The Mazda 3 has been Australia’s number one selling car for the past two years. Sometimes, mere popularity doesn’t guarantee an excellent product but thankfully that isn’t the case with the Mazda 3.
Despite being four years old, and ready for replacement next year, the current Mazda 3 remains one of the best small cars. Read about its performance in a four-way contest with Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus and Hyundai i30 rivals here. The Mazda3 is superb value, entertaining to drive, and very well built.
The entry-level Mazda 3 Neo automatic hatchback we tested costs $22,990. A sedan bodystyle is available for the same price, which provides a bigger boot (430 litres versus 340L) but offers less practicality – because the rear window glass doesn’t lift, as in the hatch, it’s more difficult to get larger items into the back of the sedan.
A 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is standard, and the choice between a six-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic gearbox is a surprisingly difficult one, because both gearboxes are excellent. Opting to shift gears for yourself will save $2000, reducing the entry sticker to $20,990. But the automatic is still one of the smoothest, most effortless, yet sportiest shifters around.
Never mind that some rivals get six-speed automatics, and the Mazda 3 only has five gears, because the Mazda doesn’t play a numbers game. Brake for a set of lights and the auto subtly shifts back a gear to help with engine braking, and it learns your driving style, holding onto the first couple of gears when driving spiritedly on a country road.
Other rivals also boast lower fuel consumption stickers. But in the real world, the Mazda3 2.0-litre offers plenty of grunt to move what is one of the lightest small hatchbacks in its class. Mazda promises to lower fuel consumption with the next generation Mazda 3, but its 7.9L/100km combined claim only blew out to 10L/100km on test – some cars can increase their claimed consumption by 50 per cent or more in the real world.
Unfortunately, the age of the current generation Mazda 3 is exposed by its wind and road noise. Particularly on coarse chip surfaces, the Mazda 3 is one of the loudest cars in its class, and the sound the otherwise strong 2.0-litre engine makes isn’t inspiring, either.
Comfort levels on bumpy roads and scarred urban arterials is also affected by a seeming determination to make the Mazda 3 handle better than any other car in its class. The suspension can get feel lumpy on ostensibly smooth surfaces and jiggle occupants annoyingly on patchy surfaces, where other rivals – the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Hyundai i30 – would maintain their composure.
The upside is that the Mazda 3 is a joy to drive. Its steering is quick and slick, yet effortless when parking around the city. The handling is fantastically sharp, despite modest 15-inch Bridgestone B250 tyres in this base Neo model – up-spec Maxx Sport and SP25 models get noticeably better rubber.
Drivers not looking to belt down a country road can be reassured that the supreme handling means the Mazda 3 is the most capable car in its class during an emergency swerve and recover manouevre – think if a small child runs onto the road.
The safety levels delivered by the disciplined suspension are backed by a brilliantly smooth and smart stability control calibration. Engineering excellence drips from the pores of the Mazda3, and that’s something that isn't felt with other rivals like the Hyundai i30, Mitsubishi Lancer and Toyota Corolla. Only the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus are rivals that feel high-quality in the oily bits owners can’t see.
In terms of passive safety, six airbags are standard – driver and passenger front and side, and full length curtain. A driver’s knee airbag is not available, but is standard in Golf, i30 and Corolla rivals.
The Mazda3 has one of the highest levels of standard equipment available on a base model, with alloy wheels, cruise control and steering wheel audio controls standard. The cabin is superbly finished, with expected Japanese quality evidenced by tight panel gaps and a lack of squeaks and rattles in our test car. There is some inconsistency with the plastics used in the cabin, however, but considering the low price that isn’t a major issue – as higher-spec Mazda3 models creep closer to $30,000 the mismatched plastics are a bigger problem.
All Mazda 3 models suffer from a lack of rear seat legroom. Mazda clearly has prioritised cargo space ahead of back seat space, because the Mazda 3 gives rear passengers the least amount of sprawling space of any car in the class. Width for three passengers is also squeezy and the rear door aperture is narrow, hindering entry and egress for rear riders. Up front, seat comfort and space is competitive with newer rivals.
Although reliability from a Mazda is expected, the company only provides a three-year/unlimited kilometres warranty. By comparison, Hyundai and Kia offer five-year/unlimited kilometres cover.
The Mazda 3 also needs to be serviced every six months or 10,000km, where most rivals use yearly or 15,000km intervals. Two trips to the service centre each year isn’t just an inconvenience, but the Mazda3 Neo is also comparatively expensive to service because Mazda refuses to offer fixed price servicing for any of its models.
To 60,000km, the Mazda 3 Neo costs $2200 to service, according to an authorised Mazda dealer in Sydney. Fixed price servicing for the Ford Focus totals just $657, while a Toyota Corolla costs $780, and a Hyundai i30 comes to $960 – all three requiring just four trips to the workshop to the Mazda’s six.
The Mazda 3 Neo is a better car than those rivals, however. It is dynamically superior, with finer calibration of stability control and automatic transmission, a stronger engine, and more features than those competitors. The next generation Mazda 3 will hopefully have improved cabin and ride quality to match its other virtues.
If paying a bit more come servicing time is the price to pay for driving a better car, then the Mazda 3 remains the $20,000 small car pick. Excellence to match popularity is a rare thing, but this small car helps prove the two aren’t mutually exclusive.