All engines are a bit noisy - we'd recommend the 1.6 diesel
Masses of seat and wheel adjustment but modern dash includes fussy buttons
Active front headrests to minimize whiplash come as standard, along with stability control
Mazda's reliability record is good, but the 3 could do better
Back seat best for two rather than three
No mean tricks here: Mazda gives every 3 air-con and electric front windows, or upgrade for more goodies
You'll enjoy driving the Mazda 3. The suspension keeps body movements under tight control, making the car feel nice and agile, and although the ride has a distinctly firm edge, it stops just short of feeling harsh or uncomfortable. The light steering is great for parking, too, even if it doesn't do much for your mid-corner confidence. The entry-level 1.6 petrol has just about enough oomph to keep most people happy, but we prefer the 1.6 diesel with its extra get-up-and-go and superior running costs. Don't bother going for any of the bigger engines; they're a needless expense and they're pricier to run.
The 3's chunky dials and flashing lights make adjusting the stereo or temperature an event, but there are so many controls on the dashboard that finding the one you want takes time. There's plenty of seat and wheel adjustment will help you find the perfect driving position, but passengers might not feel quite so chuffed: getting in through the rear doors is a bit of a squeeze and shoulder space isn't great for three adults in the back. The boot is bigger than that in a Focus, if not quite up to VW Golf size, but folding the rear seats leaves a nearly flat load space. All versions comes pretty well equipped, with air-con, electric front windows, an MP3 connection and remote central locking. Upgrade to TS two more powered windows, alloys and climate control.
Mazda's reputation is pretty good, but owners rated the 3 only average for reliability and dealer service in the most recent JD Power ownership satisfaction survey. Full marks for safety kit, though: all trim levels have stability and traction control systems to help keep you safe in a skid, plus six airbags and active headrests to help reduce whiplash injuries if you crash. In Euro NCAP crash tests, the 3 scored 86% for adult occupant's safety, and 84% for children's safety.
As a small family car that's a little more interesting than the VW Golf or Ford Focus mainstays, the Mazda 3 makes a great alternative; the 1.6 diesel's combined fuel economy of 65mpg makes a pretty tempting argument, too.