It can’t ever have been said before, but the Mazda3 is ready to take on the Golf. That’s right. Golf, for years the car to beat in the mid-sized hatch market, really has a challenger on its tailpipe.

And it’s not just Golf which should look over its shoulder. Ford Focus, Toyota Auris, Audi A3, Vauxhall Astra and Honda Civic should quake a little, too.

This is the sixth-generation Mazda3 and is simply the best yet in terms of quality, style, economy, driver appeal and cabin. After a troubling time for Mazda, with a lack of new models hitting sales, the company has rediscovered its flair.

Mazda6 and Mazda CX-5 SUV have been relaunched with success and Skyactiv, Mazda’s suite of green technologies, is proving fabulous. In 2012, just eight per cent of Mazdas had Skyactiv. By 2015 it will be 90 per cent.

And Mazda has taken a lead in terms of hi-tech features to improve the information and entertainment offerings.

The Mazda3, due on sale in January as hatchback and Fastback, costs from £16,695 to £23,345 on-the-road.

The range is powered by three Skyactiv-G petrol engines – 1.5-litre 100ps, 2.0-litre 120ps and 2.0-litre 165ps – and a 2.2-litre 150ps Skyactiv-D turbo diesel engine, with a choice of six-speed manual and automatic transmissions.

It can deliver up to 72.4mpg on the combined cycle and has CO2 emissions as low as 104g/km.

Buyers can choose between five equipment levels – SE, SE Nav, SE-L, SE-L Nav and Sport Nav – with generous equipment including Smart City Brake Support, Secondary Collision Reduction, alloy wheels, air conditioning, 7in colour touch screen, USB/iPod connectivity and Bluetooth hands-free system as standard. And the car sets class standards with debut of Mazda’s sophisticated mobile connectivity system that integrates online social media and internet radio.

But the most obvious change to the Mazda3 is its style. Previous versions have been neat but very understated, but the arrival of sleek rivals such as the new Astra and Audi A3 means Mazda has had to raise its game.

With sleek rear-drive proportions and low-slung stance, the new Mazda3 uses the company’s award-winning ‘KODO – Soul of Motion’ design theme with great success. It is sporty, distinctive and powerful and links well with Mazda6 and Mazda CX-5.

Like Mazda6 and CX-5, Mazda3 uses Skyactiv technologies that focus on advanced engines, highly efficient transmissions, and sophisticated lightweight body and chassis technology to deliver an outstanding basis for driving dynamics, safety and economy.

It is one of the lightest cars in its class which helps keep running costs down, yet it is also one of the safest. Mazda3 posts some competitive combined economy and CO2 figures. The diesel-powered Skyactiv-D 150ps four-door Fastback with manual transmission returns 72.4mpg and emissions of just 104g/km, while the Skyactiv-G 120ps petrol-powered five-door hatchback with manual gearbox returns 55.4mpg and 119g/km.

It raises equipment levels to a new high, outperforming many C-segment rivals.

Every Mazda3 will come with Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) which helps prevent low-speed collisions by applying the brakes if the driver fails to, an idle-stop system, and Hill Hold Assist (HHA) to prevent roll back. Further equipment also includes 16in alloy wheels, air-conditioning, power-folding heated mirrors, leather steering wheel, trip computer, radio/CD with six speaker audio system, 7-inch colour touch screen, USB/iPod connectivity and Bluetooth hands-free system.

There is a new mobile connectivity system which integrates online social media and internet radio using Aha, a cloud-based internet platform that brings a wide range of free web-based content into the vehicle. Connectivity in the all-new Mazda3 is further enhanced by the integration of Stitcher, the on-demand internet radio service app.

This innovative and award-winning system provides free online streaming, collating content from thousands of providers and then organising this content into virtual ‘stations’ for occupants to browse and listen to.

Above all, though, the Mazda3 really drives, handles and feels very much like a premium product. Mazda has had its troubles, but the brand is smiling again.