Small car, big engine. It’s been the formula for delivering smart performance machines virtually since Gottlieb Daimler first came up with the idea of whacking an internal combustion engine into his stagecoach 130 years ago.

There have been all manner of big-engined small cars over the years, some much better than others. More power doesn’t always make a car better, after all. A V8-engined MG was one of the worst cars I’ve ever tested – while plonking a 3.2-litre V6 into Audi’s pert little TT coupe turned out to be an exercise in getting less out of more.

But Mazda has generally hit the right balance with its SP25 – the pepped-up, bigger-engined version of its volume-selling 3 hatchback and sedan.

Effectively, it gives the car an extra 25 per cent engine capacity and a similar boost in power and torque outputs. Not a staggering departure but enough to set it nicely apart from its slightly lesser-powered siblings.

In many ways it’s probably the best of all the 3 variants on offer to date. That’s no feint praise as we were highly impressed by the garden-variety, 2-litre 3 we tested a few weeks back.

While there will likely be a turbo-charged MPS version at the top of the 3 range in due course, the SP25 is currently the performance benchmark – and it handles that task more than admirably.

Unlike some beefed-up small cars, the SP25 does not feel in any way overweight with an enlarged engine beneath the bonnet. If anything, it feels more sturdy and planted on the road – yet retains the nimble, agile handling characteristics we’ve come to expect from this model over the years.

The latest 3 not only matches and improves upon the model’s great road manners – it is much, much quieter than any 3 model to go before it. The intrusive road noise that was once a bugbear of this model has all but disappeared.

The 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is basically borrowed from the bigger Mazda6 sedan – but it mates happily with the smaller, lighter 3 hatchback and sedan configuration.

It’s an impressively quiet and smooth powerplant, with mid-range torque and responsiveness particularly endearing.

That doesn’t necessarily make this a particularly fast proposition – it’s adequately quick without setting any benchmarks – but the added power does make the SP25 a noticeably easier, more enjoyable car to drive.

While the SkyActiv 2-litre engine of the entry-level 3 models is more than adequate, the additional torque and instant acceleration of the SP25 is a welcome addition. That torque, too, helped make the six-speed manual version we tested an easier proposition.

The SP25 also offers an upgraded level of specification at a still-accessible price – a tick over $25-grand for the entry-level variant. There’s also an SP25 GT ($30,590) and flagship SP25 Astina ($36,190) – reviving a nameplate familiar to buyers of the old Mazda 323.

As it happens we drove the cheapest of the three SP25 models on offer, with an asking price of $25,890 for the six-speed manual (a six-speed dual-clutch auto is $2000 extra). Ours also came fitted with a $1500 “safety” option that adds blind-spot warning system, a frontal collision avoidance system and rear cross-traffic alert – all well worth the asking price.

Standard kit includes auto headlights and wipers, satellite navigation, cruise control, climate control airconditioning and a comprehensive electronic safety package.

For an additional $4700 the SP25 GT adds daytime LED running lamps, adaptive bi-Xenon headlights, headed power mirrors, leather trim, power front seats and premium Bose audio system.

At the top of the range is the relaunched Astina nameplate – offering the SP25 mechanical package along with a full suite of technology and luxury items (including radar cruise control, sunroof, blind spot monitoring, forward obstruction warning, lane departure warning and city-braking system) for its substantial asking price.

Against that background, basic SP25 test machine seems like a nice place to get into the range – blending strong mechanicals with a generous amount of kit.

Like its big-brother Mazda6, the 3 is a fetching machine with glorious lines and perfect proportions. Inside, too, it’s thoughtfully laid out with a minimalist approach to dials and controls. Nothing particularly fancy, it just works with an absolute minimum of fuss.

Finishes are first class, too – with the possible exception of the instrument panel which drew our criticism when we drove the standard Mazda3 as well. It’s a bit small and pokey in our view.

The SP25 is a little thirstier than the regular 3, too – 6.5L/100km in manual guise or 6L/100km for the dual-clutch auto, compared to 5.8 for the 2-Litre SkyActive – although that’s a small impost for the substantial extra performance. Those numbers are enhanced by Mazda’s clever i-Stop system which shuts down the engine while idling at traffic lights.

One feature of the 3 that didn’t win our admiration was the “enhanced” smart-key system that recognises the proximity of the driver and unlocks the doors with a “beep” each time you approach the car.

I’m not sure how “enhanced” the system is – having fallen foul of it by locking my keys in the car.

In what must surely be a design fault, the system recognised the smart key in my bag as I approached the vehicle and unlocked the rear hatch. However when I absent-mindedly threw my bag into the back and slammed the hatch, the car automatically re-locked itself with disastrous results.

It’s a flaw Mazda would do well to investigate and eliminate.

Happily, though, the incident gave us the chance to test first-hand Mazda’s roadside assist service. Despite it being on a Sunday afternoon, our distress call was answered immediately and a roadside service man arrived barely 15 minutes later. Five minutes after that we were on our way.

That helped ensure the incident didn’t sour our week in the SP25 – which would have been a pity given how much we otherwise enjoyed the car.

Small car. Big engine. Maximum enjoyment.


DETAILS: Five-door, five-seat small hatchback with four-cylinder petrol engine and six-speed manual transmission.

TECH STUFF: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder direct injection engine, 16-valve double overhead-camshaft with i-Stop fuel-saving system; produces 138kW@5700rpm, 250Nm@3250rpm; six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel-drive.

FEATURES: Front, side and curtain airbags (six in all), Dynamic Stability Control, ABS with brakeforce distribution and brake assist; frontal-collision avoidance system, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert; 7-inch colour monitor with satellite navigation; Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming; alloy wheels, electric mirrors and windows, dual-zone climate control, automatic headlights and wipers.

THIRST: 6.5L/100km (combined average); dual-clutch auto transmission 6L/100km.

VERDICT: Better than a 3 – but not quite a 10.

BOTTOM LINE: $25,890 (plus onroad costs); as tested $27,390 (including $1500 safety package).