x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Road Test: Utilitarian Mazda3 saloon brims with style

Many car buyers treat their wheels much like white goods, but this appliance may well be the best-looking small car on the road today.

The Mazda3 is everything it needs to be, except a little bit better looking.
The Mazda3 is everything it needs to be, except a little bit better looking.

For many people, cars are nothing more than useful devices for autonomously getting from A to B. It stands to reason then that the majority of cars are - and there's no nicer way to put this - white goods. Difficult as petrolheads may find it to accept, many car buyers get no more excited about purchasing their next car than they would a new dishwasher.

Read the specification sheet of the new Mazda3 saloon and you'd be forgiven for thinking it's one of those cars.

Under the bonnet is a 1.6L petrol engine with four not-so-exotic cylinders hammering up and down. They do manage to send 105hp to the front wheels, along with 145Nm of torque, but no doubt a lot of that gets soaked up in the four-speed automatic gearbox on the way there.

Then there's the layout. It's essentially a compact four-door Japanese saloon. Asleep yet? I'm guessing your eyes strayed to the image of the car in question a few times during the last few paragraphs, as the Mazda3's looks are far more arresting than my description and what lies underneath its bonnet. Is there a better-looking small car on the road today? I'm not sure there is. And Mazda has done this without resorting to gimmicks, so it gains universal approval.

Mazda gave its 3 a modest update for 2012 and the exterior styling, though only tweaked, looks better than ever, taking plenty of cues from the company's acclaimed concept cars. That's thanks to a more muscular front end, a new rear bumper to complement it and tasty alloy wheels, especially on the Sport model tested.

The interior received an upgrade, too, and while there's a dearth of soft-touch plastics, the materials used do seem of good quality and the gear stick is notably tactile to use. Mazda also offers new materials and colours on the 2012 model, though it's a shame that the leather covering the steering wheel is so hard and shiny, but at least it fashionably holds a load of easy-to-reach buttons for the phone, audio and cruise control systems.

It's probably best to stick to the sort of roads on which cruise control is useful in this car. The engine is willing enough, but the gearbox saps all the life and fun out of it. That's disappointing as the chassis itself is quite agile, turning quickly and with no hint of inertia. The steering is direct and well-weighted as well and, overall, the car feels lightweight and nimble.

Once you're not expecting the Mazda3 to transport a grown-up family of five and their luggage too often you'll not be disappointed with its accommodation. Head and legroom are acceptable enough (and the boot is big), but if you put a child seat or two in the rear it really illustrates how small this car is. You'll find rivals at the same price with more space, if not the same level of quality.

Thankfully, where it matters - behind the steering wheel - the car is comfortable. There's plenty of adjustment of the wheel and seat and all-round visibility is good. The Mazda3's agility doesn't seem to lead to too much of a compromise on ride comfort either. Only poorly surfaced urban roads upset its composure.

And that's all anyone demands of a car of this size and price. It is expected to be utterly reliable, easy to drive, easy to live with, comfortable enough, fast enough to not get in the way and, well, innocuous. The new Mazda3 is most of those things but it distances itself from a host of other humdrum machines in this sector with standout styling.

Having a unique selling point in a crowded marketplace is a good thing, so long as you don't rely solely on that asset. Mazda doesn't. The new 3 isn't exciting but we like to think that its new owners will regularly steal an extra glance at it over their shoulders as they park up and walk away. I don't imagine they'll ever do that with a microwave oven.

Base price not available

Engine 1.6L four-cylinder

Gearbox Four-speed automatic

Power 105hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque 145Nm @ 4,000rpm

Fuel economy, combined 7.6L/100km