Final Report: I’m a Mazda3 fanboy!

We’re coming to the end of our six-month stretch with the Mazda3, and adapting to a hatchback that arguably prioritises style and coolness over practicality has been tough at times. I’ve certainly come to appreciate the personality of the Mazda3 and the fact that it doesn’t just feel like any old family hatch. Its distinct personality ensures there’s something to enjoy behind the wheel, no matter how short or long the trip.

The hatchback market tends to be bland and predictable. For many customers, bland and predictable is fine. But for those who want a hatchback that feels different to their last one, or a car that makes you feel something – anything – your options are relatively slim. This is where the Mazda3 excels, albeit at the expense of a few family-related elements. 

The drive of the Mazda3 remains its strongest asset. Most hatchbacks have little to no character behind the wheel. Anything approaching fun, or dare we say bohemianism, is diluted. That’s typically reserved for hot hatches. The Mazda3 challenges this norm however, with precise steering, razor-sharp manual gear changes, a cockpit-like driving position and a progressive naturally aspirated engine that can even make edging forward in traffic enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, the Mazda3 is not an adrenaline-fuelled rocket ship that will have you grinning ear-to-ear, but compared to a bog-standard, A-to-B hatch, it’s practically a race car.

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The Mazda3 is without a doubt most enjoyable when driven solo on the open road. And although casual trips to the supermarket can be fun, it was a twisty, long-distance journey, top-to-bottom in Wales that made me a Mazda3 fanboy. It manages to offer a great compromise between comfort and thrills, allowing the driver to dial in as much vigour as they wish, whenever they wish – unlike a go-fast or go-home hot hatch.

And the naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol engine lends itself to this flexible character, with the lack of a turbo requiring you to rev out the engine – and that extra effort ultimately results in a more rewarding experience. I do wish the practicality of the Mazda3 was a little more finessed, particularly when it comes to boot space. I’m a firm believer that you can squeeze practicality out of pretty much any car, and even with regularly having two young kids and a dog in tow, I’ve managed to stretch the practicality of the Mazda3 to suit my needs. But when transporting things like bikes and Ikea furniture, space hasn’t been ample.

With all that said, the Mazda3 has rarely left me wanting for much in the way of space. And for what it lacks in excess storage, it makes up for in distinctness. Personally, I would much rather have a car with personality, than one void of it but with space for an extra suitcase.

I have previously moaned about the Mazda3’s fiddly rotary dial and its lack of touchscreen controls for its infotainment screen – and I owe Mazda an apology here (or half of one at least). My tech-savvy teenage nephew found a setting buried in the infotainment system that allows you to enable touch controls on the central display – although these only work on Android auto menus, not on Mazda’s own menus.

This has made navigating the screen a little easier when driving, although the screen is clearly not set-up to be primarily used as a touchscreen as it sits deeply recessed into the dashboard, almost out of reach. I have no idea why touchscreen operation had to be actively enabled for a screen that you’re never going to accidentally press – that seems crazy to me.

Regardless, the Mazda3 still has a special place in my heart. I now properly understand the age-old “car for the weekend” analogy. The Mazda3 is a family car that will happily act as a school run or supermarket companion, but it remains malleable enough to let you act like a big kid.

5th Report: Holy sheep!

I’ve lauded the Mazda3 constantly these past five months for its ability to offer fun in a family-friendly package. Packed supermarket trips and lengthy treks up and down the motorway have helped me come to this assessment. But one journey type I hadn’t explored with the Mazda3 was the prolonged country road excursion. A top-to-bottom trip in Wales soon sorted that out.

Liverpool to Swansea is about 4.5 hours, and the vast majority of that time is spent navigating winding country roads, with a few treacherously narrow hamlets thrown in for good measure. Completing most of this trip at night time added an extra level of trickiness.

The Mazda3 feels completely at home in the twisty stuff. The steering is responsive, quick and precise, and the snug, wrap-around driving position helps the car shrink around you and feel less intimidating when squeezing between tractors and hedges. 

The sharp steering not only makes meandering roads more enjoyable, but it can be essential when dodging potholes, pheasants and sheep – the latter of which jumped out in front of my car in the pitch black and nearly became a sweater. I genuinely think that I would have hit it if it wasn’t for the quick responsiveness of the Mazda3’s steering.

The fact that the 2.0-litre petrol on-board is naturally aspirated helps when climbing hills too, as it allows you to more accurately dial in power without the bubble of a turbo jolting you forward when you rev it out. Having precise power input on hills is particularly crucial when you’re in slow-moving, country road traffic.

