IT’S hard to imagine a more punishing setting for a first drive than eastern Russia, where the surfaces are so badly maintained that a single wheel out of place can mean the end of the road.
Yet that is exactly where Mazda let me get my hands on the new Mazda 3 hatchback for the first time, as eight identical cars made their way across the widest country in the world.
It’s also, inevitabley, where one of the cars did put a wheel — or rather two — wrong; wrecking both right hand side rims on a single pothole.
This was a desperately tricky place for Mazda to introduce a car. Even the local drivers along the route were strewn like cannon fodder across the roadsides, tyres flat or wheels bent, all victims of the insanely large potholes and roller coaster-esque, frequently sunken highway.
So why did they do it? One reason might be that among the hordes of decades-old (in design, at least) Ladas and Cold War-era vans, the curvaceous Mazdas stood out like Miss World contestants in a working farmyard. Their flowing shape, purposeful front end styling and silhouettes reminiscent of the Ferrari FF gave the convoy something that passers-by couldn’t help but stare at.
The new 3 continues the firm’s ‘Kodo’ design theme, which means ‘soul of motion’. The result is stand-out styling, with the exception of the curiously long front overhang (thank pedestrian safety) and the tiny 16-inch alloys fitted to these cars. In truth, the upgraded 18-inch wheels that are set to be more popular in the UK simply wouldn’t have survived the disintegrating Russian roads.
A long-looking bonnet and a backwards-slung passenger area give the 3 a distinctly ‘shooting brake’ style profile, which in turn presents a premium first impression. It’s dimmed by those small wheels, though, and it needs the 18s to look right.
Things are still recognisably Japanese on the inside, with a mixture of sensible black plastics, hard-wearing surfaces and logical layouts all designed to satisfy previous Mazda, Toyota and Nissan buyers. But it’s definitely a more appealing place to sit for fans of European brands, with a greater emphasis on style. It’s a subtle improvement of shapes and finishes, but it doesn’t push too far in any one direction and the net result is a very likeable interior. Some of the textures should be treated with care though, because their coarse finish naturally rubs skin away and develops (easily cleanable) pale patches.
Passengers are catered for reasonably well, with good legroom available in all seats and a light, airy feel in the front seats. The one criticism is for the heavily shaped rear bodywork, which cuts down on available light in the rear seats and makes it feel a little more cramped back there than it really is.
Behind the wheel, drivers are treated to a typically excellent Mazda driving position, partly inherited from the MX-5 sports car. It’s easy to drop into the reasonably high seats, where you can then use the large range of adjustment in the seat and steering column to get comfortable and place the gear lever perfectly, just under your hand — in this case my right hand, because the eight plucky Mazdas crossing the rough Russian terrain had been built to German specs.
The mid-range 118bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine employs Mazda’s amazing SkyActiv technology to record fuel consumption and CO2 emissions scarcely believable for its type, but in this trim there’s no getting away from its lack of low-down urge. A 165bhp edition is on the way, but this one is best limited to gentle running about, and is at least very quiet and smooth, with a positive gear change and nicely weighted pedals.
Arguably the most impressive aspect of the car on this first drive was the way it handled the shocking road quality. Its suspension soaked up everything without becoming crashy, even managing better than expected when huge bumps punched right through the springs’ travel and into the bump stops. It’s a thoroughly well composed chassis.
Mazda will be launching the new 3 properly in Europe only a few weeks after the Frankfurt Motor Show in September, so watch this space for how the car handles decent roads.