It seems incongruous in a business where pushing technological and engineering boundaries are a commonplace taken-for-granted thing, that certain cars can maintain their position at the head of the sales charts not so much for years, but for decades, without really being challenged even by a determined opposition.
So it has been in the small family car market for eons now as the Volkswagen Golf and the Ford Focus remain the two model ranges that everyone else aspires to topple. Except they have not been toppled, despite being challenged by a plethora of other manufacturers over a fantastically long period of time.
Giants such as Peugeot, Toyota, Opel, Nissan, Renault, Honda and many, many others have tried valiantly to smash the Ford/VW duopoly in this specific market segment, but without coming close at any time I can remember in either the recent or distant past to making a car that is anywhere as good as the two class leaders.
In fact the only real challenge I can ascertain in the last two decades is one that has died on the altar of poor marketing and in some cases chronic market management in individual countries — and that has come from the Mazda3 which, in recent times, is the only car I can think of that has been anywhere close to the quality necessary to topple either the Ford or the VW.
Sadly, the car’s abilities have been lost in a miasma of missed opportunities and marketing and sales programmes which have singularly failed several generations of the model range.
Were you to talk to any Mazda3 owner during the last two decades, you will invariably find someone who would rather lose part of their anatomy than speak ill of their car.
This is because they have come to love the often outré look of the thing, or the decent specification packed into them, or even the bulletproof reliability dished up to them during their ownership tenure.
This being the case, Mazda3 owners are a demanding and unforgiving bunch and the arrival of the fourth generation of the car here in Ireland will spark many into a frenzy of activity as they try and ascertain if the new one is up to the standards set by its predecessors.
The simple answer to their concerns is that, yes, the new car is better than the last one — a lot better — but it is still slightly hamstrung by one or two issues which while they might not faze the converted, might still rankle with those new to the model.
In essence the new 3 is a great looking car — especially in the battleship grey (or ‘Polymetal Grey Metallic’ in Mazdaspeak) overcoat adorning the tester — and right now possibly the sharpest looker in the segment, although there are those that will carp about the large C-pillars and shallow rear windows from a design point of view.
But viewing these slightly controversial aspects of the car in the context of the overall design, they meld into insignificance, such is the possible overall visual impact of the car, with its low nose, very sloped roofline and the way Mazda’s designers have pulled off such a seamless outcome.
Truly this has to be one of the best-looking family hatchbacks since, perhaps, the Alfa 147 or maybe even the original Ford Focus. Of course, such opinions are subjective, but I think it is a real looker and I have yet to hear anything to the contrary.
The interior too is a really nice place to be and while initially you might be a little taken aback by the minimalist Japanese approach to the design on offer here, you quickly realise just how effective and user-friendly it is.
There are just a few buttons controlling the air con and climate control and everything else is operated through a rotary dial which controls all the infotainment and connectivity functions which are displayed on an 8.8in screen.
And, unlike many cars these days this is not a touchscreen as Mazda rightly points out that such systems can and do detract the driver’s attention away from what’s happening on the road.
It might appear to be a very simplistic system, but it is terribly effective and really easy to use and I thought great credit is due to Mazda for creating a user-friendly system which does everything you need it to do without being overly tech-heavy.
And even though the layout is minimalist, it actually has an upmarket ambience about it which leaves both the Focus and the Golf looking a little tawdry by comparison.
The materials used here are not generally of the sort seen in small family hatchbacks and provide the GT Sport version we tried with the sort of sophistication you are not generally offered at this level of price point.
Mazda has not quite gone all-in on the driving dynamics — the two-litre petrol only offers some 122 bhp, while the suspension layout is defined by the use of a torsion beam system at the rear. Neither of these facts will set anyone’s heart racing.
In reality and out on the road, however, the 3 is actually quite the dynamic driver and for the most part it is a really nice car to drive. Sure you won’t be getting blackouts from the blood rushing to the back of your brain under acceleration (0-100km/h takes 10.2 second and top speed is 200km/h), but the emphasis here is more on comfort and refinement than anything else.
A relative lack of poke is offset by a great driving position and a wonderfully slick six-speed gearbox, not to mention fast and direct steering and eager handling. It also offers real-world consumption of 6.3 l/100km (44.4 mpg) and an annual tax bill of just €200.
WHAT holes you can pick in this particular model are easily overlooked by the simple fact that the overall package is so completely likeable.
And if the power issue is something you feel you cannot overlook, then the SkyActive X version which we will be testing soon offers considerably more punch with some 180 bhp available and should solve any quibbles you might have on that front.
But even with just the 120 bhp engine, it does not mean the car fails to entertain. Grip levels are so good and body roll so well contained, the Mazda can take on a fast, sweeping secondary road with the best of them and is well capable of bringing a smile to your face.
This car then represents Mazda’s best ever opportunity of cracking the domination of the ‘Big Two.’ It is a measured and thoughtful — not to mention good-looking — response to competition which all too many opponents have caved-in to all too easily.
Mazda has not given up the fight and as this range of cars expands to cover many more bases, it will gestate into a genuine contender against mighty forces which for all too long have remained unchallenged.
With this new car, Mazda has not so much taken a step into the unknown but has brought lessons learned from its highly successful CX-3 and CX-5 SUVs to play in a more traditional market. Thus, the sharp-suited 3 is ready to mix it with the big boys.