If Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are looking for tips about how to turn around Australia’s stuttering economy, they could do worse than ask Mazda.

The Japanese carmaker has completed a stunning turnaround in the past decade or so – going from near-bankruptcy in the late `90s to become the motoring world’s most remarkable success story.

Mazda recently announced the biggest profit in its 94-year history – almost $2 billion – after a year featuring global sales of more than 1.3 million vehicles. Not surprisingly, that turnaround has largely come about since the launch a decade ago of the Mazda3 – the seminal small car that has been at the vanguard of the company’s dramatic resurgence.

Almost four million Mazda3s have been sold in that time – about 10 per cent of those in Australia, where the model has been the nation’s best-selling vehicle for two of the past three years.

That’s a crown the 3 is likely to reclaim in 2014, thanks to the arrival of its third-generation model with updated styling, improved performance and fuel-efficiency and a welter of new technology. It’s currently leading the sales race and last month attracted almost 4000 buyers.

Mazda has been careful not to step too far away from the formula that has underpinned the car’s success – but this 3 mark III is unquestionably a better car all-round.

The new 3 builds on its strengths while smoothing over some of its previous weaknesses.

The so-called SkyActiv engine and transmission philosophy has been further refined with Mazda claiming improved performance and “dramatic” fuel-efficiency gains of up to 30 per cent over the previous model.

For the first time the 3 features Mazda’s eye-catching new Kodo design language – giving it a crisp and confident appearance while adding to the company’s reputation as a maker of aesthetically pleasing machines. The design cues match those of the gorgeous, recently-relaunched Mazda6 and also the successful CX5 SUV.

The new 3 will be offered in sedan and hatchback format, with a choice of two petrol engines, manual and automatic transmissions and six trim levels.

Pricing starts at just over $20,000 for the basic Neo model up to the reintroduced Astina nameplate at almost double that amount.

We tested the second-tier Maxx hatchback – retailing at $22,490 in the six-speed manual format – plus a $1500 “safety” pack that adds blind-spot monitoring, collision avoidance and a cross-traffic reversing system. For a car of this price, the instant impression is one of pleasing quality and refinement. Equipment levels have been enhanced to include a cutting-edge connectivity system called HMI (Human Machine Interface) plus a suite of safety inclusions across the range known as iActivesense.

One of the few criticisms levelled against the previous, record-selling Mazda3 was the intrusion of road noise. That’s been well and truly quelled in this latest model – which exhibits Benz-like levels of cabin quietness regardless of the road surface.

It’s part of an overall driving experience that is highly impressive for a car in this class – rivalling the high-end Euro brands for performance, ride and handling.

The two-litre, four-cylinder power unit found in the Neo, Maxx and Touring variants has been refined and tweaked to deliver a useful and accessible 114 kilowatts, while achieving combined fuel-efficiency of 5.7L/100km.

The larger 2.5-litre four-cylinder found in the three higher-spec SP25 models uses marginally more fuel at 6L/100km while producing 25 more kilowatts.

Mazda’s fuel-saving iStop system – that shuts down the engine when stopped at lights or in traffic – is standard across all models.

The 3’s cabin follows a minimalist design, but feels generally classy. The seats, even in the cloth-covered form of our Maxx model, are outstandingly comfortable and supportive.

The chunky steering wheel, too, is excellent – in terms of comfort and grip but also in terms of the multi-function buttons adorning it – cruise control, telephone, audio volume and settings, trip computer scroll and voice control.

By far the dominant element of the new 3’s cockpit, though, is the so-called Human Machine Interface and it’s a beauty.

It’s a large, vivid screen which sits atop the centre stack, accessed by a scroll-style mouse in the centre console.

In fact Mazda has done away completely with just about every other button in favour of this central screen system. It’s the only way to choose a radio station (apart from buttons on the steering wheel) – to set the navigation system or access trip computer and other functions.

Fortunately, it’s easily-read and thoughtfully presented – with little instructional boxes accompanying each icon as you scroll across them so the system is simple to navigate.

The system integrates with mobile devices to provide full address-book access as well as audio streaming, while internet music sources such as Pandora and Stitcher are also included. The system will read aloud short email or text messages and will allow smartphones to interact with the navigation system to search the internet for preferred destinations and input them into route guidance.

We had a couple of bugbears, though.

While the upper part of the dash and door fascias in classy in soft-touch materials, some of the hard, dark plastic of the lower dashboard feels less impressive. Still, we must remember we’re talking about a $22,000 car here.

Our biggest issue was with the instrument panel – which seems like it’s been shrunk to fit into a space visible through the steering wheel arch.

It’s dominated by turret-style speedo which looks small and poky, supplemented by a digital-style tacho on the left which is barely large enough to see, and a similarly-small trip computer on the right of the speedo which, while containing a good variety of information, is also hard to see at a quick glance.

In higher-spec models, the tachometer dominates the single-dial format with a digital speed readout to the side – which seems like a much better arrangement.

Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint in an otherwise impressive interior layout.

The new 3 is slightly larger than the previous model – and as a result offers more shoulder and legroom in the front but, surprisingly, 10mm less legroom in the rear. However Mazda says that, because the back of the front seats have been hollowed, knee-space actually increases for those in the back.

The 3 has always been a rewarding car to drive and this latest model is certainly no exception. The same well-sorted chassis, the same assured handling and forgiving ride characteristics remain – with some further refinement.

The two-litre SkyActiv powerplant of our test machine was impressively smooth and delivered more than adequate response.

It’s not a firecracker – you’ll need to choose the more powerful SP25 (which we’ll test in coming weeks) to get that – but most drivers will have few complaints about the way the 3 gets up and rolling.

We tested the six-speed manual version – featuring a light and progressive clutch and beautifully smooth, tight gearshifts. Ratios are well-spread, too – meaning the 3 feels perfectly comfortable in fourth gear at city speeds and very long-legged when cruising in sixth on the open road.

The SkyActive dual-clutch automatic, which we’re yet to test, delivers even better fuel efficiency than the manual.

Mazda has been able to deliver all of these improvements while trimming the car’s asking price – with prices generally below the launch prices for the superceded model.

Even the basic Neo enjoys six airbags, a full suite of electronic safety aides, Bluetooth connectivity, keyless start and power windows and mirrors. Adding the $1500 safety pack brings blind-spot monitoring, Smart City Braking (frontal collision avoidance) and a Rear Cross-Traffic Alert Our Maxx (sitting second-bottom on the 3 range, just above the entry-level Neo) will set you back $22,490 plus onroads – which feels like excellent value for a car with this level of specification and driving refinement.

Standard equipment includes alloy wheels, satellite navigation, full Bluetooth connectivity and audio streaming and reversing camera. A new head-up display system, standard on higher-spec models, is available as an option on the Maxx.

All of which means that you’ll be perfectly placed to keep an eye on the road ahead – even though most of your competitors will continue to be behind you.


DETAILS: Five-door, five-seat compact hatchback (or sedan) with four-cylinder petrol engine and six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.

TECH STUFF: Two-litre, four-cylinder SkyActiv petrol engine produces 114kW@6000rpm, 200Nm@4000rpm; six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic.

FEATURES: Six airbags, Dynamic Stability Control, ABS with EBD and brake assist; alloy wheels, satellite navigation, Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming, internet connectivity and text-to-voice function, electric windows and mirrors; alloy wheels, reversing camera.

THIRST: 5.8L/100km (manual); 5.7L/100km (automatic).

VERDICT: A new 3 gets close to a 10.

BOTTOM LINE: $22,490 (plus on road costs); as tested $23,990 ($1500 safety package).