When people find out I’m a motoring journalist, what follows is normally one of two questions: either “what car would you buy?” or, more usually, “what car should I buy?”

Lately, by way of an answer, I’ve been suggesting the questioner simply throws a dart at the Mazda range and drives home in whatever it hits.

Throw a dart at the Mazda range and drive home in whatever it hits.  It’ll be good.

Long gone are the days when the Japanese firm had to make do with warmed-over crap from Ford. As if to emphasise this, the oldest model in the company’s line-up is now the Mazda3 – itself a mere 18 months old and, as far as we’re concerned, the car most people should be buying instead of a Golf. The CX-5 is about as good as crossovers get, the Mazda6 is desperately underrated, and even the little Mazda2 is far more engaging than it has any right to be.

With the unveiling of the new CX-3, arriving at a time when compact crossovers are selling like the proverbial hot comestibles, it appeared for all the world that Mazda had its corporate finger firmly on the pulse of the market.

This, then, is a brand that marketing types would describe as being “on point.”

So when the CX-3 arrived on test, we had seriously high hopes for it.

It certainly looks the part. Feline-esque headlights, strong swage lines, pert rear styling and suitably tough-looking body-side cladding all combine with a shape that – despite being based on the Mazda2 – still appears to be perfectly proportioned.

The cabin is equally appealing, making use of the same wing motif as the Mazda2, and we never tire of those jet turbine-inspired air vents, nor the company’s MZD Connect system which continues to be our favourite of the current crop of infotainment systems.

The driver’s eye-line has been raised by 50mm over the Mazda2 to give a more commanding view of the road that befits the crossover character, and Mazda’s engineers have moved the front seats slightly apart and raised the rear seats to allow easier interaction between those in the front and back – great if you have kids.

Boot space gets a boost, too, with an additional 95 litres to 350 litres with the seats in place, rising to 1,260 litres with the seats folded, although Sport Nav models lose 63 litres from under the floor due to the Bose subwoofer. There’s also a dual-level load floor for the first time in a Mazda, and although the rear parcel shelf can just about fit underneath when not in use, we’d much prefer to see a flexible cover like that on the CX-5 and Mazda6.

Powering all of this is a choice of either a 1.5-litre diesel engine with 105PS, or a 2.0-litre petrol unit with either 120 or 150PS. The 120PS unit is offered in two-wheel-drive form only, the 150PS is exclusively all-wheel-drive, while the diesel is available in either.

Transmissions are fabulously slick-shifting six-speed manuals as standard, although a six-speed auto is available as an option on AWD diesel and 120PS 2WD petrol models.

All are quicker than you might expect: 105PS doesn’t sound like much, but Mazda’s weight-saving strategies pay real dividends. In fact, the CX-3 is lighter than the equivalent Mazda3 despite the added weight of the AWD system, and as a result, diesel models can hit 62mph in 10.1 seconds, while the 150PS petrol version completes the same sprint in just 8.7 seconds.

We tested the 120PS petrol model over the course of a week, and came away thinking it was likely to be more than enough engine for most people.

It’s suitably docile around town, and will lollop along in a high gear without complaining, although getting the best from it will require you to snick down a ratio or two and push it further up the rev range. We did find it a little snatchy in stop-start traffic, though – perhaps some fine-tuning of the throttle response would sort this.

Engine noises perhaps aren’t as well insulated as they are in Mazda’s other models, but both wind- and road-noise suppression impressed us, as did the chassis’ ability to keep bump-thump down to a bare minimum.

Using the Mazda2 platform as a starting point, Mazda’s engineers have toned things down a little. That means the steering is a little slower and less precise, while the handling has lost some of its endearing edginess. The company reasons that this fits better with the target market, but we’d have liked more of the Mazda2’s engaging character to have been retained.

As a result, while the CX-3 rides admirably, it’s easily upset by mid-corner bumps that cause the car not just to skip sideways but also induce a degree of lateral pitching that robs the Mazda of some of its otherwise impressive sense of security.

That said, what it loses in precision, it makes up for with affability. Around town it’s easy to place on the road, the brakes are beautifully judged, and its modest external proportions feel perfectly suited to our busy roads.

It’s easy to place on the road, the brakes are beautifully judged, and its modest external proportions feel perfectly suited to our congested roads.

Yet it feels equally at home in the cut and thrust of a fast-moving motorway, where it not only excels with a quiet and comfortable cabin, but also with good visibility and enough responsiveness to dart easily through traffic.

We subjected our CX-3 to the delights of the M25 and M1 during the busiest (and possibly the wettest) day of the year, and it proved itself more than equal to the task.

It also proved to be very economical, marginally beating its government economy figure of 47.9 mpg. The diesel officially returns up to 70.6 mpg, and matches it with low emissions of just 105 g/km; the 120PS petrol produces something around the 136/137 mark, while the high-powered petrol model emits 150 g/km.

The pricing is a touch strong, though, with the range starting at £17,595, while a more generously equipped Sport Nav model will set you back £20,495.

So is it as good as we’d hoped? Well, in some ways it’s better, as we weren’t expecting it to be such a capable mile-muncher. Our concern is only that Mazda may have deliberately aimed low with its chassis tuning, believing that’s what the market wants.

Chances are they’re right, but while the CX-3 struck us as a seriously compelling package that we’d happily place at the top of our shortlist, we couldn’t shake the feeling that underneath it all was an even better car that would reveal itself with just a little extra optimisation.

Or, to put it another way, in its current form, the new Mazda CX-3 is better looking and nicer to drive than many of its segment rivals.  But we didn’t want the CX-3 to just be better than the competition.

We wanted it to blow them into the weeds.

Entry-level Price £17,595 Price as tested £21,035
Engine 4-cyl petrol, 1998cc Transmission 6-speed manual
Power 120ps @ 6,000rpm Torque 204Nm @ 2,800rpm
0-60 9.0 secs Top speed 119 mph
Economy 47.9 mpg CO2 137 g/km
Dimensions 4275 x 1765 x 1535 (LxWxH) Kerb Weight 1230 kg