Small sedans are generally not quite as popular as small hatchbacks in Australia. The newly released Toyota Corolla sedan is expected to snare only a 20 per cent share of the nameplate’s sales this year, while the Hyundai Elantra is outsold by its i30 sibling five-to-one.
Yet the Holden Cruze and the still-fresh Mazda 3 buck the trend, with 60 per cent of Cruze sales going to the sedan, and an even split between hatch and sedan for the Mazda, so these two are the most relevant sedans for buyers.
It may indeed be the three-box sedan models that make or break whether the Corolla or 3 is the top-selling car in this country this year – last year, the Toyota toppled the Mazda for the first time; this year, the new 3 leads but the new Corolla sedan hasn’t yet had the chance to make an impact.
A more relevant question is: which new model is the best? Although the sedans aren’t as popular as their hatchback brethren, 250,000 small cars were sold last year, making the segment comfortably the largest in the country. And even a minimum 20 per cent of that total is quite a hefty figure for small sedans, comparable to the sales of once-favourite large sedans in total last year.
The Toyota Corolla and Mazda 3 may not just place side-by-side in the rankings here, however. They may be split by the older but recently facelifted Holden Cruze and Hyundai Elantra.
The Cruze is built in South Australia (at least until 2017, or earlier), but more noteworthy are the engineering updates Australian engineers conducted on the hatch and sedan range last year. It transformed Holden’s small car from average Korean import to one of the best cars in its class, although the caveat is that we’ve only comparison-tested the 1.6-litre turbo Cruze SRi model.
The suspension on the Elantra has also been fiddled by Hyundai’s local tuners (read the full story here) with the aim being to improve both ride comfort and body control for the mild facelift – as with Cruze, also called Series II – that launched early this year.
So the Holden and Hyundai have followed similar paths – dramatic improvement on the Korean originals.
We also requested sedan versions of the Ford Focus, Kia Cerato, Honda Civic and Nissan Pulsar, but none were available to suit our criteria of sub-$25,000 pricing with an automatic transmission.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
Holden was unable to provide a base Cruze Equipe, though in this case that’s not a problem. Where that entry-level grade costs $21,690 as an automatic, the supplied Cruze CDX auto still sneaks in under our cut-off at $24,190.
The remaining trio arrived in base model form, but none was priced much less than the middle-grade Holden.
The Mazda 3 Neo sedan starts at $22,490, the Hyundai Elantra Active costs $22,790, and the Toyota Corolla Ascent sedan asks $22,990.
Standard on the Active and Ascent are 15-inch steel wheels with hubcaps, where the Neo gets 16s. The CDX has 17-inch alloy wheels, and the Holden joins only the Hyundai with fog lights as standard.
Inside, none can match the Cruze CDX’s 7.0-inch MyLink colour touchscreen with app connectivity – standard even on the Equipe – although there are smaller touchscreens in the Corolla Ascent (6.1-inch) and Elantra Active (5.0-inch). Disappointingly, the 3 Neo gets a dated, monochromatic pixellated display only; a screen to match the Cruze CDX is reserved for the $24,990 3 Maxx.
The Mazda also lacks a reverse-view camera and rear parking sensors. The Holden and Toyota include both features as standard, where Hyundai only supplies the latter system that beeps if you’re too close to an object when reversing.
While this quartet all get remote keyless entry, only the Cruze CDX scores an auto function that detects if the keyfob is nearby and automatically unlocks the car, although only the 3 Neo matches its push-button start.
All four get standard air-conditioning, although only the Holden gets automatic climate control. Not even the 3 Maxx gets that, and it takes the $25,240 Corolla SX and $26,790 Elantra Elite to match the leather-wrapped steering wheel of the Holden, but even then all three miss the leather seats with front heating (as well as the larger 17s…) standard on the Cruze CDX.
The locally made Holden walks it in the value case.
Only the Toyota needs servicing every six months or 10,000km, where the Mazda needs check-ups every eight months or to the same kilometre reading, the the Holden needs a dealer visit every nine months or 15,000km, and (breathe out…) the Hyundai requires annual visits or to the same kilometre reading.
Although the Toyota requires more trips to the dealership more often, it only costs $130 per service to three years or 60,000km, meaning six visits and a $780 outlay.
The Hyundai requires three visits over the same time period (costing $657) or four if 60,000km comes up first (adding another single $410 service). The Holden needs four visits whether time or distance comes up first, resulting in a $740 total.
Mazda’s fixed price servicing calculator asks significantly more than its rival trio do, claiming it will cost $1212 to service the 3 over three years, or $1818 should 60,000km come up first.
That’s almost double the Hyundai to three years, and two-and-a-half times more than the Holden should you rack up the kilometres.
The Hyundai also has a class-benchmark five year, unlimited kilometre warranty compared with class-average three year cover to either 100,000km (Holden, Toyota) or unlimited kilometres (Mazda).
It may be the best-equipped car here but the Holden Cruze also has the most dated cabin. Hard and scratchy plastics, glossy chrome rings around the speedometer and tachometer and hard seats are among the biggest downsides.
