IT'S possibly the closest fought section of the garage forecourt with big hitters like the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and VW Golf scrabbling for sales.
And on the fringe there's the Mazda3, an unusually pretty family hatch that has all the practicality of the mainstream models, yet possesses a sporty appeal and an individuality that helps you stand out from the crowd.
Mazda, rightly proud of preserving its driving dynamics in a price-sensitive market dominated by economy and CO2 figures, facelifted the 3 earlier recently with updated grille, bumpers and headlights plus a better quality interior.
With a range of petrol and diesel models, I tried the 2.2-litre diesel Sport Nav version, which with punchy acceleration and tidy handling is very nearly a hot hatch.
Unusually, at a time when many manufacturers are down-scaling their engines, Mazda has remained faithfully to the old-school formula of a big engine within a compact body. Despite the gutsy performance - 0 to 62mph in a fraction over eight seconds is swift - economy is good and emissions are impressively low.
In fact, most owners will squeeze around the 50mpg mark from a gallon and the official combined figure of 68.9mpg puts its towards the top of its class.
The 148bhp four cylinder, which has been treated to a few sound-proofing tweaks, has ample torque for high gear overtaking.
It's an engine that feels unstressed and never seems to run out of steam. Matched to an automatic gearbox with steering wheel paddles, rather than the standard six-speed transmission, it blends performance with relaxed progress.
The engine is turbocharged but there's a pleasing absence of lag thanks to Mazda's ‘transient control' which means that a delay between pressing the accelerator pedal and the delivery of surge has been eliminated.
While engine noise is muted, a fair bit of road roar creeps into the passenger compartment and wind noise can disturb the general peace and quiet.
The Mazda3 is as much at home on twisty lanes as it is swallowing up the motorway miles. Fairly firm suspension means little body-sway when cornering yet the ride is supple enough to soak up poor surfaces without passing shocks through to the passengers.
The cabin is roomy enough with plenty of front and rear legroom though headroom in the rear is somewhat restricted. Boot space at 364 litres is ample for most families but not class leading. The rear seats split and fold to expand cargo space. Better quality plastic fascia mouldings improve the general ambience but the 3's sombre interior remains less exciting visually than its exterior.
The Sport Nav version comes as standard with full leather trim, and as its name suggests sat-nav is fitted. It also gets a pedestrian protection system, heated front seats, dual zone climate control and rear parking sensors.