THERE'S no shortage of choices in the fiercely competitive hatchback market and for more than 15 years the Mazda3 has probably been one of the best kept secrets in this crowded sector.
That may be about to change though after the introduction this year of the new fourth-generation model, which boasts some seriously eye-catching looks to go with Mazda's traditionally engaging handling.
Virtually all creases and character lines have been eliminated from the new car to create an ultra-clean, sleek look that is further enhanced by a dramatically raked roofline, which swoops down towards a distinctive, curvy rear-end.
Alloy wheels, twin tailpipes, a roof spoiler and, on higher spec grades, rear privacy glass, all add to the stylish effect and the 3 is certainly a frontrunner in the hatchback beauty stakes.
This is all complemented on the inside by a well-equipped, modern, minimalist cabin that makes up for what it lacks in practicality with plush soft-touch surfaces and the type of quality finish that will give some of the premium German brands a run for their money.
Engine choice consists of a 1.8-litre diesel and a couple of 2.0-litre petrols - the 122ps Skyactiv-G in our car and the brand new 180ps Skyactiv-X, the world's first production petrol engine to exploit the benefits of diesel-style compression ignition, which has just joined the range.
Both petrol power-packs are matched to Mazda's 24V mild-hybrid system to help boost fuel economy, while the Skyactiv-G also features cylinder shut-off technology. All engines can be mated to either a compact and snappy six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic.
As with all Mazda's the 3 handles impressively. The steering is well weighted and accurate while the well-sorted chassis offers a firm, but not uncomfortable, ride for the most part. This makes for an agile and engaging drive with the car remaining flat and settled on winding lanes and when cornering at pace.
With sporty good looks and that sharp, nimble handling going for it, it's a little frustrating that the Skyactiv-G engine in our car lacks the kind of punch to truly revel in the 3's dynamic capabilities.
Although not short of pace generally, and comfortable and relaxed at cruising speeds, this naturally aspirated unit lacks real immediacy.
The 10.4 seconds for the 0-62mph sprint is nothing more than average for a hatchback with sporty aspirations and belies the lack of a turbocharger. You will need to drop down the gears for sharp injections of pace, for overtaking, for instance, or on long inclines.
If that extra oomph is really important to you, it may be worth considering the Skyactiv-X, which Mazda says will offer more low-end pull and better fuel economy than a traditional petrol engine.
The interior of the Mazda3 matches the exterior in style and appeal. Fixtures and fittings all have a premium look and feel while a low driving position adds to the sportiness and ensures headroom is not an issue even for taller drivers.
Passengers in the rear, however, have to endure some compromise for that bold, rakish design, with the sloping roof meaning that headroom is tight, while legroom is also no more than adequate.
We got three teenagers in reasonably comfortably but it would probably be best to stick to two adults on all but the shortest trips, with the small windows and privacy glass also making it quite dark in the back.
There are no complaints about the equipment levels, though, with all versions getting an intuitive multimedia system with 8.8-inch display screen and rotary controller, navigation, air conditioning, digital radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a head-up display, automatic emergency braking, cruise control, blind spot monitoring and lane-keep assist.
The mid-range Sport Lux car we drove additionally benefitted from a rearview camera, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control and adaptive LED headlights.