The Clarkson review: probably the most amazing car in Britain

"If you're a private detective tailing an errant husband, this has to be your No 1 choice"

Jeremy Clarkson - (The Sunday Times, April 21

The Mazda 3 saloon is a long way from ugly. That said, it might just be the most boring-looking car ever made. It’s so anonymous you could have driven one down the aisle at Westminster Abbey when King Charles was being coronated and no one would have spotted it. However, if you look underneath its invisible skin you will discover that this is probably the most amazing car on sale in Britain.

As we know, most family cars today are mini-SUVs with some kind of preposterous and unnecessarily complicated hybrid drive system. Or they are fully electric, which is even more stupid. Mazda, however, has no interest in any of this nonsense. It argues that if you want to save fuel and make fewer carbon dioxides, you shouldn’t dispense with the tried and tested internal combustion engine. You should develop it. Hone it. Poke into the corners of possibility with a powerful head torch and a pair of tweezers. And that’s what it has done.

Mazda Clarkson review

I hope you’ll forgive me, but I need to get a little bit technical at this point because what the two-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine in the 3 does is combine the characteristics of diesel and petrol technology. First of all, there’s a stratospheric compression ratio of 15:1. This helps use the fuel more efficiently, the sort of thrifty approach championed by Mrs Thatcher, who saw that the alternative — catalytic converters — would create more greenhouse gases. She was right, of course, but nothing could be done back then because Amstrad made all the computers. It can now, though, because Mazda has done it.

So, the extremely lean mixture of fuel and air is squirted into the cylinder as normal, but then a very rich mixture is added at precisely the right moment around the spark plug and this causes the initial injection to burn as if it had been ignited by compression. I have literally no idea what I’m on about here, but I do understand the results: 54mpg. And absolutely no sense at all that you are driving something from a place, a very long way in the future, called “sensible”.

When 16-valve engines first came along, people remarked on how there was very little low-down grunt. When diesels became all the rage, people commented on how they sounded like canal boats. When we got the turbo, it was hard not to notice the mile-wide gap between pushing the accelerator and actually accelerating. And with electric cars, we quickly realised that going to see a family member on the other side of the country could take a week. But with Mazda’s tech there’s no obvious downside at all. It’s just a nice, smooth engine.

And now we must turn our attention to the comfort, which is extraordinary. This has been achieved after a lot of hard work. The chassis is designed to deflect bumps and shudders away from the occupants. The seats have been developed to act as cushions. Even the tyres have soft and squidgy sidewalls. So if you’re a private detective who needs to remain fresh and alert while using a car that’s invisible to tail an errant husband, this has to be your No 1 choice.

But what if the errant husband does spot you and puts his foot down? Would you then be wishing that you were in Jim Rockford’s Firebird? Nope. Because the 3 is sprightly enough in a straight line and extremely pointy and together in the bends. I genuinely enjoyed whizzing along the lanes round here in it, and I especially enjoyed having an old-fashioned manual gearbox. A bloody good one too.

It has been a very long time since I drove a normal, sensible family car that is this much fun. Usually there’s an incomprehensible dashboard full of symbols and hieroglyphics and the sense that you’re lugging around half a hundredweight of batteries that can’t be recharged anywhere within a hundred miles and which make the act of driving for pleasure as hard as ballet dancing in a pair of wellies. But there was none of this in the Mazda. It was just me, some dials I understood and not so much power that I was frightened to deploy all of it whenever the mood took me.

Mazda 3 interior

Other things I enjoyed were the leather steering wheel, which felt tremendous, and a sense that nothing was going to break or fall off. Things I didn’t enjoy? Well, there are some significant blind spots, there isn’t much space in the back and while the boot is huge, the opening isn’t. You have to think of it, really, as a postbox. But if that’s an issue, you could always buy the hatchback.

And then there was the infernal bonging. Before setting off I’d spend hours trying to disable all the idiotic safety features — something that 41 per cent of drivers do, a recent poll discovered — but there was always something I’d forgotten. So, for no apparent reason, I’d be driving along and the racket would start up again.

Only on my final day with the car did I discover a little switch down by my right knee that shuts everything up. I’m not sure how this is allowed under EU law, which says you can’t just push an “everything off” button. But Mazda has obviously found a loophole.

This, though, is the Mazda way. The company began by making corks and tricycles but with war looming switched to the production of rifles. The war didn’t go well for Japan, and especially for Mazda, which was based in Hiroshima, but somehow it came out on the other side as a carmaker. And ever since it has always dared to be a bit different.

There was the longstanding flirtation with Wankel rotary engines. Years after everyone else gave up, Mazda persevered. In the Seventies, however, Ford took a stake in the company and you might think that would spell an end for individualistic thinking. Nope. Because at the precise moment every other carmaker gave up on the idea of a small, affordable two-seater convertible, Mazda came up with the MX5. It also launched a van called the Bongo and a hatchback that had wheels seemingly lifted from the bottom of a grand piano. Today, in partnership with Toyota, it is developing upholstery made from corn starch. And that brings us back to the 3.

This is the most impressive and satisfying car I’ve driven for quite some time. It’s quiet, understated, beautifully made, extremely clever and, as a result, a flick to the electric car lobby’s nutsack. And it’s available in something called soul red crystal, which — and I don’t usually like red cars — is the best colour currently available on any car anywhere.


The Clarksometer: Mazda 3 Saloon 186PS Exclusive-Line

Engine: 1998cc, 4 cylinders, petrol

Power: 183bhp @ 6000rpm

Torque: 177 lb ft @ 4000rpm

Acceleration: 0-62mph: 8.1sec

Top speed: 134mph

Fuel: 54mpg

CO₂: 118g/km

Weight: 1,391kg

Price: £29,255

Release date: On sale now

Jeremy’s rating: ★★★★ 1/2