating controls and such like are positioned underneath.

It’s nicely put together and easy to use but the heating buttons can be difficult to work on the move as they’re quite dark.

The traditionally-shaped handbrake is positioned close to the driver, too, and feels a bit intrusive at first.

It’s a very comfortable place to travel in. The seats are large and supportive, snugly gripping you around the ribs and thighs, and there’s plenty of room and headroom in the front and back, despite the lowered roofline.

The boot’s a decent size, and there are lots of little cubby holes throughout for this and that.

Visibility suffers a little with this new version. The lowered roofline and relatively high window line cuts down on light coming in, and wide rear columns and a bulky housing for the rear view mirror don’t help either.

But all through the quality is definitely there, and it looks like it will stand a family’s hammering.

There’s a dizzying number of versions of the Mazda 3 on offer – 21 hatchback versions and 15 fastback versions, a slightly different version which has a 120mm longer rear overhang and a slightly larger boot, altering its profile.

There’s no difference in pricing.

The range is powered by a choice of three of Mazda’s impressive SKYACTIV-G petrol engines - 1.5-litre 100ps, 2.0-litre 120ps and 2.0-litre 165ps – and a 2.2-litre 150ps SKYACTIV-D turbo diesel engine, with a choice of six-speed manual and automatic SKYACTIV transmissions.

The 2.2 litre diesel Sport version I drove boasted some remarkable figures on paper, with a sub-nine second 0-60mph, a top speed of 13mph but economy figures a shade under 70mpg.

Add to that emission figures of 107g/kg (the no car tax threshold is 100) and you’ve got some seriously enticing credentials.

And this version has a seriously impressive performance.

The power is there throughout the gears, from low revs through to high, and the six-speed automatic gearbox is slick and precise.

It’s also extremely well geared, where you don’t feel urged to change up or down incessantly.

The 3 accelerates steadily but will also surge powerfully when the pedal is pressed to the floor.

It’s nippy in and out of town traffic, and a good turning circle means that it’s easy to manoeuvre in and out of queues and parking spaces, although the hindered visibility is more apparent in urban areas.

Take the Mazda out into the country and the Sport version turns in an involving and fun drive.

With suspension tailored for performance the hatchback grips brilliantly around corners.

Body roll is generally well controlled and the steering is spot on – solid and with loads of feedback from the tarmac. Corners of all kind can be taken comfortably and you always feel perfectly in control.

The 3 strikes that admirable balance between functional family car and a sporty hatchback that handles really well, turning in in a great performance.

It’s also more than happy to undertake long distances, but refinement levels are noticeable – the engine is quite noisy when pushed and there is some wind noise and road noise coming through.

Mazda is well aware of the popularity of premium rivals like the Fiesta and the Golf, and has priced the Mazda 3 aggressively to try to tempt buyers.

The range starts at just under £17,000 for the entry level version rising to more than £22,000 for the Sport model I drove.

But Mazda also realise that buyers are more discerning about equipment levels, and have endeavoured to make sure that the gadget count is high throughout the range.

Buyers have the choice of five specification levels plus the flagship Sport Nav, but every Mazda3 comes with Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) , which automatically applies the brakes if the driver fails to act, plus a stop-start system, Hill Hold Assist , and 16-inch alloys, air-conditioning, power-folding heated mirrors, leather steering wheel, trip computer, radio/CD with six speaker audio system, 7-inch colour touch screen, USB/iPod connectivity and bluetooth hands-free system.

Stepping up a trim gets you dual-zone climate control, automatic xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers and rear parking sensors, while the range-topping Sport Nav models also add sat-nav, front parking sensors and keyless entry.

The media system is also packed with all the latest social media / streaming stuff at anyone over 40 will find baffling.

All in all the 3 is a really attractive and enticing proposition, and it will have to be to regain the ground lost on its hatchback rivals.

But it’s well-priced, economical, it handles well and in this Sport version particularly, provides a thoroughly engaging drive.

Practical, well put-together and easy on the eye, too – all backed up by Mazda’s reliability record, it’s well worth considering.

Fact file

Mazda 3 Sport Nav

Engine: 2.2 litre diesel

Transmission: Six-speed manual.

0-62: 8.1 seconds.

Top Speed: 130mph.

Economy: Avg 68.9mpg

Price: £22,545 OTR