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But how things have changed. In the past year, getting into a new Mazda has meant a trip into the unknown. The brilliant Mazda6 was a revelatory moment for the firm, proving that there was still life in the increasingly moribund D segment, while the rotary-engined RX-8 has shown that it is possible to be genuinely innovative and not end up as some grey import oddity.

The Mazda2 caused less ripples though, through its utilitarian packaging and conservative looks.

The C-segment Mazda3 is the fourth new car from Mazda in 18 months and completes the revamped core line-up. In terms of its ability to surprise and delight, it sits below the 6 but above the 2.

It is the second car on the road with architecture based on that of the new Ford Focus platform (after the Focus C-MAX), although Mazda has taken front and rear suspension systems from the 6 rather than the new Focus.

Mazda has a fairly conservative view on how the 3 will sell in the UK, claiming about 12,000 in the UK in a full year, which is about the same number as the 6.

Next year, without a full model line-up, which will eventually include a 1.6-litre Euro IV-compliant diesel and a 1.4-litre base model, Mazda is looking at 7,000 units.

Of this, fleet will account for about half of all sales, with the five-door taking 70% to 80% of sales, while the saloon picks up the rest. Mazda reckons the mid-range 1.6 TS is the likely best-seller.

From its on-sale date in January, the 3 will come with 1.6 and 2.0-litre petrol engines, and the choice of a four-speed automatic gearbox on the 1.6 version.

The 3 is a foot longer than the current Ford Focus, and although the wheelbase has only grown three centimetres it appears quite a stretch between the two arches. Its total length is mostly down to the V-shaped rear bumper which protrudes quite a distance, making it nine centimetres longer than the new Ford C-MAX mini-MPV, and it shows.

The front of the car keeps the squinty aggression of the 6, with a deep air dam reminiscent of the gaping mouth of the RX-8. The scalloped bonnet which sweeps out of the grille seems to have been lifted from the Peugeot 307.

The middle section of the car is bland Euro-box stuff, which is not helped by the long wheelbase, while the rear, with its large window, converging lines around the C-pillar and broad shoulders stuck out, looks like a mini-4x4 in the Porsche Cayenne mould. The striking rear light clusters have LEDs for the lights and brakelights on Sports versions, seen through a clear lens, while lower versions get less bejewelled clusters behind a red lens.

The saloon shares no body panels with the hatch and is better for it. Even more slashed lights and a less sculpted, and therefore less contrived, bonnet works better. The saloon, with its sharp angles and high boot, looks great and should have Volkswagen's dominant Bora very worried.

Although UK drivers traditionally go for hatchbacks – which could be partially down to some ugly saloon versions of lower medium-cars – this saloon could change that. Time will tell if it does more than the 20% share it has earmarked.

Mazda has no plans for a three-door version. Preferring to play it simple, bosses at the firm claim they do not have the resources or the market share to warrant offering lots of versions of the car.

The same goes for specifications. Although not yet announced, the four models – S TS, TS2 and Sport – are likely to follow the same clear thinking on the 2, 6 and RX-8 and have lots of specification as standard, with few options.

Mazda UK believes it helps the availability at order and the residual values of its cars to all be fairly similarly specced, avoiding having lots of odd 'one-offs' out in the market causing confusion. It is a strategy that seems to have paid off for the 6, so there is no reason for it to fail with the 3.

Prices have not yet been announced, but as the Mazda2 and Mazda6 are about £600 to £1,000 cheaper than their Ford counterparts, the range should start at about £12,000, which would make the 3 a very attractive car.

Behind the wheel

The interior of the Mazda3 is the best of any car in the C-sector, although the new offerings from Ford, Vauxhall and Volkswagen over the next few months will give it some strong competition.

For a start, there is plenty of room in the back – enough to shame many an upper-medium car – and the high roof ensures even taller passengers have enough headroom.

Moving forward, the front seats are hugging and contoured with a similar style to the RX-8, although they are a little thin in the shoulder area, as Japanese cars sometimes can be, but there are acres of interior space, to the point where many potential customers will ask if there is any point going up a sector.

The dashboard works extremely well. It is made of high quality materials and is well laid out. When the stereo is switched on or the volume knob is turned, the red strip across the stereo lights up a la KITT from Knight Rider. This humorous little touch is in fact a tribute to David Hasselhoff's machine, Mazda engineers claim.

The dials are recessed in deep pods which looks great but driving into bright sunlight they take on a hermit-like quality, skulking in the dark, and were very difficult to see. Not surprisingly, seeing that the Mazda3 sits on such a large footprint, it corners very flatly. The ride is very firm on either the 16 or 17-inch wheels which gives a good indication that Mazda is after the crown of B-road blaster rather than shopping sidekick in the sector.

That impression is reinforced with the first flick of the wheel. The steering is direct, as with the RX-8 and 6, and it will perform any aggressive manoeuvre with grip and poise. While the steering is better than almost everything in the class, it is heavier than the Mazda6 and does not have its extraordinary sensitivity. The brakes are very strong as well, with Mazda claiming it has the shortest stopping distance in the class.

As with the ride, both engines are there to reinforce the car's dynamic claims and neither is quiet, the 103bhp 1.6-litre making a lot of noise while struggling to pull its 1,260kg of weight. For best results, its needs to be kept at high revs. The 147bhp 2.0-litre has more low-down punch and snorts nicely under effort. Although it does not have much torque – 138lb-ft at 4,500rpm is its maximum – the combination of power and short gearing ensures a hefty shove.

Driving verdict

As a driver's car, the Mazda3 has assumed class leadership with the way it handles. It is also up with the best for interiors and should have a long list of equipment and competitive pricing.

Some will find the looks more appealing than others and it does not have the 'wow factor' the 6 and RX-8 had at launch. Overall, Mazda has continued its run of form that has seen it blast from also-ran to a genuine alternative to the mainstream.

Mazda3 fact file
Engine (cc): 1,598 1,999
Max power (bhp/rpm): 103/6,000 147/6,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 106/4,500 138/4,500
Top speed (mph): 113 (auto: 108) 124
0-62mph (secs): 11.0 (12.4) 9.0
Comb economy (mpg): 39.2 (35.3) 34.4
CO2 emissions (g/km):: 172 (191) 196
Fuel tank capacity (l): 55
Transmission: 5-sp man 4-sp auto
On sale: January 2004
Prices (OTR): TBA

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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