Johannesburg - The Mazda3 has always been a rather attractive car, but the seventh-generation, launched in South Africa this week, is making a far bolder statement than ever before, while also taking a considerable step upmarket on the tech and features front.

Available in both sedan and hatch formats as always, the newcomers are unashamedly sporty and striking in their appearance, with slim headlights and taillights, a gigantic grille upfront and sloping rooflines, but whereas the sedan has a more elegant countenance, the hatch makes a more dramatic statement with its large, sweeping C-pillar.

On the engine front, Mazda hasn't gone down the turbocharging route, something that will irk customers seeking top performance, but appease those who value longevity and peace of mind.

Anyhow, the new 3 does get a more modern base engine, with the majority of the line-up powered by a new 1.5-litre ‘Skyactiv-G’ normally aspirated unit that replaces the antiquated 1.6 that stuck around for multiple generations. The Skyactiv-G 1.5 is available with six-speed manual and six-speed torque converter automatic transmissions, and produces 88kW at 6000rpm and 153Nm at 5000 (which is 11kW and 9Nm more than the old 1.6).

The Astina flagship model gets a slightly reworked 2-litre unit, mated exclusively to a six-speed autobox, and producing 121kW at 6000rpm and 213Nm at 4000 - that’s 3Nm more than before.

Sadly the innovative (and frugal) new Skyactiv-X petrol engine, which features diesel-like compression ignition, is not destined for shores as yet. Mazda SA puts this down to our poor fuel quality, which at the very least needs to reach Euro 4 standards before the engine, which produces 132kW and 222Nm, can even be considered.

We hopped into both variants on the 3's Gauteng launch, and the 2-litre unit and its auto gearbox impressed with their overall smoothness, and performance was relatively effortless. It’s a painless package to live with, but it’s not as potent as its turbocharged rivals.

The 1.5, however, struggled on our Highveld route, and the engine has to work really hard to extract reasonably brisk performance, something that can make for a rather noisy and buzzy driving experience.

Yet that was the only real chink in this car’s refinement armoury - the cabin is well insulated and there’s very little road noise, while the ride is extremely compliant - wafting comfortably over some rough rural surfaces that we encountered on our route.

This does not come at the expense of road holding, which is still pin-sharp, while the steering feels engaging by today’s numb, electrically assisted standards. Mazda puts a great deal of effort into creating a feeling of 'oneness' between car and driver (emulating horse and rider), something it calls 'Jinbai-Ittai', and it really shows.

In keeping with that philosophy, the cabin feels more cockpit-like and driver-centric, and Mazda has gone for a more minimalistic design here without compromising ergonomics unnecessarily, although the new MZD Connect infotainment system shuns the whole touchscreen craze. You still get a 22cm colour screen, but you can only control it via a rotary knob on the centre console. Mazda feels that this set up prevents distraction, as the screen can be set far back in the dashboard and within your line of vision, and they certainly have a point.

While the dash design is minimalistic, but perhaps a bit fussy in places, the quality of materials is really right up there, if not better than, the best premium German rivals out there. It really is smothered in soft, plush surface materials, with an abundance of satin chrome trim adding a classy contrast.

The Mazda3 not only moves upmarket in terms of material quality, but in spec too.

The 'Original' base model has been discontinued, but buyers still have a wide array of spec grades to choose from, these being Active, Dynamic and Individual, all paired with the aforementioned 1.5-litre engine, and the Astina, which gets the 2.0.

Head-up display, for instance, is standard across the range, as is Mazda's MZD Connect infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple Carplay connectivity.

Also part of the deal is keyless push-button start, auto LED headlights, a multi-function steering wheel, electronic parking brake, 16-inch alloy wheels, seven airbags (including a driver's knee bag) and ESP stability control. 

And that's just the 'Active' base model.

Upgrade to the Dynamic, and you also get cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and rear parking sensors.

Over and above all of that (and that is a lot, hey?) the Individual adds 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, an LCD digital speedometer, leather seats (which are 10-way electrically adjustable for the driver), and a frameless auto dimming rearview mirror, while a sound upgrade treats you to a 12-speaker Bose audio system. 

The Astina brings even more luxury (and safety) into your life, with a reverse camera, satnav, adaptive LED headlights, sunroof, rear air vents, as well as driver assist gizmos such as Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.

While the new Mazda3 is a more stylish and refined vehicle that's packed with a whole lot more standard features than before, this all adds up on the price chart, where the entry point to the range has risen by almost R90 000, to R357 000. See the full line-up below:

MAZDA3 PRICES

Hatchback

1.5 Active manual - R359 900

1.5 Dynamic manual - R374 200

1.5 Dynamic auto - R387 000

1.5 Individual manual - R421 900

1.5 Individual auto - R434 700

2.0 Astina auto - R474 000

Sedan

1.5 Active manual - R357 000

1.5 Dynamic manual - R371 000

1.5 Dynamic auto - R384 100

1.5 Individual manual - R418 800

1.5 Individual auto - R431 600

2.0 Astina auto - R470 800

Aftersales back-up comes in the form of a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty and matching service plan.

IOL Motoring