Mazda are, it seems, tired of making up the numbers.

Until recently it was easy to overlook this relatively small brand. Whatever Mazda did, other manufacturers did with a little more verve.

But Mazda seems to have found its niche. And how! The company posted sales of 8,576 cars in March, a surge of 40 per cent over the same month last year, well ahead of the industry rise of 18 per cent.

And more growth is expected for a brand which seems to have perfected the knack of the right models at the right time and with the right emphasis on economy.

Leading the way is Mazda3, a car with the unenviable task of taking on Astra, Focus and co, the real big-hitters.

The model helped the company’s magnificent March performance to raise sales in the financial year ending on March 31 to more than 34,500, an increase of 35 per cent over the previous financial year.

The strong March performance takes first quarter sales to more than 12,500 cars giving the resurgent brand a market share of 1.8 per cent and putting it well on track to sell more than 36,000 vehicles this year.

Star of the month was all-new Mazda3, launched at the turn of the year. “It has exceeded all expectations,” said Mazda UK sales director Peter Allibon. All-new Mazda3 sales were 1,779 with 88 per cent of buyers from the retail sector and 22 per cent of buyers opting for the Fastback version, in line with Mazda’s initial forecast.

Total sales of all-new Mazda3 in the first quarter of 2014 are now approaching 3,000.

The company’s sales in March were split 66-34 per cent retail to fleet, ahead of the industry average of 58 per cent retail and a figure Mr Allibon described as “pretty pleasing”. It is also a further demonstration of why Mazda continues to be a franchise of choice for many aspiring dealer groups.

Mazda UK sales are on track to grow by a further 5,000 this calendar year, a similar level to the success enjoyed in 2013 when sales went from 26,100 in 2012 to 31,200.

“It’s steady growth and we could see more growth from all-new Mazda3 and Mazda CX-5 which are in strong global demand,” said Mr Allibon. “Mazda is at full capacity to meet that demand and we will have to fight for every model we want.”

So, how does Mazda3 shape up? Well, it’s a pretty good-looking car which comes as a 2.0 petrol or 2.2 litre diesel. They cost from £16,995 and match the class leaders in terms of value for money and driving bility. It’s a huge leap forward from the previous model in terms of quality, ride and handling.

Let’s start with the styling, which is unlike anything except the 3’s Mazda siblings, the CX-5 and the latest 6. Its curvy and flowing lines are instantly recognisable and draw admiring glances.

The saloon version (called the Fastback) is rated at just 104g/km. Downsizing isn’t the right way forward, says Mazda. This is what it calls ‘right-sizing’.

The achievement is astonishing. The SkyActiv-D twin-turbodiesel, despite its capacity, is so clean it passes Euro 6 emissions regulations without any need for additives. Even the likes of BMW and Mercedes haven’t managed that yet. But at the same time it’s still a good size engine with a lot of torque. On the road it’s one of the best diesels I’ve tried. The cleverly-harmonised turbochargers just get on with their work, reducing lag and conjuring up power that eclipses more or less any of the Mazda’s rivals. It’s also comfortable, capable of absorbing almost anything that’s thrown its way. The interior is solid. Everything feels extremely well screwed together and there’s a spread of expensive-feeling materials. It’s a distinctly Japanese cabin and the detailing is very smart.

Mazda has made a point of including the MZD Connect infotainment system on mid-range trims and above. Connectivity is important, so the Mazda3 comes with two USB ports, a 3.5mm port, Bluetooth and an SD card slot, although the latter is occupied by the navigation system’s maps data.