When Mazda's dumpy 323 morphed into the striking 3 everything changed in the small car market in Australia. Obviously this wasn't Mazda's first attempt at a small hatchback, but as reinventions went, it was a good one. Mazda's 90s design mojo was back, it was well-equipped and the range eventually got a halo car in the form of the completely bonkers MPS. It was also noisy and thirsty.
Now in its third generation, the Mazda3 has settled in at the top end of the sales charts, often right at the pinnacle. But is it buyer's inertia that keeps it there or is its place deserved?
The Mazda3 range starts with the aggressively priced Neo. Powered by a 2.0-litre four cylinder, the front-wheel-drive six-speed starts the bidding at $20,490. The 2.0-litre stays with the $22,990 Maxx and mid-range Touring before being pumped up to 2.5 litres for the SP25 warm hatch.
The 3's range-topper is the curious diesel hot hatch, the XD.
Our test car is the mid-spec Touring hatch. In manual form it weighs in at $25,490 while our six-speed automatic added a further $2000 to take it to $27,490.
It's packed with stuff – six-speaker stereo; dual-zone climate control; rearview camera; keyless entry and start; cruise control; sat-nav; auto headlights and wipers; hill holder; voice control; internet bridging with your mobile; partial leather trim; and power windows and mirrors.
Intriguingly, only Soul Red metallic paint is an extra-cost paint option at an unusually reasonable $200. Also available is a $1500 Safety Pack with collision mitigation braking, blind spot sensors and a warning for cars approaching when you're backing out of a parking spot.
The Mazda3 takes on the fluid Kodo design of the Mazda6 and as a result is one of the best looking hatches on the market. The Touring spec adds 16-inch alloy wheels, spoiler and a few chrome bits to replace the plastic.
Despite its lithe looks, it's spacious inside and out, with a big boot and easy entry for people of all shapes and sizes.
The interior is very well-executed and put together but hard plastic phobics may not appreciate the feel of some of the materials, despite them looking good. It's a sober design but very functional.
The only letdown is the instrument pack - crammed into a pod with a central dial and two "wings" (strangely reminiscent of the grille of a first-gen Subaru Tribeca), it's not the clearest example of the breed.
The driver has plenty of adjustment in the seat and steering wheel while passengers all benefit from plenty of head and legroom as well as an abundance of spots to put their bits and pieces.
The 3's five star safety rating is assisted by six airbags; ABS; traction and stability control; brake assist and brake force distribution; and load-limiting front seat belts.
The six speakers are powered by a multimedia system controlled either by the 7-inch touch screen or a suspiciously BMW iDrive-y rotary dial on the console. The dial is very easy to use.
The Mazda MZD Connect system allows you to stream music over your mobile data as well as from your phone and, depressingly, can also bring other people's ugly baby photos and annoying memes from Facebook. It will also read out emails and texts as well as featuring voice commands for switching between functions.
ENGINE / TRANSMISSION
The '3 is powered by Mazda's SkyActiv G 2.0-litre four-cylinder. Producing 114kW and 200Nm, the official combined figure of 5.8L/100km is supposedly achievable with the help of stop-start and energy recovery.
We saw 8.3L/100km in almost purely urban running with a quick highway run. The stop-start performed well under heavy attack from stifling humidity, when the engine had to be re-activated to keep the air-con running.
The Mazda3 has always been one of those cars that does the right things to keep a lot of people happy behind the wheel. While the current SP and former MPS models add a bit of dynamism to the chassis, the Touring (and Maxx and Neo) take the fork in the road marked 'comfort' rather than 'hoot.'
That's no bad thing, either, because 'hoot' can also mean a compromised ride that detracts from the car's role as a family runabout. The Touring, despite rolling on 16-inch alloys, is a smooth riding, safely handling hatchback that compares well with the class benchmark, the VW Golf.
While a Golf will show it the way with overall better tyres, brakes and steering, the Mazda3 will stay at the front of the rest of the pack. The steering is very well weighted and the controls have just enough feel to let you know what's going on without being too enthusiastic.
Unless you're pressing on, the well-tuned electric steering sends the nose in the intended direction without drama and the transmission is more than able to keep up with the demands of squirting in and out of traffic, the engine happily spinning away.
There's an echo of that first generation ‘3 - the front suspension is still noisier than any of its competition and tyre noise and road rumble invade the cabin a little more forcefully than others. It's far better than both previous generations however, both of which became very wearing on longer trips.
On the open road, the road noise can climb a little, especially over coarse chip or concrete, but a few notches on the stereo will banish most of it.