The Toyota Corolla had looked set to become the car to make local history, but instead it was the Mazda3.
It has been a case of ‘when not if’ that a small car would finally end the Holden Commodore’s enduring reign as Australia’s best-selling vehicle, and in 2011 the Mazda3 recorded 41,429 sales to become the first different model at the top of the industry charts for 15 years.
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It’s been a remarkable rise for the 3, which, along with the Corolla, has benefitted the most from Australians’ mass exodus from large cars to small cars.
Sales of Mazda3s have nearly doubled since the Mazda 323 became known simply by the brand name with a single digit in 2004.
Mazda introduced a new SP20 variant last year that was the first of the Japanese brand’s models to introduce its ‘SkyActiv’-branded technology that is designed to help improve fuel efficiency, though with the 3’s new mantle of ‘Country’s most popular car’ we’re refreshing our memories of the Maxx Sport that launched as part of the second-generation Mazda3 launched in 2009.
It's the joint second-highest-selling Mazda3 along with the SP25, with both behind the Neo.
The Maxx Sport's entry price was reduced by $1870 to start from $24,490 as part of a range update last year - which included some minor styling and suspension changes - to incorporate the new SP20 model. That positions the Maxx Sport between the base model Neo (from $20,330) and SP20 SkyActiv ($27,990).
Although it sits on the next-from-bottom rung of the Mazda3 ladder, the Maxx Sport is far from a poverty pack offering.
A highlight of the standard fare is satellite navigation, a rare feature for a car costing less than $25,000. Other features include 16-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, Bluetooth connectivity, trip computer, auto on/off headlights, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearlever, six airbags, stability control and cruise control.
Three years on, the Mazda3’s cabin still looks relevant, even if it lacks the edginess of the newer Ford Focus or classiness of the Volkswagen Golf.
While there are plenty of hard plastics, they are inoffensive to sight or touch and there are quality materials in important places such as the dash and armrests. The mouse-fur-imitating rooflining is probably the most obvious sign of cost-cutting.
Ergonomics are excellent, too, and there are no buttons or dials that require a high iQ number to figure out. A dual display in a dash cowl – directed towards the driver – presents temperature/fan/circulation info on the left and trip/sat nav/compass on the right.
A blue light strip that pulsates when the volume dial is rotated is also a neat touch.
Storage options are taken care of with a deep console bin with tray, lidded double cupholders in the centre console, a decently sized glovebox and well sized door pockets with moulded bottle holders.
The Mazda3 ‘stores’ its driver and passengers well, too. The front seats provide excellent comfort, partly thanks to decent under-thigh support, there’s good vision including well shaped side mirrors, and a tilt- and reach-adjustable steering wheel contributes to a spot-on driving position.
In the rear quarters there’s decent (if far from generous) legroom, and good headroom and foot space, aided by a comfortable bench with a centre armrest. There are no rear vents, though.
Open the hatch (a sedan alternative is available) and there’s a boot with good depth (though benefitting from absence of a full-size spare and just a space-saver) and the parcel shelf is removable to help fit larger items such as mountain bikes or boxes.
The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split, though the floor is stepped rather than flat.
The Mazda3 is not just popular in overall sales that include fleet purchases but is also the favourite choice among private buyers, so Australians clearly appreciate a car that is one of the better small cars to drive.
Steering is a typical engineering strength of Mazda’s, and the Mazda3, in this writer’s opinion, offers the best in the small-car class – ahead of the likes of the Focus and Golf.
It’s impeccably weighted and progressive while also providing the kind of connection between the road surface and driver’s fingertips that is not that common in the class.
Combine that with a chassis that’s engineered to entertain on winding roads with its excellent body control, and the Mazda3 is a small car that delivers driving enjoyment to the average owner while offering some appeal to the motoring enthusiast.
The Mazda3’s suspension – struts up front, multilinks at the rear – also provides a sufficiently supple and compliant ride around town, even if it’s not quite as absorbent as the Golf’s underpinnings over a broader range of bumps.
Road noise, though, remains a chronic issue for the Mazda3 – and many Mazda models in general – with intrusive tyre roar generated even at moderate city speeds.
The Mazda3 Maxx Sport’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder is quieter. Producing 108kW at 6500rpm and 182Nm at 4500rpm, the engine is a smooth operator that generates adequate performance and mates nicely with the intuitive five-speed automatic.
The auto asks a $2000 premium over the standard six-speed manual.
Although the SkyActiv version of the Mazda3 boasts a class-leading petrol economy figure of 6.1L/100km – helped by direct fuel injection and engine stop-start technology – the Maxx Sport’s less advanced 2.0-litre remains one of the thirstiest among its small-car peers with an official consumption of 8.2L/100km for the auto (the most popular transmission).
A requirement for only regular unleaded petrol helps to keep running costs down, and the noise refinement and relatively high fuel consumption only take a couple of layers of gloss of what otherwise continues to be a strong small-car package. Popular or not.