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There’s a few other smaller elements that made the trip more leisurely. I’ve mentioned the impressive heated seats before, but honestly, the Mazda3 really does have the warmest, fastest-acting, most consistent toasty bum settings I’ve ever experienced. And with the winter we’ve been having, that’s not to be scoffed at.

Even the door bin size and cubby space make the Mazda3 a more habitable long-distance vessel. The door bins fit a massive gym water bottle, the centre console is wide and deep and will fit a variety of snacks, and the two central cupholders sit abreast of each other, so there’s no chance of you and your passenger mixing your drinks up. The large space behind the cup holders is a perfect dumping ground for your phone, keys and wallet too.

The high-beam control of the headlights is also an excellent safety feature, automatically throwing up your full-beam headlights when the road ahead of you is open, and then subsequently dipping them when oncoming traffic is detected. This system detects traffic early too, so there’s no chance of oncoming traffic getting a momentary glare – which cannot be said for some Volvos and Mercedes I’ve driven. 

And if you ever feel that the auto high-beam is too much, there’s a button on the end of the headlight stork that allows you to toggle it on and off in a flash.

One aspect of the Mazda3’s safety tech that I’m not a huge fan of is the lane keep assist. As with many other cars, this feature can feel quite intrusive, beeping away whenever you get anywhere near the lane markings on the road. I find it distracting most of the time – however, when driving in heavy rain, at night, on poorly marked country roads, the Mazda3’s lane keep assist actually made me feel safer and more alert. 

4th Report: Boring family stuff – don’t read

If you haven’t got kids, stop right now! This article will probably bore you. The thing is, spec sheets can only tell you so much about a car’s practicality – especially when it comes to whether it’s fit for families. 

After driving the Mazda3 for four months now, I’ve started to properly get a feel for just how practical it is – and some of my favourite features are, admittedly, quite bland. From a cabin practicality point of view, I’ve found the Mazda3 to be pretty solid. The glovebox is big enough for wipes, spare nappies, sweets and tissues, the door bins will swallow large sports bottles and fistfuls of receipts, and the centre arm rest is wide enough to share elbow room and a bag of sweets – even with those in the rear. I also appreciate that the two cup holders up-front are next to each other and not in tandem – the latter set-up being impractical and confusing, especially when you and your passenger have the same coffee order.

The large storage space in front of the cup holders has been my go-to chuck-it spot for my phone, keys and wallet – which means that the under arm storage in the centre console always remains completely clear, which is ideal for road trips that require snacks.

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The middle seat in the rear has proven to be road trip-friendly as well, as an adult can comfortably sit for a reasonable amount of time with a child seat either side of them. This is a godsend when one of the kids is having a meltdown and requires one of us to sit back. And this is where the snack bag-friendly centre arm rest really comes into play. Everything about the Mazda3’s curvy design says that the boot should be impractical, but honestly, I haven’t really found that to be the case. We recently bought a single bed and managed to transport its constructed frame in the car with little issue. The rear of the Mazda3 might be sleeker than your average hatchback, but the curved design of the glass gives you a handy pocket of space for long objects to nestle.

The dropped boot floor has a lot to do with the Mazda3’s disguised flexibility. I’ll be the first to criticise a car with a high load lip, but I’m willing to give the Mazda3 a pass, given how much extra practicality the dropped boot floor adds. Without it, our dog’s travel crate wouldn’t fit in.

But it’s not all sunshine, rainbows and lovely arm rests. There’s something that’s been bugging me. I’ve long praised the Mazda3’s drive, from its steering to its physical driving position. I love how the centre arm rest is the perfect height to facilitate flick-of-the-wrist gear changes. I love the thin, easy to grip steering wheel, figure-hugging seat, quick-access climate control buttons and the HUD display, which keeps your eyes glued to the road. But I just can’t get behind Mazda’s rotary dial that’s used to control the infotainment system. At times, it can completely ruin the Mazda3’s near-perfect driving experience.

The idea behind this rotary dial is to ensure the driver can navigate the car’s infotainment system without taking their eyes off the road. Unfortunately, in practice, this doesn’t quite work. As the rotary dial only allows you to scroll left/right or up/down, you’ll frequently find yourself sifting through various unwanted options before getting to the one you want. Not only does this take longer than if you were using a touchscreen – the Mazda3’s screen being non-touch by the way – but you ultimately end up looking down at the rotary in frustration and thus taking your eyes off the road anyway. If it had a touchscreen, and the rotary dial was merely an option, not a necessity, that would likely solve this issue. 

