The Mazda 3 lost the title of Australia’s best-selling car in 2013, and the Japanese car manufacturer wants it back.
That will mean overtaking the Corolla from Toyota, while to be considered the best small car as well as the most popular, it must better the Volkswagen Golf.
This is the third-generation Mazda 3 since the 323 was replaced here in 2004. Generations one and two were twinned under the skin with the Ford Focus, but this time the 3 is all-Mazda – sitting on a shortened version of the Skyactiv platform underpinning both the CX-5 SUV and Mazda 6 medium car.
From nose to tail, there’s no change to the small car’s length whether sedan or hatch body styles, though the new 3 is wider and lower, and the wheelbase has been stretched by 60mm.
Pricing increases marginally at the base level Neo (from $20,490) but generally most models cost less yet add more features compared to the old model. (More details on pricing and features here.) The biggest difference is reserved for the biggest engine.
Where 2.5-litre engine versions (SP25) of the Mazda 3 have typically started higher than $30,000, only $25,890 is needed this time.
Starting our assessment with the subjective area of design, the consensus in the CarAdvice office is that the new 3 is a winner.
The second-generation 3 was never entirely convincing in the looks department, particularly with that slightly cartoonish front end, but Mazda’s new Kodo design language – also seen on the CX-5 and 6 – has translated nicely into small car dimensions.
Our pick is the handsome sedan, which uses its notchback and longer rear overhang to better balance the long bonnet.
The more mature look is carried over inside, with a cabin that lifts the 3’s perception of quality to a higher level.
A smart, clean presentation helps visually, but the sense continues as you actually touch a number of surfaces, press buttons or rotate dials. Hard plastics aren’t totally absent, though, and exploring further can reveal some budget shortcuts such as rear door trim that is clearly cheaper than that on the front doors.
Mazda has chosen to place its new seven-inch colour touchscreen on top of the dash rather than integrate it, as is the segment norm. It’s arguably not the most elegant solution, though more critically the display is not available in what will be the most popular 3 trim grade – giving the Neo a key disadvantage versus a base Golf that features a 5.8-inch touchscreen standard.
From the $22,990 Maxx and above, though, the touchscreen is the centrepiece of its new MZD Connect system.
Mazda’s safety-conscious tendencies means the touchscreen loses the ‘touch’ part by locking out when the car is moving, though it simply means the driver (or front passenger) operate the graphically excellent menu system using a controller on the centre console.
The silver dial is obviously inspired by BMW’s iDrive, which would have been a bad thing a decade ago but is a huge positive today. It’s easy and enjoyable to use, with the rotary dial able to be twisted, pushed or moved directionally like a joystick to select functions. And like iDrive, the controller is surrounded by key shortcut buttons, including ‘Back’, ‘Home’, ‘Nav’ and ‘Music’.
There’s also the option of voice commands, you can listen to texts or Twitter feeds, and MZD also allows you to integrate Internet radio apps such as Pandora, Stitcher and Aha via your smartphone. Owners can also sign up to a Premium subscription service for the sat-nav that can supply weather updates and real-time traffic information.
The most vital information for the driver is presented in an aircraft-inspired instrument cluster. The ‘fuselage’ main central dial incorporates either an analogue speedo (most models) or analogue rev counter (SP25 GT and Astina).
It’s flanked by two display ‘wings’. The left side features a digital tachometer when the main dial is a speedo. The right side on all models includes outside temperature, safety indicators and fuel gauge.
The GT and Astina models’ large rev counter incorporates a digital speedo in the bottom right corner, though these models also feature a first-for-Mazda head-up display that can project speed, radar cruise distance setting and sat-nav directions onto a clear, plastic pop-up panel above the instrument cowl.
Shoulder space widens both front and rear, though packaging of the Mazda 3’s innards hasn’t been improved everywhere. The wheelbase increase has done more for the 3’s stance and stability than rear seat legroom, which remains fine by class standards but nothing generous – especially if there are taller people up front. It also lacks the rear air vents standard in the Golf.
Boot space shrinks in 2.0L versions of the hatch and sedan – from 330 to 308 litres in the five-door, and from 430 to 408 litres in the four-door. (SP25 hatch models, however, increase by up to 32 litres compared with the old model that lost space through the Bose subwoofer in the rear.) Seatbacks fold down, though, to create larger and flat storage space.
Although the new Mazda 3 doesn’t lead the way for practicality in the small car segment, it continues to be one of the stars when it comes to performing on the road.
Less-than-smooth roads are felt more with the firmer-riding SP25 models and their 18-inch wheels than the 16-inch, chubbier-tyred 2.0-litre models that emphasise the 3’s newfound suppleness. The smaller tyres are also the quietest but road noise – a key issue of the previous models – can still be noticeable, and can be particularly intrusive in SP25 cabins on certain roads. (Mazda told CarAdvice it believes it has found a solution, but this won't find its way into the 3 until the car's mid-life update.)
For all models, though, the suspension is capable of creating a protective barrier between occupants and road surface nasties while the progressive and predictable handling should encourage drivers to take a twisty scenic route rather than the direct freeway one.
The new, fully electric steering isn’t as immediately responsive as the previous electro-hydraulic set-up, but there’s not a centimetre of vagueness when turning the wheel from lock to lock (which happens faster, too, in the new 3 with a quicker ratio).
So the new 3 isn’t quite as pin-sharp as in previous iterations that were dynamic leaders, but we’ll wait for a small car comparison – and a better selection of challenging roads than on the launch drive – before determining whether it’s still the best, or just one of the best.
Journeys will cost less with the new model, though. Where the previous Mazda 3 was one of the thirstiest models in the small car segment, it is now one of the most efficient.
Official consumption is as low as 5.7 litres per 100km with a 2.0L sedan manual, while the bigger-engined SP25 3s with its 2.5-litre four-cylinder drops from 8.6 to 6.0L/100km in auto form.
If your Mazda 3 budget can’t stretch beyond $25,500, performance will come from the 2.0-litre that’s familiar from the Skyactiv engine installed in the 3 back in 2011 to create the SP20. It doesn’t sound particularly endearing and needs to be worked a bit at times, but it is capable of making smooth, satisfactory progress, and can pull off overtaking manoeuvres without causing furrowed brows.
We still need to drive a 2.5-litre auto for a true comparison of engines, though in manual form the bigger four-cylinder certainly seems to provide livelier response and a chunkier mid-range.
On paper, the 2.5 has 138kW of power and 250Nm of torque to the 2.0’s 114kW/200Nm, with the SP25 producing the latter output at a lower point in the rev range (3250 v 4000rpm), so it doesn’t have to work as hard around town or on hills.
Mazda Australia believes about 25 per cent of 3 buyers will opt for the six-speed manual over the six-speed auto and they’ll be rewarded beyond just saving the $2000 premium.
A fairly short throw and precise action make palming the gear lever from gate to gate a pleasure – though the torque of the 2.5L meant it was also easy to short-shift, such as 2nd to 4th, or cruise around town in fifth or sixth. Downchanges are still required, though, to achieve meaningful acceleration.
Boot space and road noise could certainly be better, but in almost every other measure the 2014 Mazda 3 is a notable advancement over its predecessors.
The Australian public will make the call on whether the Mazda 3 is the best-selling vehicle in 2014. We’ll have our final say on whether the Mazda 3 is the best small car when we pitch it against a certain famous German hatchback.