Mazda 3 Review : LT1

$24,990 Mrlp
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Dan moves from a niche premium hatchback long-termer to three months in the most popular privately purchased car in Australia

The Mazda 3 is the most popular privately purchased car in Australia and to the Japanese brand’s forecast around 40 per cent of those buyers will choose the entry-level $20,490 Neo grade.

Apparently only 10 per cent of buyers will make the jump to the $22,990 Mazda 3 Maxx grade, but we implore them to for the step up in connectivity alone. Add a $2K optional six-speed automatic transmission and a no-cost-option hatchback bodystyle (over the sedan) and this is the specification for our three-month stint with everyone’s favourite small hatchback.

Poring over the specification sheet, choosing the 3 Maxx over 3 Neo buys you (and us) 16-inch alloy wheels instead of steelies, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshifter, and a colour touchscreen with sat-nav, apps connectivity and reverse-view camera. In short, a healthy dose of stuff.

If you’re sticking to the standard 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, the only other model option is to spend $25,490 on the 3 Touring. It seems like a peculiar model as for just another $400 you can get the 2.5-litre engine in the sportier 3 SP25 which is basically identically equipped, gaining 18s and foglights but losing leather trim.

Yet after initially dismissing the 3 Touring, and having since tested a 3 SP25 and driven our 3 Maxx for a few weeks, I’m now viewing it as worth the $2500 over our long-termer and potentially a range sweet spot.

Why? Simple reasons, really.

Our Maxx doesn’t get auto on/off headlights that sense when it’s dark (standard on Touring), but nor does it even get auto-off headlights when you switch off the ignition and open the door. As someone who drives with their headlights on in the daytime, every time you get out of the Maxx hearing a constant ‘beeeeeeep’ is enough to drive you insane. Or at least remind you that you’ve bought a cheap model.

The 3 Touring also gets dual-zone climate control, which lifts the interior substantially compared with the standard, slightly clacky rotary dials in our 3 Maxx.

Both of those features come in the 3 SP25 as well, but the 3 Maxx and Touring stick with smaller 16-inch wheels that on first impressions blot Sydney streets with French-like insouciance. You can feel the suspension is inherently firm so the Mazda 3 can continue its reputation as among the most dynamic models in the small hatch class, but the chubby 60-aspect tyres seem to round off sharp edges far better than the 45-aspect 18s on the SP25.

Incidentally, the 3 Neo, Maxx, Touring and SP25 are all available with a $1500-optional Safety Pack featuring an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, blind-spot monitor, rear traffic alert system (that detects passing cars when you’re backing out of a park) and low-speed auto braking assistance. It isn’t fitted to our test car, however, which has no options at all because even the Blue Reflex Mica paint is a no-cost addition – well done to Mazda for including all eight paint options standard.

If it were my money I wouldn’t get the Safety Pack, but then I’d stretch to a 3 Touring. Oooh, but maybe I could stretch further to the $30,490 SP25 GT because it gets bi-xenons with LED daytime lights that look terrific, in addition to an electrically adjustable driver’s seat that improves the driving position, plus heated seats perfect for winter, and a 231-watt Bose audio that will no doubt assist with my peak hour trip to work each morning…

Of course, it’s easy to be lush and fictitiously find $7500 behind the couch (the difference between our 3 Maxx and the 3 SP25 GT). But closer to home, I still wouldn’t choose the 3 SP25 base over a 3 Touring that costs just $400 less.

Although the 2.5-litre SP25 has plenty of guts and swagger, the 2.0-litre Maxx/Touring is no slouch. Instead of 138kW of power you get 114kW, and in lieu of 250Nm of torque you get 200Nm, but in the circa-1300kg Mazda 3 the smaller unit still feels keen and kinda quick.

Official fuel consumption for our engine and transmission is just 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres versus (a still-excellent) 6.1L – we’ll see how that translates in the real world.

Let me give an early standing ovation to the six-speed automatic transmission – it’s an absolute star of the show. Where in ‘my’ previous long-termer, the Audi A1 Sportback, we had to avoid the lurchy dual-clutch auto in favour of the slick manual, there’s no need to do that here.

In fact, I love the 3’s auto possibly as much as the A1’s manual, such is its ability to be ultra-smooth when creeping in traffic, grab a lower gear even before you’ve thought it needs to, then hold lower gears intuitively when going down hills or during hard driving.

The lighter steering compared with the Audi initially feels a bit vague on the centre position, but you realise just how intuitive it is, too, responding to tiny inputs beyond the centre vacancy with measured and consistent precision.

However colleague Matt is already moaning about the turning circle, which he deems curiously large, not helped by steering assistance that goes oddly heavy when making quick low-speed manoeuvres – the jury’s out.

Unlike the A1 that came factory-fresh to us, our 3 Maxx arrived with 6500km on the clock having served as a press car since the national launch early this year. It appears to be living up to Mazda’s quality reputation, too, feeling tight and with interior materials not showing signs of wear.

After suffering some connectivity issues in the Audi A1, the Mazda 3 infotainment screen is more premium in its ease of use and available functions. I’m already starting to drill through my monthly mobile phone date allowance creating internet radio stations on Pandora then voting songs up or down via the touchscreen.

Hopefully, unlike the A1, the MZD-Connect system is reliable.

The wide and soft front seats of the 3 Maxx also join with the bump-blotting ride to make it feel old-school French in a way. Yet the buzzy and revvy engine seems classically Japanese and the general steering precision typical-Mazda. A good bunch of virtues, there, and a healthy first impression for our latest long-termer.

Mazda 3 Maxx
Date acquired: September 2014
Odometer reading: 6717km
Travel this month: 414km
Consumption this month: n/a