The 2014 Mazda 3 could be the country’s best-selling car this year, and the entry-level Neo model tested here is the one that most buyers will choose.
Mazda says about 40 per cent of purchases will buy the Neo, which starts at $20,490. The vast majority of those will be optioned with a six-speed automatic transmission (which adds $2000 to the price), but we tested the price-leading six-speed manual five-door hatchback.
That price puts the Mazda 3 Neo among its main rivals, such as the Toyota Corolla (from $19,990 for the hatch and $20,740 for the sedan), Hyundai i30 and Elantra (both $20,990) and Holden Cruze ($19,490 sedan and hatch). As with some of those models, the same price is charged for the four- or five-door versions of the Mazda 3.
Its price may not be its most attention-grabbing element, but its appearance certainly is. CarAdvice recently conducted some crowd research with the new Mazda 3 and the VW Golf 90TSI, and the majority of punters said they liked the look of the 3 more. However, we’re still not convinced about that front numberplate placement – I even affectionately christened our test car 'Bucktooth'.
Inside also sees big changes, and plenty of equipment. Standard features include Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB connectivity, voice control, and a useful smart key system that allows you to unlock the car with your keys in your pocket or handbag, with a neat push-button start ignition – a nice touch at this end of the market, which is usually reserved for higher-spec models. Not so nice, however, is the plastic steering wheel and gear-knob, which feel cheap to the touch, and there’s no digital speed readout.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for the Neo’s interior, however, is its fiddly dash-top stereo control system that appears an afterthought compared with the impressive MZD Connect colour touch-screen system seen in the next-model-up Maxx version and all models above it. The stereo system only has four speakers and features 1990s alarm clock fonts that don’t look as classy as they should, and they don't gel with the instrumentation displays in front of the driver, which feature yet another font.
Interior packaging has also been improved, though still falls short of class-leaders.
The Mazda 3's rear seat is not as generous as key rivals when it comes to legroom, and ingress and egress to the bench is something of a task due to its sloping roofline. Smaller passengers may find it claustrophobic as the glasshouse rakes quite aggressively towards the rear of the car, too.
Storage consists of bottle holders in all four doors (none that large), useful door pockets, and boot space for the hatchback is 308 litres, smaller than the previous generation 3 (330L). The sedan boasts a 408L boot, and no matter what the body shape, there’s a space-saver spare under the boot floor.
The Mazda 3 Neo 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.
Under the Neo’s bonnet is an all-new 2.0-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv engine that produces 114kW of power at 6000rpm and 200Nm of torque at 4000rpm. Fuel use is rated at 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres – identical to turbocharged competitors like the Volkswagen Golf 90TSI, and almost 28 per cent better than the old Neo. Unlike some of its key rivals, the 3 is tuned for 91-octane regular unleaded.
The new 2.0-litre is not especially punchy from a standstill, but it revs smoothly and pulls strongly. Its power delivery is smooth and of a linear nature, and is also quite tractable – we noted it would happily pull from low revs with little fuss or lag in a higher gear, albeit at a leisurely pace. Drive it harder, however, and it gets rather noisy at higher revs.
The six-speed manual transmission is a fairly slick shifting thing but our test car’s clutch had an unnerving tendency to clunk during shifts.
On the road the Mazda 3 feels as though it has been designed to live up to the company’s “Zoom, Zoom” fun to drive mantra.
It is firmly sprung and rides quite tersely despite riding on 16-inch steel wheels with 60-aspect tyres. The suspension jiggles over inconsistencies and occupants will feel most of the bumps on the road surface, no matter the speed. For that reason it may be considered intolerable by buyers primarily after a comfortable drive experience.
For everyone else, it’s a fun thing. That stiff suspension setup and its pointy and quick steering means it is more than capable when through twisty sections of road and is both engaging and involving to drive. Turn-in response is sharp, the 3 is well balanced and corners with composure.
Our test car’s brakes offered acceptable response under pressure, with a reassuring weight to the pedal action.
The previous-generation Mazda 3 was criticised for the amount of noise intrusion into the cabin, and while the new model is considerably quieter, it’s not nearly as hushed as some of its more refined competitor cars.
The new Mazda 3 is covered by a novel servicing package, which has seen the brand move away from its previous six-monthly 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. It’s covered by a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.
It may not offer quite the levels of refinement of some of its contemporaries (notably the Golf), but the Mazda 3 Neo is a marked improvement on the car it replaces. It’s considerably more efficient, has better ownership credentials and is quieter on the road.