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With the MX-5’s halo still bright, I’ve never quite understood why Mazda doesn’t thrive somewhat more in the UK. There’s now something of the spiffing in almost every model in the range, yet sales merely tick over at some 35,000 units per annum.

Truth is, of course, lacking a production facility in Blighty and, hence, relentlessly worked over by punitive exchange rates of late, disinterested in fleet discounting at the expense of profitability (just 30% of sales are to the fleet market) and no longer dangerously shackled to Ford, Mazda is entirely happy with its status as a relatively compact, engineering- led outfit producing some 1.25 million cars each year.

Which isn’t to say they wouldn’t settle for shifting a few more… And if this £19,895, 2.0 litre petrol engine version of the new Mazda3 is anything to go by, that state of affairs must be imminent.

This is a properly handsome machine, with a stylish interior that not only takes the fight to the likes of Volkswagen and Ford but, to my eye, strides some way ahead. Scratchy plastics are now a thing of the past, switchgear and instrumentation are clean and crisp in operation, and the multi-function rotary control for such goodies as the stereo and the sat-nav (standard fit on the lavishly equipped Sport Nav model) is as user-friendly as anything Germany has to offer.

Shunning the increasing ubiquity of smaller turbocharged units to excellent effect, power is provided by a surprisingly eager, 118bhp variant of a natural aspirated 2.0 litre petrol engine, destined to become the range best-seller. An even more enthusiastic, 158bhp version will bring the 0-62mph time down a whisker from 8.9 to 8.2 seconds but, given the associated fuel and CO2 penalties, why bother?

Especially since the true pleasure of this car is to found in its ride and handling, which are nothing short of hugely impressive. The ride remains deliciously composed and grown up for a hatchback, tingling just enough information through the seat of the pants to keep life interesting, but never wearing. And the handling, via a slick, 6-speed manual change, excellent brakes and a perfectly weighted, verbose toddlerinformative leather clad helm, is a predictable, vice-free hoot.

If ever a rival to the hatchback dominance of Ford and the VAG group demanded more than a cursory glance, this is it.

MAZDA3 2.0 SPORT NAV TECHNICAL SPECIFICATION

Price: £19,895
Engine: 1986cc 16v, 4-cylinder petrol, 118bhp @ 6000rpm, 155lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 8.9sec 0-62mph, 123mph, 55.3mpg, 119g/km CO2
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, independent rear
On Sale: Now

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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