The touchscreen looks significantly lower-resolution than that in the Commodore, although it is intuitive to use. Connecting to internet-based apps through your phone, such as Pandora, is also very handy, allowing users to create their own virtual radio station and skip songs from the ‘cloud’. It is addictive, but works only if mobile internet reception is available.
Unlike the Mazda MZD Connect system on the 3 Maxx, which can run Pandora through Bluetooth, the Cruze CDX needs a USB cable connection. The touchscreens in the Elantra and Corolla may not have apps functionality but they are as easy to sync with your phone (and include Bluetooth music streaming) as the Cruze, and are far beyond the fiddly 3 Neo.
The Mazda may not have the technology in this base 3 Neo grade, though it feels substantially better built than the Holden. Its dash surfaces are more consistently matched and soft to touch, and the speedometer with chrome outline looks far slicker than the speedos in the Cruze, or the Elantra and Corolla. The seats are trimmed in quality cloth and seat comfort levels are high.
The 3 does, however, have the least rear legroom in the class, in addition to the smallest boot, although as with all sedans here it does eclipse its hatch slibling for the latter measurement. The Mazda 3 sedan is 4580mm long, stretching 120mm further than the 3 hatch and 30mm beyond the Elantra. But it also totals 40mm less than the Corolla and falls 35mm short of the Cruze.
It has less legroom than even the Elantra, though, and a 408-litre boot – although 100L larger than the 3 hatch – pales alongside the Corolla (470L), Cruze (445L) and Elantra (420L). The Toyota sedan is especially impressive in light of its hatchback sibling having one of the smallest boots in the class (only 280L).
The Mazda also gets the smallest boot opening of the four, a horizontal rectangular entry thanks to a short bootlid, compared with an opening particularly in the Corolla that is both tall and deep and enables loading larger items on an angle. Although all four contenders get 60:40 split-fold rear-seat backrests, which are handy, they all persist with luggage-crushing ‘gooseneck’ bootlid hinges that restrict usable space.
If lanky teenagers are as much a part of your crew as the luggage that comes with family life then call up the Toyota Corolla.
Teens may not find the Corolla’s dashboard fashion forward, its mish-mash of piano-black and chrome tones and plastic textures leaving it looking like a parts-bin special.
They will, however, find not only stacks of rear-seat legroom, but very comfortable seats front and rear. Critically for a centre rear-seat passenger, the centre console is unobtrusive and the centre tunnel very small, further aiding space. Only the Cruze matches the Corolla on those aspects, coming in second for back seat space. The bulky console and tunnel of the Elantra and 3 restricts middle-rider room and overall usability, but although the Hyundai has slightly more legroom than the Mazda, it’s actually the 3 that tops all for headroom.
The Elantra closely challenges the 3 for having the best interior quality here, and the Corolla for having the best seats. Soft-touch dashboard plastics don’t quite meld seamlessly with harder door plastics, but fit and finish is excellent.
Unlike the Toyota, the tones and textures blend well, and unlike the Mazda, the colour touchscreen lifts the fifty shades of grey that dominates the cabin. The Elantra also gets proper door grabs in the front (though the Corolla gets them front and rear) and large bottle holders in the doors.
ENGINES AND TRANSMISSIONS
All 1.8-litre four-cylinder engines are not the same, as three of these contenders prove from the get-go. Nor does the single 2.0-litre engine in the Mazda 3 necessarily prove the theory that biggest is best.
On paper, power outputs are similar, ranging from 103kW (Holden and Toyota) through to 110kW (Hyundai) and 114kW (Mazda). Power, being what makes a car feel fast (or slow) when the throttle is pinned in a straight line, is nothing as a stand-alone figure, however.
The other figure that matters is kerb weight; if a car is heavy, more kilowatts are required to achieve similar performance to a lighter car that has a lesser number of kilowatts. The Holden is by far the heaviest, weighing 1415kg, substantially more than the Hyundai, the lightest car here at 1249kg.
The 166kg difference means the Hyundai would need more than two average adults on board to feel as slow as the Holden. That’s exactly how it feels on the road, too.
Moving off the line from a set of traffic lights, the Cruze feels lethargic, needing a heftier press of the throttle to get it moving. By contrast the Elantra requires less throttle, immediately feeling perkier and revving more quickly.
As soon as the Holden six-speed automatic grabs second gear it feels sluggish again, and by the time it’s in third or fourth at urban-arterial speed, it requires a big prod of the throttle and uncouth kickdown to overtake. Australian engineers improved the Cruze automatic by tweaking the software to detect hills and hold a lower gear and it mostly works, although the fantastic Sport mode available on higher-end models is not available with the 1.8-litre engine (which ironically needs it the most).
The Hyundai six-speed automatic is reluctant to hold gears, though the Elantra’s peaky torque delivery is saved by an otherwise smart auto. Its engine’s 178Nm isn’t produced until 4700rpm (where the Cruze’s 175Nm is produced at a lesser 3800rpm) so the auto quickly picks up lower gears on light presses of the throttle to disguise the deficit. Even when the Hyundai engine does rev, it’s quieter, smoother and much more pleasant than the Holden engine that turns loud and thrashy.
