Getting warmer… warmer… warmer. Perfect.
Not everybody wants a hot hatch. But at the same time, a run-of-the-mill small car that ticks all the practical boxes but lacks a little zing doesn’t do it for some either. Luckily there are a host of small hatchbacks that straddle between these two markets, offering a few cheap thrills without going overboard.
Here we pit the Renault Megane GT-Line, an alternative European hatchback that’s been newly facelifted, against the Mazda 3 SP25, the Japanese class stalwart and sales champion that launched in its latest generation in January.
The catalyst for this twin test is the Frenchie, which hit the local market late last month. In sporty-ish GT-Line trim the facelift model has replaced its breathless 2.0-litre non-turbo engine with the same new(ish) 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo engine previously seen only in the base car, but for the first time it links to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Since autos are overwhelmingly more popular than manuals, we’ve chosen them for this test over DIY shifters.
The Megane’s engine produces only a modest 97kW of power at 5500rpm and 205Nm of torque but at an effortlessly low 2000rpm. They’re excellent outputs when you consider the 1.4-litre turbo engine in the sub-$30K Volkswagen Golf models makes only 90kW and 200Nm, and it isn’t here in this test because the German brand doesn’t offer an affordable sporty variant.
Compared with the base Renault Megane Authentique, the GT-Line also features stiffer springs, firmer dampers, a 30mm lower front roll-centre height, and its overall centre of gravity is 112mm lower. Can the Megane GT-Line replicate the benchmark handling credentials offered by its more expensive hot-hatch sibling, the Megane RS265?
What better way to answer that question than to bring along the Mazda 3 SP25, long considered (along with the Ford Focus) as the dynamic high watermark for the mid-$25K class. Unlike the Focus, though, the Mazda gets a more potent 2.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engine (rather than a 2.0-litre as in the older Ford) for a cheaper pricetag than the previous generation.
It also offers appreciably higher outputs than the Renault here, with 138kW at 5700rpm and 250Nm at 3250rpm. Like the Renault’s, its automatic transmission as tested here has six gears, but it is a conventional torque-converter unit rather than a dual-clutch.
In addition to its tweaks under the skin, the $26,990 (plus on-road costs) Megane GT-Line gets features over and above the $3500 cheaper Megane Authentique including 17-inch alloy wheels, Renault’s R-Link touchscreen media system with satellite navigation) viewed on a dashtop-mounted screen), automatic headlights and automatic wipers, LED daytime running lights (DRLs) and rear fog-lights.
There are also front and rear parking sensors, an electronic park brake, hands-free entry, a Renault Sport analogue speedometer with digital capability, a centre arm-rest with storage, a rear 12-volt outlet, leather trim with red stitching highlights on the seats, steering wheel and gear-knob, plus a carbon fibre-effect dash trim with a nice red stripe to break up the sea of grey plastics.
This is on top of existing standard features such as dual-zone climate control, USB and Bluetooth phone and audio, front and rear parking sensors and heated and electrically-folding side mirrors.
By comparison, the Mazda is priced at $27,890 plus on-road costs in automatic form, $900 more than the Renault. Our car also had the $1500 Safety Pack option with blind-spot monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, low-speed autonomous brakes and an auto-dimming rear view mirror.
Standard equipment over the Maxx variant below it with its smaller 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre engine includes 18-inch alloy wheels, front fog-lights, dual-zone climate control, auto headlights and rain-sensing wipers. It also gets cloth seats, unlike the Renault’s partial-leather numbers, and no DRLs.
This is on top of existing standard equipment including a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear-shifter, paddle-shifters, satellite navigation, USB/Bluetooth, reversing camera, six-speaker audio and push-button start.
The Mazda gets a five-star ANCAP safety rating. The Megane previously rated five stars when tested in 2011, though this facelifted version recently managed only three stars under Euro NCAP’s similar regime, despite no degradation of structural integrity. Rather, the regime’s criteria for active safety and seatbelt warning systems became harder and the Renault did not keep up.
Nevertheless, both offer six airbags, though as mentioned the Mazda came with the optional Safety Pack with a commendable list of preventative features. The only gripe was the hyper-sensitive blind-spot monitor that had a propensity to jump at shadows.
From an ownership perspective, the Mazda gets a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, but the Renault tops it with its five-year/unlimited kilometre coverage.
Both get capped-price servicing, though the Renault only gets three-year or 45,000km worth of services covered at once-annual increments from a guaranteed $299. The Mazda gets lifetime coverage at (up to) one-year/10,000km increments at either $296 or $323.
Note: you can get the Mazda 3 in sedan form for the same price. The Megane is hatch-only.
The Mazda 3 hatch is also the bigger and heavier car. At 4.46 metres long, it stretches 15.9cm longer than the Renault, and its 2.7m wheelbase in 5.9cm longer. At 1339kg, its kerb weight is also 92kg weightier than the French option, though the Mazda’s extra poke gives it the power-to-weight advantage (103kW per tonne compared to 78kW per tonne).
While the car’s as tested offer fairly similar levels of equipment, the Mazda’s interior offers superior ergonomics and design.
Both cars have a toggle switch on the transmission tunnel to operate the multimedia displayed on the screen, but the Mazda’s dial is nicer in the hand (dare we say, it is Audi-esque) and easier to navigate than the Renault. The Megane also has a touchscreen function, but the screen itself is too far away to operate easily, meaning it is never as user-friendly as it should be.
