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From Auto Express

In a competition to find the world's most industrious car manufacturer, Mazda would be a dead certainty. The Japanese company has been undergoing a massive brand transition, the central aim being to launch four all-new models in only 18 months.

It started with the 6 family car last summer, followed by the 2 supermini in the spring. A month ago, the RX-8 sports coupé landed, and now the final piece of the puzzle is being slotted into place with the arrival of the 3 compact hatchback. This car has the hardest task of all - to take on and beat rivals including the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Renault Mégane.

We have been drip-fed information ever since the MX Sportif concept of the 3 was unveiled at March's Geneva Motor Show. Six months later, and the production car is about to take a bow at the Frankfurt expo in two weeks' time - but even before its debut, we've managed to sneak an exclusive first drive.

Mazda's designers have yet to pen a duff shape. The 'Zoom-zoom' mentality that created the 6 is still working its magic - the 3 looks sleek and appears long and low compared to its rivals. The distinctive nose is instantly recognisable as a blend of both 6 and 2, while the rear benefits from a strong shoulder line over the wheels and a sculpted tailgate. It's a safe, well executed design.

Inside, the same influences are on display and the 3 bears an uncanny resemblance to its big brother. This is no bad thing, as it means drivers enjoy a fine seating position and user-friendly layout. On the downside, the style is not particularly fresh and the materials aren't of as high quality as those found in the Volkswagen Golf, for example.

Neither does the car set new standards for interior space. Passengers will be comfortable, but would fare better in one or two rivals. This is surprising, as the 3 is the best indicator yet of what we can expect from Ford's next Focus.

That's because, along with the Focus C-MAX and forthcoming Volvo S40, the Mazda uses the same platform. It also borrows engines from the blue oval - 1.4, 1.6 and 2.0-litre petrol powerplants are confirmed, as are two TDCi diesels. We drove the 150bhp 2.0 petrol car.

On the road, it's immediately obvious what advances this platform offers - ride comfort and refinement. The engine feels smooth and strong, and it never becomes too intrusive. It's mated to a five-speed manual that slides silkily through the gate, giving easy access to decent performance - the 0-60mph dash takes nine seconds.

Punchy enough to test the capable chassis, the 2.0 unit is well mannered, but otherwise unexciting. Still, the 3 is a breeze to drive, with well weighted controls and prompt responses. Initial impressions also suggest it rides well. With a softer set-up than the 6 (and the current Focus, for that matter), the emphasis is more on comfort. Don't get us wrong, the 3 is very competent, but the steering does not offer the incisive turn-in or flat cornering attitude of the 6.

While it has its faults, the Mazda is a big step forward from the unloved 323. Expect aggressive pricing and generous kit. A saloon will follow, too (see our spy shots in Issue 767) - designed to tackle the SEAT Toledo and VW Bora, it may even get the 164bhp 2.3-litre unit.

Oliver Marriage
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