Not long ago the price difference between a Japanese small car and a premium-badged German was sizeable. Not too far into the past, either, diesel engines trumped petrols for fuel efficiency.
Yet here we have the Mazda 3 XD Astina that is the flagship of the popular small car range, priced from $42,220 plus on-road costs in automatic form, running a twin-turbo diesel that claims to drink 5.0 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle.
The Audi A3 1.4 TFSI Attraction COD costs from $38,200 plus on-road costs in auto specification, and utilises a turbocharged petrol engine that lists consumption of 4.7L/100km over the same official laboratory test.
A Mazda that costs more than an Audi? Yes, though we’ll get to why in a moment. What about a diesel that drinks more than a petrol? Well, on paper, certainly, but we’re out to see if that is the case in the real world.
Despite the Mazda having a 2.2-litre capacity, versus the Audi with 1.4-litre capacity, both claim 0-100km/h performance of 8.4 seconds, so they couldn’t be more evenly matched.
The Mazda 3 XD Astina comes loaded to the hilt with premium technology to help justify its price. Standard equipment includes adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and automatic braking (if a collision is imminent without driver response), blind-spot warning and automatic high-beam function.
Our test Audi A3 came with that kit included as part of an $1800 option pack, which also adds systems not available in the Mazda; such as one that gently nudges the steering wheel to keep you in your lane if you wander out of it. The XD Astina returns serve with a digital head-up speedometer display.
While spending $40,000 on a small hatchback runs you into hot-hatch territory, these two seemingly disparate options would rather tempt you with efficiency, luxury and technology. Makes sense, then, that we test how this pair’s advanced driver-aid and active safety systems work while driving on a 25km loop (equally divided between heavy peak hour traffic, and freeway and country roads).
We’ll then refuel to see which fuel type is the most economical in the real world, before seeing which contender – mainstream Japanese or premium German – is the most convincing overall.
While the Audi starts as the more affordable contender, the $1800 assistance package is only one of four fitted to our test A3 COD.
The $2990 Technik package adds satellite navigation and a reverse-view camera that are standard in the Mazda, in addition to automatic reverse parking not available at all on the Japanese hatchback and front and rear sensors that are a dealer-fit accessory for its rival. That package also adds an Audi-branded premium audio system, where the XD Astina scores a nine-speaker Bose audio unit.
The A3’s $2000 style package includes 17-inch alloy wheels and swivelling xenon headlights, though the Mazda has 18s and swivelling bi-xenons as standard.
Finally, the $2200 comfort package features electrically adjustable and heated front seats, keyless auto-entry and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
All of which – you guessed it – is standard on the Mazda except for electric seat adjustment for the passenger side, though you will score an electric sunroof that is yet another option in the Audi.
To get an A3 1.4 TFSI COD that is equipped like a 3 XD Astina costs $47,190 – or almost exactly $5000 more.
After jumping out of the Mazda, the price premium is felt the moment you close the door of the Audi.
Other than some Alcantara trim on the seats, the 3 XD Astina is identical inside to the 3 SP25 GT that starts below $30K. For that price the interior is stylish and well finished, though elements such as the many different types of hard plastics, clangy doors and monochromatic instrument display begin to look out of place when the price begins with a ‘4’.
The A3 cabin is a small hatchback benchmark, regardless of the price. The dashboard is clean and high quality, and the textures on the centre console and soft mood lighting under each interior door handle and each front cupholder prove the devil is in the detail.
The 3 XD Astina exclusively includes internet connectivity, however, with apps such as Pandora music streaming that works a treat either via Bluetooth audio streaming or plugged in to the standard USB input. In the case of Pandora you can switch between your created music stations, vote up or down a song and pause or skip songs all using the rotary dial positioned on the centre console (or by pressing the 7.0-inch touchscreen, though only if the car is stationary).
As pop singer Meghan Trainor would say, it’s All About That Bass when it comes to the Bose audio system, which pumps harder than its rival’s, even if it struggles to delicately balance some finer notes.
Graphics on the identically-sized and elegantly thin A3 centre screen appear classier than those in its rival. Although accessibility to functions is similar – using a rotary dial on the centre console – the Audi lacks a touchscreen facility and there is no USB input (you need an Audi-branded cable specific to your phone).
It does, however, add extra toggle-switch shortcuts (such as phone, nav, media and radio) and a touchpad atop the rotary dial that makes the German the more intuitive of the pair overall.
On the move each display also shows the efficiency-enhancing and active safety technology found behind the scenes of the high-grade hatchback they’re attached to.
Mazda uses the most micro form of hybridisation with a system called i-ELOOP – trust a brand from the home of anime to come up with such a cute name.
It saves your braking energy into a tiny capacitor that can run the electrics when the stop-start system is active, which is perfect because it keeps the air conditioning running even when the engine is off (unlike in the Audi and pretty much every other car without stop-start).
The stop-start system in the 3 XD Astina is also one of the most intelligent we’ve used, choosing to kill the engine only when the brake pedal is fully depressed and only when there’s enough energy in the capacitor to keep the cabin cool.
