David Motton
Tow Car Editor

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THINGS ARE LOOKING up for Mazda. After several years oflacklustre sales it's now the third fastest growing car brand in the UK. Andwith the new Mazda 3 small family car arriving in January there'severy reason to expect 2014 to be even better.

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There's no shortage of talented rivals for the new 3, but the Mazda makes a strong case for itself with competitive pricing, generous standard equipment and a superb diesel engine. And despite being lighter than the outgoing 3, it still has the makings of a capable tow car.

Driving the diesel

It's the 2.2-litre diesel which is most likely to appeal to caravanners. With 280lb.ft of torque, there's plenty of muscle for decisive overtaking. We've towed with this engine in the larger Mazda 6 and the CX-5 crossover, and found it more than up to the job. It's a refined engine, too, with very little engine noise once up to speed. Even when accelerating hard the diesel doesn't become too gruff.

Mazda quotes a kerbweight of 1470kg for the diesel hatchback, which gives an 85% match figure of 1250kg. The legal towing limit is 1500kg.

As well as the six-speed manual, this engine is available with a six-speed automatic. This puts the kerbweight up by 10kg although the legal towing limit remains the same.

Choosing the auto does put a dent in the 3's fuel economy, though. According to official figures the automatic returns 58.9mpg whereas the manual achieves 68.9mpg. Go for the Fastback (Mazda-speak for the saloon) and that improves to 72.4mpg.

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Petrol power

Although the diesel 3 has the most obvious towing credentials, the majority of petrol models should have enough pep to handle towing duties so long as you don't mind working the engines hard.

The 118bhp 2.0-litre is expected to be the best-seller. Compared with the Volkswagen Group's TSI engines it takes a while to really get going, but once into its stride it's lively enough. Manual cars have a kerbweight of 1355kg, giving an 85% match figure of 1152kg. The legal towing limit is 1300kg.

We also drove the 163bhp 2.0-litre. Change gear midway through the rev range and it doesn't feel that different to the less powerful engine, but keep on accelerating and there's plenty of extra top-end punch. The manual has a 1368kg kerbweight, an 85% match figure of 1163kg and a towing limit of 1300kg.

There's also a 1.5-litre which we haven't had the opportunity to drive, although with modest power and torque outputs and a 950kg towing limit it doesn't look cut out for caravanning.

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Driving the Mazda 3

Whichever engine is under the bonnet, the new 3 is a pleasure to drive. The steering is light but precise and direct, and the suspension is well controlled. The Mazda flows down twisting roads with impressive poise and balance.

The larger 6 also handles well but ride comfort suffers. The 3 is noticeably better in this respect, always firm but rarely unsettled.

However, it's a shame Mazda hasn't done more to reduce road noise. It's especially noticeable on high-spec cars with their 18-inch alloy wheels and low profile tyres. A Skoda Octavia or Volkswagen Golf are both considerably quieter at speed.

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Inside the Mazda 3

Road noise aside, the cabin of the Mazda 3 is a pleasant place to spend time. Finish quality hasn't always been a strong point for Mazda, but the 3's interior looks and feels a definite step up, even compared with other recent models like the 6 and CX-5.

The driving position has plenty of adjustment and after several hours in the car we had no aches or pains.

Despite the sloping roofline, there's enough rear headroom for passengers over six-feet tall to be comfortable. Legroom isn't in the same league as the class-leading Skoda Octavia, but it's far from cramped. However, it's a shame there are no air vents in the back to keep rear-seat passengers at a comfortable temperature.

Boot space is there or thereabouts compared with most rivals. The hatchback has 364 litres with the rear seats upright, while the Fastback has 419 litres.

Standard equipment

Mazdas tend to come with a long list of standard toys, and that's certainly the case here. Even the entry-level SE comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, a seven-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity and air conditioning. Every 3 has apps for internet radio and accessing social media through the car's touchscreen.

The roster of safety kit is similarly long, and the 3 has achieved the maximum five-star rating from Euro NCAP.

Prices start from £16,695. That's a lot more than you'll pay for the entry-level versions of some small family cars, but then most manufacturers aren't as generous with the standard equipment. The diesel is priced from £19,245, rising to £23,345 for top-spec automatic.

Should you buy one? Well, the 3 isn't as roomy as a Skoda Octavia and it's not as quiet as a Volkswagen Golf. But with distinctive looks, an entertaining drive and plenty of equipment, the new Mazda 3 runs the class leaders close.