So, what’s new? What’s going to help the 3 be relevant? Kota Beppu, the engineer who lead the development of the 3, says the new model will appeal to 'free spirits'. It isn’t hard to imagine such people saving up for an MX-5 or, once upon a time, an RX-7, but whether individuals have a burning desire to express themselves with their choice of hatchback is debatable. Just ask Alfa Romeo, which struggled to achieve much the same objective with its Giulietta.
There’s a new platform with the option of four-wheel drive, the new Skyactiv-X petrol motor, which uses compression ignition, and a design that stands out of the crowd. In other words, this isn’t a makeover.
How much has Mazda changed the 3's design?
The 3's look is certainly a talking point. An evolution of Mazda’s Kodo design language, it has a remarkably low nose, elegant panel forms and a sloped roofline that tails off neatly into the rear screen. It’s distinct from the chiselled appearance of Volkswagen Group hatchbacks and more comfortably able to hold its own in the presence of the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
Anyone who has owned a Japanese car in the past won’t have to cast their mind too far back to reach a time when the interiors had all the desirability of a plastic loo seat. The 3 moves the game on for Mazda. There's a clear visual identity and a feeling that this can stand comparison with the benchmark car in this market, the Golf, for fit and finish.
The interior design has a delicate minimalism to it, with a slender dashboard broken up by attractive creases that run its full length and flow into the doors. The materials feel premium and the controls for the infotainment, stereo and climate control have the same satisfying action.
There’s a new 8.8in infotainment display on top of the dashboard, angled toward the driver. You can't control it by touch, though; Mazda's research showed that touchscreens promote gross motor movements (in other words, they make the driver lean), meaning the driver unwittingly applies torque to the steering wheel and can therefore wander out of their lane.
The same research demonstrated that the eye focuses quicker when such screens are further away, so Mazda (a company that’s never afraid to buck the trend) set the screen some way back. The main interfaces are an intuitive rotary controller and voice control.
The interior doesn’t just look or feel the part. The driving position is excellent, the redesigned seats are first-rate and the weighting of the pedals and steering is consistent. The downside is that over-the-shoulder visibility is pretty poor, because of the wide C-pillar and shallow rear windows.
There are no claims made for class-leading interior space. This isn't a big hatchback. In the back seats, adults approaching six feet tall will find their head rubs that sloping roof; high-backed booster seats are likely to be a squeeze; and the boot has lost a little capacity, now holding 295 litres.
How does the Mazda 3 perform on the road?
Just as the exterior looks stylish and the interior has a premium feel, the way the 3 goes down a road feels much more grown up. Key to this behaviour is a new, stiffer platform, that has a longer wheelbase and wider front and rear track. It uses torsion beam rear suspension, MacPherson struts and rack-and-pinion steering. And boy, does it all gel together nicely.
Around the craggy surroundings of West Los Angeles, the 3 rode rippled and cracked roads impressively. Out of the city surroundings and onto the concrete freeway, noise levels were subdued and the smooth ride continued to impress. By the time we got to stretch the car’s legs in the hills of Angeles National Forest, that supple ride became all the more remarkable, because it hasn’t been achieved at the expense of stability, steering response or handling.