Mazda3 hatchback

£16,995 - £23,745

The Mazda3 is a mid-size, five-door family hatchback (also available as a saloon called the Fastback) that's intended to compete with the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf. It's arguably more stylish than either of them, and certainly a lot less common on UK roads.

On the downside, the Golf's interior looks and feels more upmarket than the Mazda's, while the Focus offers a wider choice of engines. Even so, Carbuyer readers rate the Mazda higher than either of those models.

There's a choice of 1.5 and 2.0-litre petrol engines and a choice of two diesels: a 1.5 and a 2.2-litre. Thanks to Mazda's SKYACTIV technology (a package of measures aimed at improving fuel consumption and CO2 emissions) all are reasonably efficient.

We’d avoid the basic 1.5-litre petrol in favour of the 2.0-litre. That's because it's more powerful, just as economical (55.4mpg), costs the same to tax (£30) and is only £300 more expensive. The top-of–the-range Sport version gets a more powerful version of the larger petrol engine, but inevitably it's less economical and more expensive to tax.

The 2.2-litre diesel engine is smooth and punchy, returns an impressive 68.9mpg and costs just £20 a year to tax. However, it's around £2,000 more expensive than the equivalent petrol, so make sure your annual mileage justifies the extra outlay. As a rule of thumb, you should be doing over 15,000 miles a year to make buying a diesel worthwhile. Fortunately, whichever Mazda3 you choose, you’ll get a good price for it when you sell it, such is the car's reputation.

There's also a 103bhp 1.5-litre diesel, which we have yet to drive. It'll do the 0-62mph sprint in 11 seconds and, when fitted with the manual gearbox, drops below the 100g/km of CO2 marker. This makes it exempt from road tax and results in just a 17% Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) company car tax contribution. It'll also return 74.3mpg on the combined cycle.

The Mazda3 is fun to drive, with light yet accurate steering, strong grip and a wonderfully direct and positive manual gearbox (you can also get an auto). Despite its sporty shape and sloping roofline, there's plenty of room inside – front and back.

There are three core trim levels – SE, SE-L and Sport – each with an accompanying sat-nav-equipped version called Nav. Equipment is good, with even the basic SE having alloy wheels, air-conditioning, a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system, stop-start and alloy wheels.

Owners rate the Mazda3's quality and reliability highly and Euro NCAP was sufficiently impressed with the car's safety credentials to award it five out of five stars. Standard safety kit includes a full set of airbags, electronic traction and stability control and hill-hold, while the mid-range SE-L model adds rear parking sensors.