New Mazda3 Astina hatch (1)

2016 Mazda 3 Review

Rating: 8.0
$20,490 $35,490 Mrlp
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The updated, 2016 Mazda 3 range brings some quality improvements to the table.
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The current-generation Mazda 3 hatch and sedan range has received its most substantial update since launching in January 2014. The revised version of Australia’s fourth-most popular new vehicle is safer, more dynamic and better value than before.

Despite a challenging small car market, battling to stay even in the face of the medium SUV sales boom, the Mazda 3 remains the company’s most popular and important car in Australia, given the fact it owns close to 20 per cent market share in the small car class, though it now trails both the Toyota Corolla and Hyundai i30 in sales.

We attended the Australian launch this week in Brisbane, for a quick drive.

The update to the third-generation Mazda 3 could hardly be called a facelift. Cosmetic changes are limited to a new nose design, led by a bolder new grille, and some different wheels. Higher-grade versions also get LED headlights (30 per cent brighter than halogens) with daytime running lights, and there are new grey and blue metallic colour choices.

Changes inside the cabin are moderately more substantial. There’s a new steering wheel that looks the bee’s knees, simplified instruments (low-grade versions still miss out on a digital speedo), and USB points moved to an easier-to-situate location in the centre stack instead of the console, thanks to the removal of the CD player.

All versions bar the base Neo get a revised tablet screen with Mazda’s benchmark (in this class) MZD Connect rotary dial system and sat-nav, plus the welcome addition of digital radio. Top-spec GT and Astina versions get a better, colour heads-up display too.

Unfortunately, the base Neo — which remains a top-selling offering in the range despite the proliferation of private, rather than fleet, buyers — retains an old hat non-touchscreen interface with no reversing camera. It’s outgunned at the bottom end, and though you can shell out $650 to get a camera in the rear-view mirror as an option, we suggest stepping up to the Maxx.

If we were cynical, we’d suggest Mazda Australia doesn’t really want to sell Neos…

As you can read in our pricing and specifications story, prices on all bar the $20,490 (plus on-road costs) Neo variant have climbed slightly, but the value has improved by up to $1550, if you believe Mazda Australia’s claim.

Pricing for both body-styles climbs to $22,890 for the Maxx, $25,290 for the Touring, $25,690 for the more powerful but less well-equipped SP25, $29,990 for the SP25 GT and $33,490 for the SP25 Astina. All versions come with an auto transmission for $2000 more.

The walk between variants is pretty reasonable. Mazda expects the Maxx to account for 40 per cent of sales, the Neo 30 per cent, the SP25 to make up 15 per cent, the Touring and SP25 both 10 per cent, and the Astina 5 per cent.

Every single Mazda 3 now gets autonomous emergency braking (AEB) at low speeds, while the second-from-base Maxx upwards get AEB in reverse, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. Higher up the range you can get traffic sign recognition and radar cruise control, putting the Mazda at the pointy end for active safety.

Essentially, features that were once part of options packs are now standard. Only the Skoda Octavia could rightly claim to offer a competitive active safety package at the Mazda’s price point, something for which the Japanese company must be commended.

Other cabin changes are limited to smaller details such as a new electric park brake on higher-end versions that allows the fitment of a nifty new set of cupholders with sliding cover, and the option of white leather on the GT and Astina. Good luck keeping that clean.

Mazda makes a good cabin, and the 3 remains one of the more cohesive and classy offerings out there, with the exception of the sparse Neo. Everything is well-made and appealing in a tactile sense, and offers an experience on a par with pricier cars.

Where the Mazda 3 has never been a leader is in practicality and space, the new one has more storage options (including superior door pockets). It remains one of the smaller cars in its class, and the back seats remains relatively tight next to the new Honda Civic, but two adults can sit in comfort. Cargo space remains a relatively tight 308L on the hatch and 408L on the sedan, both with temporary spare wheels.

Things are quite different under the skin, though. Mazda’s G-Vectoring system makes its premiere here. This sensor-based system adjusts torque delivery to the front wheels in response to steering inputs, increasing load on the front tyre. In other words, it’s like lifting off the throttle to transfer the car’s weight.

The response can be greater straight-line stability on slippery surfaces, with fewer minute wheel adjustments necessary, plus greater mid-corner stability. We did back-to-back slalom tests and found the new system made the car much neater. Additionally, a high-speed sharp right-hander downhill in the new car yielded less tyre squeal than the old car.

Is the difference marked? No, it isn’t. But it’s a small and worthy change that complements the Mazda’s already balanced chassis, sharp and accurate steering, and generally good compromise between dynamism and comfort. Firm, but not uncomfortable.

Mazda has also changed the front and rear dampers and bushings, as well as the rear cross-member and trailing link, and added sound-deadening materials to improve a glaring weak point — noise, vibration and harshness levels (NVH).

That said, over coarse-chip surfaces, the Mazda 3 is still not the last word in refinement, with tyre roar entering the cabin to a greater degree than some rivals. When we get one for a longer time than our quick launch drive this week allowed, we will do decibel tests.

There are no changes to the engines. The Neo, Maxx and Touring get the 114kW at 6000rpm and 200Nm at 4000rpm 2.0-litre four, and the SP25, SP25GT and SP25GT Astina get the 138kW at 5700rpm and 250Nm at 3250rpm 2.5-litre four. The 2.2-litre diesel engine option has been axed on account of slow sales.

Both engines, from Mazda’s high-compression SkyActiv family, perform strongest at higher engine speeds, with good response above 3000rpm. Neither engine is overly refined or strong at the bottom end, though. The 2.0-litre is perfectly fine for urban commuting, but you can stretch the car’s outstanding dynamics better with the bigger unit.

Hopefully the CX-9’s 2.5 turbo wth 170kW-plus joins at some point… The car could handle it easily, especially with a tricky diff allocating torque between the front wheels.

Most buyers opt for the six-speed automatic, but all come with a six-speed manual too. The automatic with paddles on sporty versions now comes with the sport button from the Mazda 2 and others, which program the gearbox to hold low ratios longer and kick down more aggressively ahead of corners. It works brilliantly.

All told, the revised Mazda 3 isn’t any sort of quantum leap, but the outgoing iteration was pretty good already. With the new-generation Hyundai i30 and Holden Astra on the horizon, the competition won’t get any easier, but the Mazda’s place among the best is assured.

It’s still a fantastic little car to drive, be it in city commuting or on a twisting forest road, and the extra safety equipment across the range is well worth the small price hike. There’s a reason why the stylish and fun Mazda remains the private-buyer’s choice in a fleet-heavy segment. There’s now even more reason to buy one.

Our choice? The SP25. You get MZD Connect, most of the key active safety tech, and the superior 2.5-litre engine. Can’t go wrong.

Click the Photos tab for bigger images, predominately supplied by Mazda Australia.

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