Stand-out new Mazda3 turning on style with diesel-like petrol engine
First Drive in Lisbon: Mazda3
The new Mazda3 family hatchback and saloon, which arrive here next month, are important cars on a number of fronts.
From a possible buyer's perspective, there is the potential to get a petrol that is claimed to be a match for diesel.
And there is the fact it is one of the smartest looking cars to arrive for some time.
It brings design and quality improvements of sufficient magnitude to offer some hope of repelling the incessant inroads into hatchback and saloon ownership by SUVs and crossovers.
They talk a lot about their 'KODO' design philosophy, which doesn't mean a lot to most people, I suspect. Suffice to say, it is a consistently adhered to way of styling and designing their cars.
They have pumped a lot of research into petrol technology too, and that will make this the first production car equipped with the Skyactiv-X engine. As I've said, it promises diesel efficiencies in a petrol powerplant.
On the design front, the new 3 is certainly striking, especially in hatchback form.
Mazda has produced some of the nicest looking concept cars of recent times, notably the RX-Vision of 2015 and the Vision Coupe a couple of years later.
The new 3 incorporates many of those features, resulting in a car that stands out from the crowd.
Perhaps it takes a bit of time to grow on you, especially from the rear three-quarters view, but study it a while and you start to appreciate the minimalist design.
It reminds me of a pair of whole-cuts, those elegant shoes made from a single piece of leather.
In comparison, the saloon version, which is scheduled to arrive in June, is stylish but more conventional looking.
Which is probably a sensible move as it will broaden the appeal of the car overall. Lots of people still like having good boot space.
As you probably know, Mazda has been pushing upmarket a fair bit for some time now and building a reputation for premium quality interiors.
I think the new 3 raises the bar considerably.
Continuing the theme of minimalist efficiency, a combination of a low-seating position, stylish, swooping dashboard and the brand's simple but clear trademark white-on-black instrumentation make it an appealing and comfortable cabin.
They've retained the centre-mounted HMI rotary dial that controls the multimedia system and other functions.
I am glad to report there is updated Mazda Connect software. The previous version was becoming increasingly clunky.
I would describe the materials as top quality and that goes for the lower down parts.
It's a cliche, but there is a lot of attention to detail. Just a small example: the speakers are designed and positioned so as to optimise the sound quality of each one.
The premium feel continues on the road. Road noise levels were exceptionally muted, we discovered, thereby eliminating a serious criticism of the old car.
The chassis was taut and energetic in response and the steering was nicely weighted.
I think anyone who takes it for a test will find it is very much a car to enjoy the driving and response.
A 116PS 1.8 litre SkyActiv-D diesel engine comes with both hatchback and saloon models.
The hatchback also has a 122PS 2.0 litre SkyActiv-G petrol.
The normally aspirated petrol features mild hybrid technology, but our choice would be for the diesel.
It had better low-down pulling power and was impressively refined.
In comparison, the petrol felt lethargic unless you were prepared to rev it hard and heavy.
It might be worth waiting a few months for the third engine in the family - the Skyactiv-X already mentioned.
While specific figures haven't yet been released, this innovative powerplant uses compression ignition combustion technology in a petrol engine that, in theory, will give diesel levels of fuel economy while retaining the free-revving nature of a petrol engine.
We await that with some anticipation.
There's a 6spd auto transmission, but it's hard to look beyond the manual gearbox, which is one of the sweetest in the business.
Irish cars will be come with four trim levels.
Prices will start from €26,295 for the hatchback and €28,715 for the saloon.
All models come with a heads-up display as standard, as well as an 8.8in colour infotainment screen, 7in digital dashboard, LED headlights with high beam control, blind spot monitoring with rear traffic alert, lane keep assist and an eight-speaker audio system.
Overall, this new Mazda comes across as a desirable car that deserves consideration, not only against its traditional rivals, such as the Volkswagen Golf, Honda Civic and the Ford Focus, but also against premium cars - perhaps such as the Audi A3 and the Mercedes A-Class.
Yes, it is that good.