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Click to view road test review picture gallery“Those of us with
  family responsibilities
  don’t often drive the
  car of our dreams.
  Fortunately, Mazda’s
  latest Mazda3 Sport
  will meet all your
  family needs as well
  as allowing you to
  enjoy your driving.
  Check it out...”

DESPITE THE EXTENSIVE CHOICE OF CARS available to buy, the majority of cars on the UK's roads are essentially 'family' cars. And that's a fact. But having a family shouldn't mean you have to give up on your driving pleasure.

One brand doing its utmost to ensure that 'family' + 'car' doesn't spell 'boredom' is Mazda. Yes, those nice Zoom-Zoom people. Let's cut to the chase here: if you want to ensure the emotion of driving pleasure is not bumped out of your family driving duties, you only need to get behind the wheel of the Mazda3. If this was a TV commercial we'd hit you with a jingle about now. Something along the lines of: 'Sporty Compact. Mazda3. Here's the car that sets you free'. Simon Cowell, where's your buzzer? Fortunately, this is a road test. So we'll overlook the PR-hype and work through the logical reasons as to why Mazda's sporty 5-door family hatch deserves to be on your shortlist.

First, because the Ford Focus-sized Mazd3 hatchback looks pretty darned good — particularly in 5-door guise (it's also available as a four-door saloon). For the record, there are eleven 5-door models to
choose from, starting with the entry-model 1.4S and topping out with the 2.0-litre Sport, powered by a 141bhp turbodiesel — as tested here.
BHP junkies should know that there's also a potent 256bhp petrol-engined model — the Mazda3 MPS.

The 141bhp Sport, however, is more than capable of satisfying the majority of keen family drivers. It's got enough in the looks department to make its presence noticed, with some crisp styling cues such as the rearward sloping rear quarter windows and jewel-like LED rear light clusters. Add to that a purposeful stance, a thrusting 'honeycomb' pattern grille, swept back headlights, strongly-defined front and rear wheel arches, a body kit including side skirts and a roof spoiler and also a set of eye-catching 17-inch alloy wheels shod with low-pro rubber. Now you begin to get the picture.

Next up is the interior. How do you like yours? If you answered 'focused' then you'll like the Mazda3's. The controls and instrument-ation are all attractive to look at, well-ordered and operate positively. The speedometer, rev-counter and fuel/temp dials are set deep in their own individual reflection-free cowls. All the time the engine is running their red graphics glow red, making them easier to see and the intensity can be adjusted. The three-spoke steering wheel adjusts (generously) for height and reach and its rim is wrapped in good quality leather that's nice to the touch and which is perforated in the key grip areas. Audio and cruise controls are mounted on the wheel's cross bars. Entertainment is blue chip, with a Bose premium audio system (seven speakers, Richbass woofer, digital amplifier with five channels
of customised equalisation and a 6-disc autochanger) tailored specific-ally to the Mazda3's cabin acoustics.

All cabin materials and plastics are visibly of good quality and the door cappings are attractively textured. A brushed metallic dark grey centre strip lifts the fascia. Door panels are finished in a smart silver and black fabric that matches the two-tone silver and black/black upholstery.

Not much point in having 'concert hall' quality sound in your car if you're not sitting comfortably. Happily, in the Mazda3, you do sit com-fortably — in shapely, ergonomically-designed front seats. We found them to be particularly supportive and the driver's seat was made even better by the strong lumbar support. The front centre armrest houses a two-tier storage bin and there are ample storage areas throughout the cabin. Particularly useful was the accommodating chillable glovebox that swallowed three normal wine bottles as well as providing a 'tray' in its lid when open. Not only will your drinks stay cool, but the efficient automatic climate control system ensures that you too remain at a comfortable temperature regardless of what the weather is doing outside.

Rear seat passengers also travel in comfort, and there's generous space in all directions for them. Large glass areas ensure good all round visibility, not just for the driver but also for the passengers. Those travelling in the rear will appreciate the well-placed centre armrest and comfortable backrest angle. The stylish rearward sloping rear quarter windows add to the pleasant ambience and the rear side windows drop fully into the doors. Three rear 3-point belts allow you to safely carry three in the back, should you wish to.

Another important reason to check out the Mazda3 is that families require room — not just for their own luggage but also for the numer-ous and varied calls made upon the family wheels to move bulky items, do the weekly family shop and pick up from the local garden centre/
DIY superstore, etc. The Mazda3's 60:40 split folding rear seat pro-vides ample flexibility and the boot will accommodate 346 litres of luggage in five-seat mode with 675 litres available when in two-seat mode.