3rd Report: A toasty bum and a chocker boot!

We’ve been living with the Mazda3 for three months now, and although I’ve moaned a fair bit about its practicality, I think I’ve finally figured out how to live with it.

To be clear, the Mazda3 is not an impractical car, it’s just that fitting in a family of four – with a dog, shopping and two baby seats in tow – can be a bit of a squeeze. Every time we test its practical prowess, we end up having to find a compromise. Yes, we can fit a double buggy in – but one of us has to sit in the back with the kids. Sure, we can buy that wardrobe from Ikea – but I’ll have to go and pick it up alone.

A recent trip to the airport, however, had me staring at the boot of the Mazda3 and grinning with a “fair dos” kind of expression on my face. Although its boot has a high load lip, steeply-raked tailgate and so-so capacity, it still managed to swallow two large suitcases, with room to spare for a few carry-on bags. Honestly, I did not expect it to pass the big case test. But as I’ve previously mentioned in other write-ups, the Mazda3 will fit in most things you throw at it – you’ve just got to be willing to put in a shift to make it work.

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Aside from the recent suitcase revelation, my favourite attribute of the Mazda3 continues to be its on-tap bohemianism. I still relish short trips out for milk when I can leave the family at home, drive alone, and rev the hell out of the engine on some straights. The naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol requires wrestling with in order to achieve peak torque and performance, but bouncing the rev counter into the sweet spot and quickly snapping into the next gear with the six-speed manual is an absolute delight. An engine with a turbocharger can feel a bit like a bike with stabilisers. Sure, it makes things easier, but it also limits how much fun you can have. 

The Mazda3 doesn’t feel unwieldy, like a stiff, back-breaking hot hatch – far from it – but it has just enough character to handle any gusto you dial in. I’ve noticed a smidge of torque steer when really revving it out, but the average driver is probably never going to experience it. And while engine noise can drench the cabin at times, I personally find it endearing rather than annoying.

I’ve also found the Mazda3 to be a surprisingly adept long-haul cruiser. I’ve done a few 500-mile journeys in it now, and it just goes – as they say. The fuel economy isn’t great – around 40mpg at best – but its superb driving position leaves you free of fatigue after hours on end. The heated front seats have also been a notable highlight as they’re some of the fastest working, and warmest, I’ve ever experienced. This winter has been brutal, so a toasty bum is not to be sniffed at.

The only let down – at times – has been the Android Auto system. As with a lot of Android Auto systems, it’s extremely hit and miss. Sometimes it connects right away, sometimes not at all. Occasionally, turning the engine off and on at the lights will solve any issues, but occasionally it doesn’t. This isn’t a huge deal, but when you’re motorway cruising and issues do arise, you better hope you’ve got a tech-savvy shotgun rider to help you out.


2nd Report: Fancy a game of Tetris?

Going from running a spacious family estate to a humble hatchback was never going to be an easy transition – but I think I underestimated how big the shift was going to be. On paper, the storage figures speak for themselves, with estate vehicles, in many cases, being around twice as practical as their hatchback counterparts.

But actual luggage capacity hasn’t necessarily been the biggest issue. If you give me a city car, I’ll find a way to cram as much in as I need to, within reason. In fact, I’ve probably had about the same amount of shopping, garden waste and furniture in the Mazda3 as I did in the Skoda Octavia Estate I used to run – albeit with less vacant footwell space. 

The most noticeable pitfall has been the obligatory mental gymnastics required for even the most basic of family days out. Trips to the park have become a Tetris-like task. Sure, the two kids, pram and dog will fit in the car – but not before the wife and I have a brainstorming session on what the best way to approach it is. Throw in a trip to the supermarket on the way home, and you’ve a Mensa-level conundrum on your hands.

I guess the biggest thing I miss is being able to say yes to friends and family in need of furniture removal assistance, without having to give it a second thought. Or having to turn down that lovely bed frame on Facebook Marketplace, because it’s simply too long to fit in the car. Now, I’m just the guy who says “but we have a hatchback now, so no, sorry”.

It’s important to note however that this isn’t a criticism of the Mazda3 specifically, rather an incompatibility issue for a family of four living with a hatchback. And it isn’t all bad – far from it. 