The Renault’s air-conditioning controls are also positioned too far down on the fascia for our liking, the cup-holder (yes, there is only one up front) is too small, the cruise control consists of a strange switch near the console and a wheel-mounted button, the driving dials are strangely-angled and the brake pedal feels marginally offset.
However, the Megane makes up lost ground with its nice red cabin highlights and sporty bucket seats that hold firm (though, it should be noted, one of our testers found them uncomfortable). The Mazda’s pews are flat and short in the base by comparison.
The quality of both cars interiors feels good, with plenty of soft-touch surfaces (the importance of which is debatable, we realise) and no squeaks or rattles, though the Mazda has some mismatched plastics and the lower fascia is a little sparse. It’s all well screwed-together though, and the ergonomics are perfect.
The Mazda (below) also feels more spacious in the back seat than the Renault (above), likely thanks to its longer wheelbase, which provides more knee and shoulder room for taller occupants. The Mazda 3 offers 308L of cargo space, compared to the Renault’s 372L, though both have 60:40 folding rear seats to liberate more room.
In terms of cabin ambience and space, it is a win to the Mazda, then.
Behind the wheel, the Mazda immediately feels punchier as well. Its engine delivers its power in a linear fashion befitting the absence of forced induction, and seems to reward you the more you sink the slipper and give it a rev.
Furthermore, the six-speed automatic is exceptionally well-calibrated for the task of sending the power to the front axle. It lacks the snap, crackle and pop of a DSG, but is intuitive and ekes the most out of the powertrain.
However, it is also rather noisy, with plenty of engine and tyre roar permeating the cabin, along with some wind noise through the A- and B-pillars.
The Renault’s engine is smooth and refined, with plenty of grunt down lower in the rev range, even if it ultimately lacks the Mazda’s punch. The dual-clutch gearbox is generally well-programmed, with fewer jitters at low speeds than some units of this ilk, and doesn’t hunt around more than it has to.
That said, it will get busy the second you punch the car up a hill.
In addition, the un-ergonomic design of the shifter means the long-legged among us would occasionally knock the shifter into manual mode unintentionally.
As you may expect, the lighter and smaller-engined Renault is the more fuel-efficient choice. Renault claims official combined-cycle consumption of 5.6L/100km, versus Mazda’s claim of 6.5L/100km.
Across our mixed test route of urban driving, highway cruising and quicker extra-urban dynamic looping, we eked 6.6L/100km from the Renault and 8.5L/100km from the Mazda.
In essence, the Renault is a car than thrives on momentum, and the second you have to power hard out of a corner or tackle a steep elevation, you notice its power deficiency over the Mazda.
The comparative lack of punch doesn’t cause the Renault to lose out altogether in the ‘fun’department, though. In fact, in tight twisty stuff it is the better bet, because what it loses in straight-line punch in makes up for with its better road-holding abilities and sharper steering.
While the Renault’s electro-mechanical power steering has marginally more play on-centre and errs towards being a little light at a quicker clip, the car turns-in beautifully and the movement of the wheel has a nice linear progression.
This is complemented by the stiff and well-balanced chassis that lends the car the ability to slice up corners where the Mazda begins to scrub its tyres and push its nose wide, and the firmer dampers and sticky Continentals that hold onto the asphalt longer and harder than the Mazda’s Dunlops.
That said, the Renault’s very stiff suspension setup and its space-saving but cost-cutting torsion beam setup at the rear means corrugations will throw the car off line (though for this tester a lively back end actually adds to the driving experience).
Don’t go thinking the Mazda lacks dynamic zest. It is still a sharp tool —one of the pointiest in the class, even if it lacks the almost go-kart feel of the old one. Its chassis balance and turn-in still schools the vast majority of its rivals.
The Mazda’s electro-mechanical steering is direct but not as linear as the Megane, and its more pliant ride —more on that in a bit —means it doesn’t hunker down and chew up higher-speed bends quite like the Renault. We have to say the Mazda’s stability control system delivers the ideal balance of invasive without being overly intrusive.
What the Mazda brings to the table that the Megane does not is offer a serviceable balance between sportiness and comfort. Despite riding on larger 18-inch wheels (the Megane sits on 17s), the Mazda with its all-round independent suspension has a far more liveable ride than the Renault.
This is most notable in urban commutes, with the Mazda coasting over minor road imperfections —albeit while channelling plenty of road roar into the cabin —while the Renault seemed to pick out every small bump and channel and amplify if.
So then, what are our impressions of this same-yet-different pair?
The Renault can be a real charmer at times. It is a sharper steer than the still-pointy Mazda, has a willing and frugal little engine, better sports seats, a longer warranty and the kind of outsider French charm that may appeal to many, even if that overly stiff ride and poor cabin ergonomics let the team down.
But it is the Mazda that wins here. It may not be quite as talented at tackling a series of sweepers as it used to be, and it remains a little too noisy for our liking, but its more compliant ride, more spacious and comfortable cabin and — most importantly —its punchier engine and excellent automatic means it fills the warm-hatch brief with fewer foibles.
Photography by Christian Barbeitos. Click the 'Photos' tab above for more images.