First drive: the 99g/km Mazda 3

That’s not a new car.

Correct. It’s not even a facelifted one. This is simply the Mazda 3, exactly as it was when we first drove it three years ago, except with a new, tiny diesel engine aboard.

That doesn’t sound very exciting.

On paper it isn’t, but before you head straight for YouTube and look at dogs riding skateboards and drag-racing Teslas, hear me out. This is a brilliant little car, and proof that a future of downsized, eco-swot everyday cars isn’t a death sentence for enjoying driving.

Okay, you have my attention. What are the stats?

The big one is CO2 output, or lack thereof – this is the first Mazda to emit less than 100g/km of CO2. Yup, it’s a 99g car. Philosophically, that’s a big milestone, and frankly one Mazda has been sorely lacking.

When the 3 first came along in 2013, its crucial diesel line-up was staffed by a 2.2-litre engine that, although amusingly brawny, coughed out a minimum of 107g/km. In the UK, guffing triple-figure CO2 is the difference between paying the first rate of road tax, and paying, well, nothing. And the wallet-pinching liabilities are higher if you’re buying a fleet of company cars, which 42 per cent of Mazda’s customers are. So, enter the new 1.5-litre version.

Meanwhile, Mazda claims 65.7mpg (I bumbled around in it for two days and scored 51.8mpg without even trying), and 0-62mph in a far-from-fast 11.0 seconds. Console yourself with the fact the 1.5-litre car is, by £850, the cheapest Mazda 3 diesel you can buy, at £18,895.

So is it all sluggish and ponderous?

Mercifully not. The Mazda 3 is one of our favourite family hatches because it’s properly decent to drive – an agile, grippy piece of kit with palpable MX-5 DNA sprinkled about the alert steering and peachy gearshift – and only having 100bhp and 111lb ft on tap doesn’t spoil it.

No, it won’t surge past dawdling middle lane traffic in sixth gear – or even fourth, actually. But the engine’s a tolerably quiet, free-revving companion, and if I were put on the spot, I’d wager the 1.5 car is a bit less nose-heavy than the 2.2-litre one as well. Mazda claims a 1420kg kerbweight versus 1470kg for the more muscular car, and you can bet your Nectar card that 50kg has been shaved off the front axle. It all helps. Bag one of these on the company scheme and you’ll have a markedly more giggly, (if less smug) commute than your colleagues in Golf BlueMotions or 1-series EfficientDynamicsblah-blah.

What don’t you like?

Erm, too much wind noise on the motorway is a bugbear. The 3 has never been the roomiest hatch in the back, and the cockpit rather spoils its low-set driving position and superb ergonomics by spraying it with the sort of shiny, tinny trim that European cars binned in about 1996.

The naff materials date what’s otherwise a really fresh-feeling car, so hopefully when Mazda facelifts the 3 it’ll leave the handling alone and spend the money jettisoning the Playmobil touchpoints.

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