GPs are spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting a new car from the popular compact family class.
For most of us, the sector's favourite is the Volkswagen Golf. However, many of the Golf's most popular features are now being introduced by VW's main competitors.
Mazda, the Japanese manufacturer most famous for its highly acclaimed MX-5 sports car, has always offered a model in the compact family class. The Mazda 3 was first launched in 2003, but has never been a big seller in the UK.
Average quality trim materials and an uninspiring driving experience did not help and the second generation car, launched in 2010, fared no better. To take on the Golf, the Mazda 3 needed to offer a better image, quality and drive, while still being good value for money.
|Mazda 3 2.2 150bhp Sport Nav Automatic Diesel
Body: Five-seat hatchback, five doors
Engine: 2.2L diesel
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 9.7 seconds
Claimed economy: Combined 58.9mpg and 127g/km
On the road price: £23,345
So now we have the third generation Mazda 3, which promises to do just that. I have been evaluating it for a week while I travel to the surgery, make home visits and carry out various family duties.
The first thing to note is that the new car is good looking. The sweeping curves and sharp creases are a welcome change to the Golf's staid conservatism.
Available as a five-door hatchback or a four-door fastback, the front-wheel drive Mazda 3 is offered with two 2L petrol and one 2.2L diesel options.
The diesel, the most economical choice, was fitted to my test car, a 150bhp Sport Nav Automatic.
This is the flagship of the range and the model with most appeal for GP buyers. As the name suggests, standard equipment includes a neat seven-inch infotainment screen, incorporating a TomTom sat nav.
The central screen looks as though it is floating above the dash and is reminiscent of the Audi A3 unit. The driving environment and internal fixtures and fittings are a great improvement and the general quality of the materials is much higher.
You sit low in the car in quite a sporty position and although passengers in the back do not have as much space as they would in a Golf or a Peugeot 308, it is perfectly adequate. The same goes for boot space, where the Mazda 3 loses out as a result of the coupe-like styling.
Turn the key, hit the road and things start looking brighter for this new Mazda. The steering is sharp and incisive, the handling sporty and stable, and the ride is comfortable on most road surfaces.
The diesel engine has great mid-range punch and is smooth and quiet on the move; easily a match for the Golf 2.0 Tdi.
Fun to drive
The six-speed automatic gearbox takes the strain out of urban travel and still feels lively when you want to press on.
This new Mazda 3 is fun to drive and I wasn't expecting that. After a long day at the surgery, it acts like a real tonic on the journey home.
Despite encouraging more spirited driving, the diesel model achieves a claimed 58.9mpg on the combined cycle, which means a realistic 45mpg should be achievable most of the time in normal use.
Options fitted to my test car included 18-inch alloy wheels (these look good but the ride suffers) and a lane departure warning system. I am not yet convinced of the benefit of this option - I think better driver concentration is safer.
I also had front and rear parking sensors, which are really useful for urban parking, plus rear vehicle monitoring, which picks up cars in your rear three-quarter blind spot by radar. What happened to turning your head to check the road?
Rivalling the Golf
So is the new Mazda 3 a credible rival to the Golf? My answer is yes, if you go for the right model. The diesel is an equal performer to the Golf GT diesel and costs about £3,000 less.
Other cars to consider are the Peugeot 308 and the SEAT Leon, as sharply styled as the Mazda, made by the VW group and costing less than the equivalent Golf. However, Mazda has found its way again and the MX-5 can be proud of its new sibling.
- Dr Rimmer is a GP in Guildford, Surrey