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If you were a salesperson tasked to shift the new Mazda 3, what would your elevator pitch be to prospective customers? It’s a question that the bosses at Mazda have attempted to answer with the fourth-generation model.

For years a car that was on the sidelines, like the shy child hiding at the back of the class, Mazda’s family hatchback has to come out of its skin and make itself noticed if it’s to make a positive contribution to the company’s success.

It arrives at a time when competition moves on at a relentless pace. The Volkswagen Golf is the hatchback for all seasons with an upmarket vibe and these days as good as sells itself on the strength of its reputation. The Ford Focus offers a class-leading driving experience at the sort of competitive cost that any household or company car driver will find difficult to ignore.

Since the 3, and the 323 before it, has been around, the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have also muscled in on its patch, bringing the allure of posh showrooms, robust residual values and the opportunity to drop brand names at the dinner table. And let’s not get started on the rise of the SUV

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So, what’s new? What’s going to help the 3 be relevant? Kota Beppu, the engineer who lead the development of the 3, says the new model will appeal to 'free spirits'. It isn’t hard to imagine such people saving up for an MX-5 or, once upon a time, an RX-7, but whether individuals have a burning desire to express themselves with their choice of hatchback is debatable. Just ask Alfa Romeo, which struggled to achieve much the same objective with its Giulietta.

There’s a new platform with the option of four-wheel drive, the new Skyactiv-X petrol motor, which uses compression ignition, and a design that stands out of the crowd. In other words, this isn’t a makeover.

How much has Mazda changed the 3's design?

The 3's look is certainly a talking point. An evolution of Mazda’s Kodo design language, it has a remarkably low nose, elegant panel forms and a sloped roofline that tails off neatly into the rear screen. It’s distinct from the chiselled appearance of Volkswagen Group hatchbacks and more comfortably able to hold its own in the presence of the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

Anyone who has owned a Japanese car in the past won’t have to cast their mind too far back to reach a time when the interiors had all the desirability of a plastic loo seat. The 3 moves the game on for Mazda. There's a clear visual identity and a feeling that this can stand comparison with the benchmark car in this market, the Golf, for fit and finish.

The interior design has a delicate minimalism to it, with a slender dashboard broken up by attractive creases that run its full length and flow into the doors. The materials feel premium and the controls for the infotainment, stereo and climate control have the same satisfying action.

There’s a new 8.8in infotainment display on top of the dashboard, angled toward the driver. You can't control it by touch, though; Mazda's research showed that touchscreens promote gross motor movements (in other words, they make the driver lean), meaning the driver unwittingly applies torque to the steering wheel and can therefore wander out of their lane.

The same research demonstrated that the eye focuses quicker when such screens are further away, so Mazda (a company that’s never afraid to buck the trend) set the screen some way back. The main interfaces are an intuitive rotary controller and voice control.

The interior doesn’t just look or feel the part. The driving position is excellent, the redesigned seats are first-rate and the weighting of the pedals and steering is consistent. The downside is that over-the-shoulder visibility is pretty poor, because of the wide C-pillar and shallow rear windows.

There are no claims made for class-leading interior space. This isn't a big hatchback. In the back seats, adults approaching six feet tall will find their head rubs that sloping roof; high-backed booster seats are likely to be a squeeze; and the boot has lost a little capacity, now holding 295 litres.

How does the Mazda 3 perform on the road?

Just as the exterior looks stylish and the interior has a premium feel, the way the 3 goes down a road feels much more grown up. Key to this behaviour is a new, stiffer platform, that has a longer wheelbase and wider front and rear track. It uses torsion beam rear suspension, MacPherson struts and rack-and-pinion steering. And boy, does it all gel together nicely.

Around the craggy surroundings of West Los Angeles, the 3 rode rippled and cracked roads impressively. Out of the city surroundings and onto the concrete freeway, noise levels were subdued and the smooth ride continued to impress. By the time we got to stretch the car’s legs in the hills of Angeles National Forest, that supple ride became all the more remarkable, because it hasn’t been achieved at the expense of stability, steering response or handling.

Mazda's engineers have played around with the tyres, ultimately opting for a softer sidewall to absorb the impact, then tuning the suspension bushes to ensure a precise response to the driver’s commands. The benefits of the softer rubber are myriad: as well as taking the edge off the ride comfort, it gives a better contact patch when cornering and braking.

The clutch, throttle and gear change work with a nice harmony to their weighting. A bit more feel through the steering wouldn’t go amiss and the top of the brake pedal’s travel is dead, but that's about as long as the list of niggles gets. Working the 3 hard through the twists and turns, it remains level, never gets upset over lumps or dips and spreads the load evenly between the front and rear axles. In our 2.0-litre test car, at least, it appears to have a surfeit of ability over power.

Understanding the Skyactiv-X engine

In the UK, customers will be able to choose from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit, now a mild hybrid, a conventional 1.8-litre diesel and, for the first time, the interesting Skyactiv-X.

This supercharged unit runs on petrol but uses a combination of spark ignition and compression ignition to, claims Mazda, deliver the driver appeal of a petrol together with the fuel efficiency and torque of a diesel.

The 179bhp, 164Ib ft engine is able to switch from compression ignition, which is ideal for day-to-day driving, to a form of spark ignition, generally when the engine is started from cold or the driver demands maximum power at high revs.

If it delivers against the Japanese car maker’s general claims (the company is still to reveal economy and emissions figures), it could just be the holy grail of engines, delivering impressive fuel efficiency, low CO2 and NOx emissions and a satisfyingly sporty side to its delivery when desired.

It will be paired with four-wheel drive on UK cars and offered with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes. But the cost of the technology means it will be priced as a flagship model.

Back to today, the 2.0-litre petrol (which will be the UK’s best-selling version) is smooth until around 4500rpm and then grows a bit gruff. Cylinder deactivation and electrical assistance make for figures of 44.8mpg and 119g/km of CO2.

Performance is nothing to write home about, as you’d expect in a car that makes 120bhp and weighs the best part of 1350kg, but you can forgive that for the way the 3 has such a poised, polished feel about it.

Finally, then, the 3 feels as though it has a reason to exist.

This is more than just a numbers car for fleet drivers. It looks easy on the eye, has an aesthetic inside that’s rarely found in Japanese cars and drives with panache.

If you work at a Mazda dealership, your job just got a little easier.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Mazda 3

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