The Toyota and Mazda come closer to the Hyundai’s kerb weight, at 1280kg and 1306kg respectively.
The Corolla 1.8-litre may only have 173Nm of torque, but it’s produced at a fairly standard 4000rpm, and it has an automatic continously variable transmission (CVT) that as the name suggests works like an abacus in altering revs. There’s no set ‘gears’, but rather a slider that means if the throttle is pinned the transmission keeps revs high where peak power is made; or when more torque is required on hills it subtley moves revs to the mid-range without viscious kickdown; or when cruising it lowers revs to reduce consumption and noise.
It works brilliantly in this application, and makes the Corolla feel faster than its numbers suggest. For engine noise suppression it’s the quietest car here, too.
The tipshift manual mode delivers variable gear ‘presets’ that is wonderfully exploitable. The other autos here need revs to fall by a certain amount before the manual mode will allow a lower gear to be selected; the Toyota CVT just varies the ‘ratio’ spread to allow multiple lower gears to be picked in tight succession.
The Mazda 3, therefore, doesn’t feel that much faster than the Toyota Corolla, despite its 200Nm of torque being comfortably the most here and produced at identical revs. The direct injection engine is actually quite noisy on light throttle, and although it isn’t quite as perky as the Hyundai, it works smoothly with its auto.
The six-speed is the best of the regular automatics here, more finely adapting to different driving and holding lower gears more inutiviely than the Hyundai and Holden.
The Mazda 3 proved the most economical on test, recording 8.5L/100km across a mixed loop, considerably better than the closely matched Corolla (10.2L/100km) and Elantra (10.7L/100km) and well ahead of the dreadful 13.3L/100km posted by the Cruze.
Based on the 15,000km Australians drive on average each year and $1.50 per litre regular unleaded pricing, the Holden will cost $2993, or $1080 more than the Mazda, entirely sucking up its service-cost advantage and then some...
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
One sedan here prioritises comfort and quietness, another better blends those aspects with genuine driving enjoyment, and the remaining duo don’t quite find a convincing compromise.
The Mazda 3 is far quieter and smoother-riding than any previous generation, but it still isn’t perfect. Coarse-chip bitumen thrums into the cabin, and although its ride isolates larger hits beautifully, it still jiggles a bit on less-than-perfect surfaces. The steering remains brilliantly incisive and the handling beautifully balanced and safely stable.
Indeed the whole ride and handling compromise is more finely balanced than ever before and any car here.
From a ride quality perspective, the Toyota Corolla is the most settled and absorbent car on-test, although it isn’t quite as plush as might be expected given the handling is the softest of the bunch. That’s no bad thing, because the Corolla chassis is playful and well balanced, but the steering is awfully slow, requiring plenty of lock to get it turned into corners.
Keen drivers will find the Toyota understeers early but is quick to move its tail around slightly to help the nose point when the throttle is lifted.
Perhaps no Corolla driver is going to steer with such enthusiasm, but if you were to swerve to avoid an obstacle it doesn’t feel planted and secure like the Mazda (and the Holden) and its stability control system remains largely quiet. Conversely, on off-camber or tight and bumpy roads the stability control aggressively grabs at a front brake to the point where an ordinary driver may think something is wrong with the car.
The inconsistent stability control calibration is thrown into sharp relief by the other contenders that all perform consistently and subtly through the same corners.
The Holden has the most grip here and its body stays as flat as the Mazda’s. It feels impressively dynamic, but its steering is even worse than the Corolla’s by being firm on centre then disconcertingly light as lock as wound on.
The suspension in the Cruze also thumps over larger impacts, and at speed it can get unsettled.
The quality of the Hyundai’s ride depends on where you’re driving.
Its compliance and composure on rough roads is outstanding – better than Cruze and Corolla and almost Mazda 3-grade – but it constantly fidgets on the freeway and jars over sharp-edged impacts around town.
Its Hankook tyres offer the least grip here, teamed with the most tyre squeal, which is especially disappointing as the general chassis balance is good and the car feels stable. Even its steering, while average in terms of feel, is more consistent than the systems in Cruze and Corolla.
Picking third place is almost as difficult as the race for first in this contest. Choose the Holden Cruze for its kit-for-the-cash and good handling, though the 1.4- and 1.6-litre turbo engines also available in the range are worth the extra spend. That slow and thirsty 1.8-litre non-turbo Holden engine leaves the Hyundai Elantra to step onto the podium. With smoother ride quality, the nicely finished and keen-performing Hyundai may have taken the silver medal.
If family values are front of mind for the small-sedan buyer, then the quiet, roomy and smooth-riding Toyota Corolla is the pick of this bunch. It is, however, dull inside and that bland characteristic filters through to the driving, which is particularly disappointing given the huge strides the sharper Corolla hatch has made in this area.
The new Mazda 3 is a bit smaller than average inside, but its blend of style, interior quality, ride comfort and driving enjoyment makes it the most complete car here. Its high servicing costs are also offset by an economical engine that also happens to be the most powerful on-test. We would, however, suggest bypassing the 3 Neo base model and spend the extra on the 3 Maxx that gets Mazda’s beaut MZD connectivity system and a reverse-view camera.