The A3 1.4 TFSI COD engine takes up its efficiency, erm, call of duty by shutting off two cylinders on light throttle loads to enhance its chances of beating its rival at the pumps in a few hundred kilometres’ time.
Audi’s petrol engine does this, and also starts and stops at the traffic lights, with almost undetectable silence, where the Mazda diesel can ruffle the steering wheel and clatter a bit on start up, which is typical of its fuel type.
Less typical is the superior throttle response and instant urge delivered by the Mazda engine, no doubt thanks to a combination of its larger capacity, extra turbocharger and regular six-speed automatic transmission.
The Audi’s seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, dubbed S tronic, can be hesitant creeping in traffic, and when the accelerator is used it can initially feel doughy then suffers more turbo lag.
When up and running both engines feel as quick as each other, and both transmissions are intuitive and deliver slick shifts. The Audi remains smoother and more refined, but the meatier sound in the Mazda is still likeable, perhaps even a touch sportier, and is far less uncouth than most diesels.
It’s an early snapshot of the way this duo of hatchbacks drives. The front seats in the 3 XD Astina have greater side support, the steering is wonderfully incisive and connected, and the suspension communicates imperfect road surfaces through to the cabin as little vibrations.
The A3 has softer, flatter front pews, but also allows its rear occupants to stretch a bit further. Taller occupants miss brushing their noggins on the roof lining, too.
Above: Mazda 3 (top) and Audi A3 (bottom).
There’s a deeper, more supportive bench, and while the Mazda can keep its air conditioning running when the engine is off, only the Audi gives rear-riders vents to keep them cool the majority of the time.
The A3 is also much quieter than the 3 across all road surfaces, and its suspension approaches wafting plushness missing in the Mazda.
It makes sense that the car that comfortably fits more than two occupants also has the larger boot for their stuff – a capacious 380 litres versus 308L – and the Audi is the only one that provides a luggage net back there, too.
Above: Mazda 3 (top) and Audi A3 (bottom).
Mazda does, however, bill the 3 XD Astina as something of a semi-hot-hatch.
Without a properly spicy 3 MPS in its line-up these days, it reckons this twin-turbo diesel is the next best thing and has put a swipe of red lipstick across its grille as a suggestion of its intent.
Get to a twisty road and the Mazda 3 is quicker to turn in to a corner, and more involving through a series of them. Its chassis moves around quite a bit and the steering wheel can kick back over bumps, but otherwise a fine sense of balance pervades.
The Audi A3 is slower to turn in and rolls more in bends, but you also start to find an extra layer of depth missing from its rival.
More grip from its excellent Pirelli Cinturato tyres helps, but the German hatchback also feels much lighter on its feet, gets less out of shape when changing direction quickly, and keeps finer control of its body on rough roads.
That perception is confirmed when we later look at the spec sheets – the Mazda 3 tips the scales at 1465 kilograms, a full 230kg heavier than its foe.
It’s the diesel engine itself that weighs (maybe not quite) a tonne, because compared with the petrol version from the same range the XD Astina places another 131kg purely over the front wheels.
It’s certainly enough to explain the diesel’s propensity to slap its front end into the bump stops on really rough roads – something we didn’t notice at its national launch in Tasmania last month.
Time to assess their active safety systems as we cruise back towards the big smoke.
We soon find another layer of finesse to the Audi’s adaptive cruise control compared with the Mazda’s. The A3 system can slow to standstill in traffic, where the equivalent in the 3 cuts out below 30km/h, for example.
The blind-spot warning system in the Japanese hatchback can still alert you to a lurking vehicle even when it is well away from you, where we found the German system a little more fine-tuned, while the collision warning systems were both a bit pessimistic until we realised we could set them to be late to intervene.
The Mazda head-up display that shines green text onto a little auto-pop-up glass screen in front of the driver is also prone to bad sunlight reflections.
Back at the fuel pumps, we wondered whether our petrol contender could keep its on-paper lead ahead of the diesel. Not quite, as it turns out: the Audi gulped 6.8L/100km compared with 6.4L/100km for the Mazda. With diesel around the same price as the premium unleaded required by the A3 1.4 TFSI COD, there’s next to nothing in it.
The Mazda is also cheaper to service, however you’ll be visiting your local dealership every 10,000km compared with 15,000km for its rival (although if you don’t drive that many kilometres in a year, annual visits for each are fine).
A prepaid servicing plan over three years or to 45,000km costs $1680 in the Audi, versus $1087 (to three years) or $1242 (if 40,000km comes up first) for the Oriental contender.
It isn’t quite enough for the 3 XD Astina to win overall, however. To drive the diesel is one of the best models in the range, and it is loaded up with gear for the price in a size of car that clearly many people in this country love. It also feels stretched in terms of its interior ambience and sporting credentials for the price, though, particularly alongside this similarly priced rival.
The Audi A3 COD may ask more for options packages, but its value above $40K shines brightly in its refinement, cabin quality, space, and technology. It’s the cylinder-deactivating German petrol hatchback, then, that is best placed to offer buyers a different set of virtues to the hot-hatchbacks that typically play at this price point.
Photography by Glenn Sullivan. Click the 'Photos' tab above for more images.