Modest tweaks keep

Mazda3 fresh

Mazda3 Hatchback, front action
Mazda3 Hatchback, side action
Mazda3 Hatchback, rear action
Mazda3 Hatchback, boot 2
Mazda3, dashboard
Mazda3, both versions 2
Mazda3, both versions 1
Mazda3 Fastback, rear action
Mazda3 Fastback, boot
Mazda3, rear seats
Mazda3 Hatchback, boot 1

YOU can't knock Mazda for its honesty. Lined up side by side were the latest version of the company's midrange hatch and the model it replaces.

And both editions of the Mazda3 looked all but identical to the untrained eye. To the trained eye too, come to that.

And Mazda agrees, siting 'minor tweaks' on the outside, amounting to little more than a different radiator grille and lights at the front and a bit more body coloured panelling round the back, instead of plainer black plastic.

Inside, the changes run a little deeper, with smarter plastics on dash and doors. An electric parking brake replaces the older manual lever - but nobody uses either these days, do they?

Oh, and there are deeper door bins, after owners told Mazda they needed extra room for the detritus of life on the road.

All versions of the new Mazda3 - available with two diesel and two petrol engines and in two body styles,

Hatchback and (booted saloon) Fastback - are now quieter than before, thanks to added sound deadening and reduced knocking noises from cold or at low speed from the diesels.

Dig deeper and you discover Mazda has been clever with the electronics, devising something called G-Vectoring Control, which minutely varies the power going to the front, driven wheels to keep the car tracking straighter, to the benefit of both feel at the wheel and passenger head-nodding comfort.

Without an older car to try on the same bits of Scottish blacktop chosen for the car's launch, it was of course impossible to know how well this clever tech works. Ditto, how much quieter the newer model has become.

Happily, that is no real problem. The Mazda3 in its old guise was one of the best cars in its class, bringing the fight to the likes of the Ford Focus and VW Golf.

And it still is, with a continuing winning combination of good looks, decent performance allied to sometimes outstanding economy and a lot of kit for your money.

Talking of which, the new car costs £200 more than before, which will make almost no impact on your monthly payments.

The vast majority of Mazda3s are sold as hatchbacks, which cost the same as their saloon siblings but are considered a mite more practical thanks to the big rear hatch, opening to reveal a sensibly sized boot beneath.

Most of them will have petrol engines because most of this line of Mazdas are sold to private buyers, who don't reckon the £1,500 price hike to a diesel is worth it for the extra economy when they're not doing business user mileages.

Prices of the new range start at £17,595 for a 2.0 litre SKYACTIV-G petrol SE Nav, which rather confusingly comes without satellite navigation, available for £600. It does come with 16-inch alloy wheels, manual air conditioning, DAB radio, electric windows all round and heated and power folding door mirrors.

Move to SEL-Nav, from £19,695, and you add parking sensors, heated front seats, cruise control, climate control and city brake support that brakes for you if you're not concentrating and can stop the car before it hits something.

Top of the Mazda3 tree is the Sport Nav line, from £20,645, which brings 18-inch alloys, LED headlights, digital speedometer, keyless entry and a Bose nine speaker sound system.

The two 2.0 litre petrol engines produce 120 or 150 horsepower, with the diesels, of 1.5 or 2.2 litres managing 105 and 150 horsepower respectively. Automatic transmission is available on some petrol and diesel models for £1,200.

Trying the likely biggest seller, a hatchback 120hp petrol version revealed a car that feels as nimble on its pins as something from a smaller class of car and which tackled Scotland's bonny braes with something close to enthusiasm, helped along by a forgiving ride and gearchange that might have been lifted from the MX-5 sports car.

An enthusiastic punt with a local in his BMW behind had me fearing for the fuel consumption but the trip recorder's 45mpg at journey's end was a pleasant surprise. This is a car you could live with, easily.

Then we moved to the 1.5 litre diesel and discovered a car that needed less gearbox action on the hills and still covered ground in the way the police used to call 'making progress.'

A bit gruffer than the petrol, but still quiet enough not to notice (coarse road surfaces produced more noise in either car).

Its 54mpg was impressive and gentler use would surely nudge it into the 60s. Only you can decide if the price premium is worth it.

Either way, this gentle reworking of Mazda's mid-ranger keeps the car near the head of anyone's shopping list.

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