2014 Mazda 3 Review : LT4

$24,390 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
    5.7L
  • Engine Power
    114kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    134g
  • ANCAP Rating
    5Stars

Our long-term Mazda 3 returns to its maker, but do we have a tear in our collective eye?

It couldn’t have worked out any more perfectly – as we concluded our six months with our long-term Mazda 3, we had done almost exactly the average number of kilometres Australians drive in the most popular privately bought car in the country.

That figure is between 14,000km and 15,000km per annum, and between the collection of our middle-grade Mazda 3 Maxx automatic hatchback in early September 2014 until its return in March 2015, its odometer had wound from 6363km to 13,480km – a total of 7117km in half a year.

Over that period the Mazda 3 proved faultless in terms of reliability, the only exceptions being that the Mazda 3 badge on the driver’s floor mat had come loose, and the MZD-Connect infotainment screen would sometimes freak out and reset itself (but Mazda says it re-flashes the system with software updates at each service).

Also over our time with the Mazda 3, the Australian-Japanese free trade agreement had come into force, meaning the price of this Maxx automatic hatchback has fallen by $600 over the time we’ve had it; from $24,990 plus-on road cost, to $24,390.

As well, you now gain rear parking sensors (to complement the standard reverse-view camera) and fog-lights (to complement the included 16-inch alloy wheels) in the one-up-from-base Mazda 3 Maxx.

While the sensors are handy, I don’t have a need for fog-lights as much as certain other equipment I wish was standard. While at CarAdvice we largely assess the big picture aspects of cars first, such as boot volume, legroom measurements, and performance and economy figures, often when you live with a car it is the little things that count more.

So I wish the Mazda 3 Maxx had automatic on/off headlights, or at the very least headlights that automatically turned off when you switched off the car. Whatever, just don’t beep at me.

The problem is compounded, because often I’ve found that love for a long-term loaner can be made or broken on the daily commute. Every time I turn the Mazda 3 on in the morning, it buzzes loudly at 1500rpm until it warms up, so this is the first ‘connection’ I have with the car – an unpleasant buzz.

The Mazda 3 still handles quite brilliantly on the open road, but particularly when wearing such chubby 16-inch tyres, its ride quality is merely good, but not great. On the way to work, I love the automatic transmission response, but bemoan the 2.0-litre engine’s low-down lethargy; I love the infotainment system and its Pandora apps connectivity, but dislike the clacky, rotary-dial manual air conditioning controls.

Which leads me to a mea culpa: in my first update of this Mazda 3, I really thought the Maxx would be a sweet spot and that you didn’t need the 2.5-litre engine of the SP25 models. Commenters mauled me for it, and their voices screamed louder than the 2.0-litre engine every time I had to wring it out to cover a traffic gap.

So, yes, I was wrong. Please give me a $25,190 3 SP25 manual any day of the week. It even gets climate control and auto lights. I’ll grin and bear the reduced ride quality from the 18-inch alloy wheels.

At this point my relationship with the Mazda 3 Maxx may seem like a love-less affair, but at the end of the second long-term update I professed that I needed to get it away from just city commuting.

Since then, colleague Tim Beissmann buckled up for the small Mazda’s third long-term update and he thought I may have been a little harsh on the 3, as did said commenters who suddenly rushed to the defence of the previously-derided Maxx specification when its overall rating dropped from 8.0 out of 10 to 7.5/10.

(Interestingly, though, commenters also complained of “Mazda bias” when the CX-5 won its medium SUV comparison test, proving that I really cannot read the minds of some trolls. Who would have thought this Triple J listener would agree with Taylor Swift?)

But in the fast moving world of small cars, the arrival of the Peugeot 308 in addition to the class-leading Volkswagen Golf had, I discovered in a comparison test with the 3 Touring, moved the game along enough to shift the ratings.

Tomato, tomatoe – put the Mazda 3 between 7.5 and 8.0 (Maxx automatic) or up to 9.0 (SP25 manual) depending on your preference.

For its final week in the office, it was time to try and find love again by taking the Mazda 3 Maxx on a big freeway trip two hours north of Sydney, to the beachside city of Newcastle, New South Wales, for no other reason than to enjoy the view and have dinner with a friend (The Edwards bar, not far from Wickham Station, comes highly recommended).

On smooth freeway, the Mazda 3 is really comfortable, with the front seats broader and more supportive than any generation before it.

The cruise control brakes downhill up to a point, and road roar that continues to be a problem on coarse-chip surfaces, isn’t on the Pacific Motorway.

Although on even slight hills the automatic kicks back from its tallest sixth gear (where at freeway speeds it is ticking over at 2000rpm) to fifth, to fourth, and very occasionally to a bellowing third, it is prudent in its selection.

Clearly Mazda’s Skyactiv technology – incorporating lighter kerb weight, less friction in the auto, and an engine with stop-start technology – pays dividends in terms of efficiency, however, because on the trip to Newy, the trip computer read out an outstanding 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres.

After months of confinement to urban areas, it was great to see the trip computer dip into the 6s, especially after commenters also suggested that having it in the 9s meant we were thrashing the poor car; we weren’t, but a sub-30km/h average speed around the Sydney CBD severely hurts economy in every car.

Taking photos of our Mazda 3 Maxx beside the beach, it really is a good looking hatchback. It is just simple, stylish and so easy to drive, which is undoubtedly the secret to its sales success.

That it can also steer really precisely and handle very well means it adds some spark (and depth of talent) over its Toyota Corolla main rival, too.

That freeway economy, plus the reduced pricing and added equipment, means as the sun sets on our long term loan the Mazda 3 in my view regains its 8/10 rating in my eyes – but certainly try the 3 SP25 grade, and the 308 and Golf competition in particular, because I still feel a bit more love towards those models.

For now, after a big, well-deserved premium wash for an impeccably reliable long-termer, the Mazda 3 Maxx automatic hatch returns to its maker ready to hit the used market, and it will no doubt serve its next owner just as well.

Mazda 3 Maxx
Date acquired: September 2014
Odometer reading: 13,480km
Travel since previous update: 2425km
Consumption since previous update: 6.8L/100km