Another important prerequisite for a family car is excellent safety. Again the Mazda3 Sport comes up trumps, being fitted as standard with ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Emergency Brake Assist along with Dynamic Stability Control and Traction Control.
You also get lots of airbags: the usual front bags for the driver and front passenger plus front side airbags and front and rear curtain air-bags. A front and rear 'seatbelt unbuckled' display is fitted above the rear view mirror — especially reassuring when you're carrying children
in the back. Isofix child seat anchorages are fitted to the outer rear seats.

So far that's a lot of plus points. But now we come to the engine.
The 2.0-litre Sport's turbodiesel unit puts out a very able 141bhp. More importantly, the in-line four-cylinder unit produces a muscular 266lb ft at 2,000rpm. Red-lined at 5,000rpm, it's a game engine that revs cleanly and pulls willingly: show it a steep, winding hill and it goes up
it with real gusto.

Other important benefits include a diesel particulate filter, a healthy CO2 figure (162g/km) and the fuel consumption. We averaged 41.9mpg driving hard and the official figures are equally heartening: 39.8, 47.1 and 52.3mpg respectively for urban, combined and extra-urban. Top speed, incidentally, is a more than adequate 126mph with the 0-62mph sprint despatched in 9.9 seconds.

And the good news doesn't stop there, because fuel economy doesn't come at the price of usable power. The diesel unit is exceptionally quiet, even from a cold start — you honestly wouldn't notice it's an oil-burner. It's nice and torquey, too, delivering its 266lb ft of power very smoothly right through the rev range, so that overtaking moves can be accomplished swiftly with power in reserve. In fact, it never seems short of urge and is happy to pull cleanly from 1,000rpm in sixth gear — not that you'd want to be so unsympathetic, of course, but it does demonstrate the engine's flexibility.

The six-speed manual 'box has a well considered set of ratios that give additional driving pleasures out on the open roads. The gear change action is easy, although second can be a tad on the deliberate side but none the worse for that. All-in-all, it's a good engine/gearbox combin-ation because it's responsive enough to please keen drivers yet it will dawdle along in congested city traffic without ever becoming tedious.

The Mazda3 Sport also delivers dynamically. With powerful front-wheel drive cars, there's a point at which, paradoxically, more power equals less. That's the moment when too much power overwhelms the tract-ion and you end up with spinning front wheels and fighting the steering wheel. The Sport's 141bhp keeps it neatly on the right side of this line. Allied to the generous torque, it's satisfying to drive with no problems getting all of the power down without losing traction or corrupting the well-weighted, speed-sensitive steering which, incidentally, uses electric power assistance.

The Sport's chassis and brakes have been uprated to cope with the extra power (disc brakes all round and ventilated at the front). The brakes are powerful if a tad sharp on first take-up (like some Volks-wagens) but fine once you've used them a few times. The chassis offers a nice mix of ride quality and grip. Push it really hard and there's safe understeer, although not of the unsettling nose-heavy variety. The same with corners: fire in too fast and, although there's some body roll, it doesn't spoil the fun because the Sport will grip gamely — assisted by its 205/50 BridgestonePotenzas — and get you through. The other side of the handling coin is an excellent ride — whether you're out for a one-to-one with your car or you're playing chauffeur to the family.

And you do get a lot of kit for your money. We've already mentioned the comprehensive active and passive safety systems and, to recap on the 'toys', there's the six-disc Bose hi-fi, cruise control, 17-inch alloys, sports bodystyling, trip computer, rain-sensing wipers, Xenon auto-headlights, four electric windows all with one-touch auto functions, climate control air conditioning with pollen filter, LED rear lights and electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors. Yours for 17,930 on-the-road.

Case proven — you can have fun in a family car. And if that car hap-pens to be the Mazda3 Sport, then you could find yourself still wanting to drive it even after the kids have flown the coop! Like a puppy, a Mazda's not just for Christmas — although it would make a very nice present, thank you.

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Mazda3 143ps 2.0 Sport Turbo Diesel | 17,930
Maximum speed: 126mph | 0-62mph: 9.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 41.9mpg | Power: 141bhp | Torque: 266lb ft

CO2 162g/km | VED Band D 140 | Insurance group 9E
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