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When we’ve loaded in the kids and the cargo and got ourselves on the road, the Mazda3 has been an excellent A-to-B companion – and many of the typically-Mazda characteristics that make it fun to drive when you’re on your own, also contribute to an enjoyable drive with passengers in tow.

The cockpit-like driving position locks your entire body comfortably in place, with armrests mounted just where you need them. The quick-access centre console navigation wheel is a triumph for menu skipping on the go and the delightful rev counter blip you get every time you pull off from the traffic lights makes me – and my three-year-old – smile.

The 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated petrol engine chugs along happily, even when the car is chock-a-block, and the mechanical, yet refined, six-speed manual gearbox is an absolute pleasure to shift up and down. 

I’m still a little unsure how the 2.0-litre petrol is performing, fuel economy-wise, as shorter journeys tend to return anywhere between 30-35mpg, so it will be interesting to see how some longer motorway stints affect the bottom line.

It’s fair to say that the boy racer honeymoon period of the Mazda3 still hasn’t worn off though. I’m still revelling the opportunity to nip out on my own for a bottle of milk – taking the long way round down the snaking country lane.

Before I had kids, I really didn’t understand the idea behind having a family car that’s fun to drive. But with something like the Mazda3, I get it. The same goes for those who prefer naturally-aspirated engines over those with turbochargers. Yes, getting decent performance out of it is akin to having to shovel coal into a fire rather than flicking on a switch, but the graft is what makes it gratifying.

Things have been a little more rough than smooth with our Mazda3 so far, mainly because we keep demanding so much of it. And no matter how many times I have to contort the pram wheels behind one of the backseats, any negativity seems to melt away once I turn the engine on and pull off the driveway. Let’s just pray it stays that way.

First Report: Family cars and the F-word

You have to make a lot of compromises when you have kids. Your at-home games room becomes a playroom. Your relaxed evenings are replaced with bedtime routines. And, more often than not, your sporty hot hatch gets swapped for a sensible, practical family car with about as much sex appeal as a washing machine.

Don’t get me wrong – a massive boot and loads of passenger space has its benefits, it’s just not very. fun. And let’s be honest, the vast majority of family cars do tend to lack the F-word. 

The past few years have seen the family and I jump from large estates to seven-seat SUVs every six months or so. All of these have been superbly fit for purpose for my wife and I, our two kids, and our boisterous dog. Our latest set of sensible wheels was the Skoda Octavia Estate, a car which is, quite frankly, perfect for families. 

So, you can imagine my hesitation when we decided to swap our Octavia in for a Mazda3 hatchback.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Mazdas. While most manufacturers seek to numb their driving dynamics in the name of efficiency and comfort, Mazda always seems to have one foot on the racetrack, ensuring that even its superminis have vigour behind the wheel. But driver enjoyment aside, how does a relatively small hatchback handle a family of four?

Only time will tell when it comes to how the Mazda3 will handle supermarket runs, pram bassinets and weekends away. But regardless of how practical or impractical it may be, the Mazda3 has already given me something the past few estates and SUVs have failed to – a smile on my face. After only 30 seconds of driving it, I was smiling ear to ear – and there are a few reasons for this.

The Mazda3 is geared towards driver involvement. The driver’s seat hugs you into place and the entire interior wraps closely around you. The six-speed manual gearbox has a snappy feel and short throw, the steering wheel is slim and quick to react to input and the lack of a turbocharger in the 2.0-litre petrol engine makes power delivery more progressive. 

Overall, these qualities give a mechanical feel – which is something you pay a pretty premium for in a sports car. The Mazda3 isn’t a hot hatch, but performance figures aside, it’s on the right lines. It’s certainly more driver-focused than almost all of its hatchback competition.

Maybe I’ve gone a little fun-blind because I’ve been driving bigger, more family-focused cars for a while. Or maybe it’s because I mostly drive automatic transmissions. But there’s just something about the Mazda3 that makes you feel like a teenager who’s just got their first set of keys.

So far, we haven’t had many trips out as a family in the car, but I’ve had a fair few trips to the shop by myself and enjoyed every minute of it. 

The naturally aspirated aspect of the 2.0-litre petrol engine is a big part of what makes the Mazda3 feel so raw. To get any real performance out of it, you need to bounce the rev counter – and doing so is a pleasure. Power delivery is smooth and progressive, and having to change down a gear or two in order to overtake traffic forces you to pay attention to your gear changes and, in turn, be more involved in the driving experience.

We may have lost some boot space. But we’ve finally gained some fun.