JUDGED purely on merit, the Mazda3 ought to be one of the top five superminis in this country but the sales figures paint a sorrier story. Undaunted by this, Mazda has gone back to the drawing board and developed a massively improved car. It's just too good to ignore.
So here we are with Mazda's third stab at its family hatch, the Mazda3. There's a quite pleasant symmetry about that fact, but it's worth reminding ourselves how we got here. The first Mazda 3 debuted in December 2003. Most expected the Ford Focus to be the first beneficiary of Ford's family hatch platform but instead the chassis got its first airing with a Mazda badge bolted to the bodywork.
That's not to say the Ford and its Mazda cousin were alike in the way they drove. The Mazda felt a little softer and more luxury-biased than the Focus, with even the Sport variants offering a very composed ride. It was facelifted in 2006, an MPS sports model appeared in 2007 and then the range was replaced in 2009 by the second generation car.
That was a more elegant piece of styling, yet it again provoked apathy from the British public.
The top brass in Hiroshima must have wondered what it needed to do to get this strange island race to buy its cars.
It received a minor facelift in 2011 which brings us to the third generation car, first shown to the public at the 2013 Frankfurt Show. It's as big a step forward over the second generation model as that car was over the first.
The latest Mazda3 gets four engine options, all of which are designed around Mazda's Sky- Activ technology. You're probably used to such nonsense buzzwords, but bear with this one because there's real merit behind it.
SkyActiv aims to improve efficiency by reducing weight and utilising smart functions such as capturing waste energy to power things like the air-conditioning when the car is stationary.
It even extends to functions like an active shutter front grille which closes for better aerodynamics when the engine isn't in immediate need of cooling.
The engines comprise an entry-level 1.5-litre petrol and two 2.0-litre petrol units, as well as a 2.2-litre diesel. The 1.5-litre engine produces 99bhp and will go from rest to 62mph in 10.8 seconds, while the 2.2-litre diesel will cover the benchmark sprint in 8.1 seconds, thanks to its punchy 148bhp engine.
Mazda reckons a less powerful diesel engine will eventually be offered to UK customers, but it may take quite a while.
The 2.0-litre petrol engine is offered in two distinct flavours; one packing 118bhp and the other with 165bhp. Performance? Think rest to 62mph in 8.9 seconds for the standard version and 8.2 seconds for the higher power version. Buyers of the 118bhp 2.0-litre petrol and the 2.2-litre diesel are also offered the option of a six-speed automatic. Those who loved the stealthy speed of the Mazda3 MPS hatchback will also have to sit and wait for further news.
If you're searching for some kind of visual DNA that links the three generations of Mazda3, you'll search in vain.
None look anything like the other which doesn't help in building a firm identity amongst buyers. Nonetheless, it's hard to argue that the latest car is anything other than very sharp-looking in either five-door hatch or 'Fastback' saloon forms. There's the same beaky family face that's sported by the Mazda6 and the CX-5, with a longer bonnet than before to lend the car a more dynamic, muscular look.
Improved aerodynamics have helped the car become quieter, helped by lightweight sound-absorbing materials and softer shock absorbers. It's stiffer in the chassis than before but weight has been cut.
That hasn't come at the detriment of interior space which has been increased. The 350-litre boot is ten litres bigger than the old car, putting it on a par with the likes of the Vauxhall Astra but easily beating the Ford Focus. Interior materials quality looks a big leap forward with metallic inserts, a neat three dial instrument pack and most of the minor controls being tidied into a touch screen controller.
Pricing sits mainly in the £17,000 to £23,000 bracket and the Mazda 3 is offered as a five-door hatchback or a four-door “Fastback” saloon.
The Mazda 3 is a car that has, in the past, searched in vain for a hook with which to entice British buyers. It's been one of those solid all-rounders that has little in the way of obvious shortcomings but lacked that compelling reason to buy. The latest car looks a good deal more assured, with a vastly improved interior, a focus on improving efficiency and a really sharp exterior styling job.
Is it enough to punt the Mazda 3 back into contention? The signs are promising.
See the new Mazda 3 at Holdcroft Mazda, Leek Road, Hanley, Stoke on Trent on January 4 & 5, or go to www.Holdcroft-Mazda.co.uk