As one of Australia’s most popular cars, the Mazda 3 has a mighty reputation to uphold. I wasn’t entirely convinced with the last Mazda 3 I drove. I was behind the wheel of the Mazda 3 Touring and, while the interior packaging and fit and finish was excellent, it was let down by a slightly lethargic engine.
I wanted to give the Mazda 3 another chance, so I nabbed the Mazda 3 SP25 Astina variant.
The outside looks neat, classy and inoffensive, which is part of the reason Mazda has revelled in such success with the 3. Launching the first-generation Mazda 3 in 2003, Mazda was one of the first manufacturers to break away from the low price, cheap-looking-small-car design.
There is only a $400 difference between the $25,490 Mazda 3 Touring and the $25,890 Mazda 3 SP25. The former gets Mazda’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, while the latter is powered by the larger and more powerful 2.5-litre four-cylinder offering, albeit teamed with a lighter standard equipment list.
At $36,190, the SP25 Astina tested here builds on the SP25’s standard offering, bringing with it more technology and features. This includes a more powerful nine-speaker BOSE stereo, auto-dimming rear-vision mirror, illuminated vanity mirrors, a heads-up display, heated electric powered seats, a leather interior, Mazda safety pack, sunroof, bi-xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights.
Up front, the SP25 Astina features Mazda’s signature large gaping grille with swept back headlights that give the car an appearance of static motion. It’s a similar story at the rear where an athletic stance sets the Mazda 3 apart from other vehicles in traffic.
It’s inside the cabin Mazda’s 3 really shines. The fit and finish, along with layout of instruments, offers a perception of luxury and value often missing in some of its competitors.
A large seven-inch touchscreen – dubbed MZD Connect – sits atop the dashboard and offers the driver and passenger central control via an i-Drive-esque knob in the centre of the cabin. MZD Connect features web content and allows the system to tap into a Twitter or Facebook feed and even stream music from the internet.
In terms of functionality, the system is dead easy to use and can be operated while on the move – unlike some vehicles that lock functionality once the car is in motion. MZD Connect is supplemented by voice recognition, which also works well when entering addresses into the satellite navigation.
Also new to the latest generation of Mazda 3 is a heads-up display that folds out of the dashboard and is presented to the drive. The display shows information such as speed and navigation directions. While it’s impressive technology for a vehicle in this segment, it’s a one-colour display and it lacks the clarity of better systems – such as those on offer by BMW and Audi.
Leg and headroom in the front is excellent. The seats are comfortable and feature convenient side and base bolster to hold you in. In the rear, legroom can be limited for taller passengers. There is also an issue for passengers with larger feet, whereby it’s easy to knock the base of the vehicle’s B-pillar when getting out of the car.
The Mazda 3 is trumped by the competition when it comes to storage capacity. Limited storage spaces inside the cabin, along with only 308 litres of cargo capacity leaves a lot to be desired. Especially when you consider the Ford Focus and Hyundai i30 hatches are 105L and 70L greater in cargo capacity respectively.
Put your foot down in the SP25 Astina and the benefits of a larger 2.5-litre engine are felt immediately. More low-end torque and extra power over the entry-level 2.0-litre gives the mid-spec Mazda 3 a sporty presence on the road.
Mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, the directly injected 138kW and 250Nm four-cylinder engine is fun to drive without needing a heap of revs. It’s also capable of getting through the city in a higher gear without gasping for revs.
The torque figure is made even more impressive by the fact it’s the highest of the petrol vehicles in this price bracket. The SP25 Astina even outclasses the turbocharged Nissan Pulsar.
Despite the engine’s torque advantage over the competition, it claims a more than respectable 6.0 litres per 100km in six-speed automatic form and 6.5L/100km tied to the six-speed manual.
The SP25 Astina’s ride can be a little harsh at times thanks to its standard 18-inch alloy wheels, which often pick up pot holes and exposed road elements to a greater degree than the 16-inch wheel and tyre package on lower models. The upshot is that the lower profile tyres offer a bit more communication through corners and boost the car’s sportier feel.
Larger wheels aside, the Mazda 3 is a real gem to drive through the city and on the open road. The compliant ride errs on the comfort side of sporty and manages to deal with undulations and road imbalances much better than the old Mazda 3. It’s certainly one of the class leaders in that regard.
The handling is great for a small car. The electrically-assisted steering is responsive and offers enough feel to communicate road conditions. The brakes are also very good, inspiring confidence and making light work of city driving.
For many, this car will predominantly be driven in and around the city. This factor makes the light and springy clutch a pleasure to use. It’s easy to operate and doesn’t become laborious in stop-start traffic. There’s even enough spacing between the pedals for an occasional heel-and-toe – just in case there is a mountain pass dividing your journey.
Parking is made easy thanks to reverse parking sensors and a reverse-view camera. The even steering also makes tight manoeuvres a breeze. Visibility is equally impressive with large side windows and a narrow A-pillar.
Mazda has nailed the brief with the Mazda 3 SP25 Astina. It subjectively looks great and is loaded with technology and features to complement its price.
If money is a little tight, however, the SP25 and SP25 GT are priced at $25,890 and $30,590 respectively. Both offer a commendable suite of standard features with the former — powered by the class-leading 2.5-litre engine — costing just $400 more than the 2.0-litre Touring.
Whichever way you go, the Mazda 3 range is pleasing and worthy of its reputation.
Click on the Photos tab to see more images by Tom Fraser. Please note that one of the vehicles pictured is the Mazda 3 XD Astina.