The new third-generation Mazda 3 has arrived, and there’s little doubt it will be a hit with buyers. The question harder to answer is whether it can topple the Volkswagen Golf as the top-rated small car in the class.
With Volkswagen claiming almost half of all Golf buyers choose the most affordable 90TSI Trendline variant, and Mazda citing a 40 per cent slice of the total pie for its entry-level 3 Neo, it took little time to decide that a base-model showdown would be best.
The entry-level Mazda 3 Neo is the more affordable option here, priced from $20,490. By comparison, the Volkswagen Golf 90TSI costs $1000 more at $21,490.
Both cars miss out on alloy wheels (Golf has 15-inch steel wheels with 65-aspect tyres; Mazda has 16-inch steel wheels with lower profile 60-aspect tyres), and neither model tested has a reversing camera or rear parking sensors.
Both feature Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, though the interface that controls these functions is vastly different.
The Mazda has a fiddly dash-top stereo control system that looks somewhat of an afterthought (the mid-range Maxx gains the impressive MZD Connect touchscreen infotainment unit) and only has four speakers. USB connectivity and voice control is standard.
It does have a handy smart key system and push-button start keeps things neat inside, however a plastic steering wheel and gear-knob feel cheap by comparison.
The Golf features a more sophisticated 5.8-inch touch-screen media system that is easier to use and it’s teamed to an eight speaker system.
The VW also gets a less intrusive electronic park brake, leather trimmed wheel and gear-shifter, and unlike the Mazda it has a handy digital speed readout.
The 3 offers bottle holders in all four doors rather than dual-purpose pockets. Its rear seat has less legroom, cramped ingress and egress due to its sloping roofline, and smaller passengers may find it claustrophobic as the glasshouse rakes quite aggressively towards the rear of the car.
Boot space for the hatchback is 308L, smaller than the Golf and the previous generation 3, too.
The packaging battle is won by the Golf. It offers class-leading rear legroom, and has excellent central and door pocket storage. Its boot is bigger at 380 litres, too.
Both cars hide a temporary spare wheel under the boot floor. It’s easier to see out of, too, with large rear windows and better rearward visibility.
At the other end of the car, these two differ greatly.
The Mazda has an all-new 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine linked to a six-speed manual gearbox (we aimed to take the more popular $22,490 six-speed automatic transmission model, but none were available). It has a power advantage over its rival, with 114kW a full 24kW up, but with an identical 200Nm of torque.
Fuel use is rated at 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres, identical to the Golf.
The new 2.0-litre doesn’t initially feel as punchy from low revs as the Golf as its peak torque is achieved way up at 4000rpm, but once revs rise it pulls strongly, and peak power is hit at 6000rpm.
It is a very tractable engine with linear power delivery – leave it in sixth gear at 70km/h and plant your right foot, and it will get up to speed with little fuss or lag. However, it can become quite vocal at higher revs.
The manual offers smooth shifts, though our test car’s clutch had an unnerving tendency to clunk during shifts.
The Golf comes powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a six-speed manual gearbox (seven-speed DSG dual-clutch auto takes the price to $23,990). It has 90kW of power and 200Nm of torque, and while its fuel use is the same, the brand insists it be run using 95-octane premium fuel while Mazda says the 3 can comfortably run on 91-octane regular unleaded.
The Golf instantly feels peppier than the Mazda, with its pulling power kicking in from just 1400rpm and staying strong through to 4000rpm. Peak power is reached between 5000 and 6000rpm, but it’s the low range torque that gives it an advantage.
On the road, the Golf is a polished performer. It may not have steering that is as pointy as the Mazda, but it is smoothly consistent when going through twisty sections, and the steering teams with excellent handling and body control. The suspension is more cossetting than the 3, coping admirably with urban lumps and highway bumps.
The 3 on the other hand is more firmly sprung, and will likely appeal to keen drivers for that reason. It rides quite tersely at times, jiggling over inconsistencies and generally feeling less composed than the Golf when bumps are encountered.
Find a decent set of corners, though, and the 3 lives up to the brand’s ‘Zoom Zoom’ mantra, with a grippy, capable chassis that is engaging and involving to drive; it’s status quo is unchanged for the Mazda here.
One criticism of the previous 3 was the amount of noise intrusion into the cabin, which made it feel as though you were playing a road noise track on the stereo all the time. The new model has certainly improved, but is not nearly as hushed as the more refined Golf. Both cars exhibit some boominess on rougher surfaces, but the Mazda is still notably noisier.
If things go awry, both offer decent braking response – the Mazda with a more heavy reaction from its pedal, the Golf feeling slightly grabbier.
On the safety front, the Golf offers seven airbags, with dual front, front side, curtain and driver’s knee ‘bags.
The 3 has six airbags, with dual front, front side and curtain coverage. A $1500 safety pack option is available, which includes blind spot monitoring, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, a rear cross-traffic alert function and an automated braking function that operates at speeds up to 30km/h. The base model Golf has no optional safety equipment by comparison.
On the ownership front, Mazda announced a new servicing package for the new 3, which moved away from its previous six month intervals to a more consumer friendly 10,000km interval system.
Not so much a capped price system, the new service plan has minimum cost prices available for up to 160,000 kilometres, with an average rate of $299.50 per visit over eight years, not including additional items such as oil, brake fluid, oil and air filters, spark plugs and fuel filters.
Volkswagen’s capped price servicing plan requires the car be tended to every 15,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first. It spans six years or 90,000km, with an average cost per visit of $352.00, but items such oil filters, engine oil and air filters are covered. Brake fluid and pollen filters cost extra.
Both the Mazda 3 and the Volkswagen Golf have three-year, unlimited kilometre warranties.
The Mazda 3 is an undeniable improvement on the car it replaces, but it can’t be crowned the winner here. In base trim it simply doesn’t feel as polished as the Golf. Buyers who choose the VW will be impressed by its refinement and class – two clear traits that transcend its budget price tag.