Mazda3 hatchback

£17,095 - £23,995

When you’re taking on rivals of the calibre of the Volkswagen Golf, Skoda Octavia, Ford Focus, SEAT Leon, Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra, then you’ve got to be good. Luckily, for Mazda at least, the Mazda 3 hatchback is just that.

It’s arguably the most stylish car in the class, successfully showcasing Mazda’s design philosophy of swooping lines and sharp details. These aren’t just for aesthetics, either: the Mazda 3’s shape has been optimised to be as aerodynamic as possible in order to reduce wind resistance, thus improving fuel efficiency and lowering running costs.

You’ll also find the Mazda 3 is one of the best cars in the class to drive. Its steering is accurate, if a little too light, while body lean is very well controlled. The manual gearbox is sharp and easy to use and the automatic version swaps gears smoothly and quickly, too. It’s not the absolute most comfortable car in the class, but it’ll be perfectly acceptable for most people.

Although you might expect the 3’s interior space to suffer a little due to that low, swoopy roof line, it’s actually pretty spacious in there. Four adults will fit easily, while you should be able to get three children across the back without too much trouble, either. Boot space is okay, if a little way behind the class leaders, although this is made up for slightly by the large number of cubby holes dotted around the interior.

Speaking of the interior, it’s nicely designed and of decent quality as well. It may not be quite up there with the likes of the VW Golf, but it’s still a massive improvement over Mazdas of old. All the controls feel nicely weighted and sturdy, too.

Under the bonnet, there are two petrols and two diesels to choose from. The petrols displace 1.5 and 2.0 litres and produce 99 and 118bhp respectively. We’d avoid the smaller engine as it’s underpowered, no cheaper to run than the bigger engine and doesn’t cost much less to buy, either.

In order to take advantage of the 1.5 and 2.2-litre diesels’ lower running costs (but higher purchase prices) you’ll need to be doing around 14,000 to 15,000 miles a year. The numbers are impressive, however, with the 103bhp 1.5-litre returning around 74mpg and emitting a road-tax-exempt 99g/km of CO2. The larger, 148bhp 2.2-litre is pretty good, too, managing nearly 70mpg and emitting just 107g/km of CO2. This means an annual road-tax bill of just £20, while they sit in the 16 and 17% Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) company car tax bands respectively.

Performance from both diesels is entirely adequate, with the 103bhp version taking 11 seconds exactly to complete the 0-62mph sprint, while the 148bhp 2.2-litre version does it in 8.1 seconds.

Each of the three trim levels – SE, SE-L and Sports – can be augmented with the Nav suffix, which (unsurprisingly) adds satellite navigation to the list of equipment. Otherwise, all models come with alloy wheels, air-conditioning, DAB digital radio, Bluetooth mobile-phone connectivity and an infotainment system controlled using a seven-inch touchscreen display.

Safety shouldn’t be an issue, as the 3 comes complete with a five-star Euro NCAP crash-test rating, as well as a host of airbags, tyre-pressure monitoring, ISOFIX child-seat fixings, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, traction control and Smart City Brake Support. This last feature is a system that can automatically apply the brakes at low speeds (between 3 and 18mph) to either avoid a collision or reduce the impact of it.