The ever-evolving small car class is again under the spotlight for this test, with the upgraded Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30 here to take on the stalwart Volkswagen Golf.
All of these vehicles have seen some updates and changes since the start of the year, and we figured it was time to see where the flagship version of each sits among its peers in the class.
As such, we’ve assembled the top-spec petrol versions of each of the regular ranges (no hot hatches here, then), in the form of the Hyundai i30 SR Premium, Mazda 3 SP25 Astina and Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Highline.
The Hyundai i30 is the biggest-selling car in Australia this year, but most of those sales have come from a cut-price base model. The value is still strong in the higher-spec model, though…
Then there’s the Mazda 3, which has just seen a comprehensive upgrade of its equipment list, including lots of safety stuff that these other two competitors don’t even have on their options lists.
And the Volkswagen Golf saw an update for 2016 that included a bigger media screen with the most up-to-date connectivity, which neither of the other two have.
Will the value-packed Korean win? Perhaps the Japanese car’s safety focus will help it prevail? Or will the German car’s precision engineering get it across the line?
Let’s find out.
Pricing and specifications
Now, these are the small petrol hatches you can choose with all the fruit. The Volkswagen and Hyundai can both be had with diesel drivetrains if you so choose, and until recently that was the case with the Mazda 3, too – but it was axed ahead of this update, in part because it was quite dear.
And even in petrol guise, the Mazda is the dearest of these three cars, with the SP25 Astina starting at $35,490 plus on-road costs. But while it is the priciest, it’s also the most comprehensively equipped in terms of safety stuff – more on that in a sec.
The next most expensive is the Hyundai i30 SR Premium, which is $33,550 plus on-road costs. It has plenty of gear, too.
The most affordable vehicle on this test is the Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Highline - yep, a comparison where the VW is the cheapest! - it is priced from $33,340 plus on-road costs.
Now, standard equipment: Mazda betters the other two cars here with lots of safety kit, including autonomous emergency braking (AEB) – which is standard across the model range! – and in this spec the system has radar cruise control and high-speed AEB, too. The Mazda’s AEB system also works in reverse, meaning it’ll stop the car if it thinks you won’t, and there’s rear cross-traffic alert as well. The other bits it has includes lane departure warning and lane keeping assistance, and neither of the other two cars have any of the above equipment as standard.
You can option the Volkswagen with the Driver Assistance Package at $1500, and that brings AEB, radar cruise control, front parking sensors, and a handy semi-automated parking system for front-on and reverse-parallel parking (which the Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30 don’t have available).
And this is where the Hyundai is showing its age – and the all-new i30 is due in 2017 – as it doesn’t have radar cruise, AEB, blind-spot or rear cross-traffic alert available, even as an option.
Thankfully, all three have a rear-view camera system, plus rear parking sensors, and the VW has front parking sensors standard, too. And every car here has the requisite airbag coverage, including dual front, front side and full-length curtain airbags, while the Hyundai and VW also have driver’s knee airbag protection.
Hopefully you won’t need to use most of that stuff during your time with the car, so what about the comfort and convenience features that are designed to make living with each of them more enjoyable?
Well, all three have leather seat trim, the i30’s with blingy red seat inlays and the Mazda with brownish bits adjacent to its leather trimmed sections. The VW’s leather is plain black.
The VW misses out on a sunroof (you can option it as part of the Luxury Package, which adds a few other items and costs $3000) where the Mazda has a small opening roof above the front seats, and the Hyundai has a huge panoramic glass roof that adds a huge level of wow factor to the cabin.
The Hyundai keeps the wow going with heated and cooled front seats (the VW and Mazda have heating only), and all three have dual-zone climate control but the Mazda is the only one here to miss out on rear-seat air vents.
Each has detailed driver information screens, but the i30 misses out on a digital speed readout. And only the Mazda 3 has a head-up display, which in this spec even includes traffic sign illustrations.
The trio has media needs mostly covered, with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and USB/auxiliary connectivity a breeze in each car, and the Mazda is the only one here with dual USB inputs (so you can keep one phone on charge and the other can play your tunes while charging, too). But the VW betters the other two here with the latest in phone smarts, with smartphone mirroring including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Neither of the others have this tech in the models we have here – strangely, you get CarPlay in the base model i30, but because that car has a different screen, the high-end models miss out. Mazda hasn’t said whether the tech will be offered in its cars.
If you’re a digital radio fan, the Mazda has you covered, being the only car here with DAB+. But if you like to listen to CDs on the road, the 3 will let you down, as the compact disc slot was removed as part of the recent update – though it has internet radio integration, with Stitcher, Pandora and Aha apps.
All have standard satellite navigation, and the Hyundai and Mazda have live traffic updates. We’ll get to the operation of the systems in the next section.
As for lighting, all three have auto on/off headlights, but the VW has old-school halogen headlights and daytime running lights – you can option bi-xenon lamps as part of the Luxury Package (remember? the box you tick if you want a sunroof) if you so choose. The Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30 both have LED headlights and LED daytime running lights, and frequent night drivers would be advised that the difference is noticeable between the LEDs and the Golf’s halogens.
The Hyundai has 17-inch alloys, and so does the Volkswagen, where the Mazda adds an extra inch under its guards. But the Hyundai is the only car here with a full-size spare wheel.
We’ve already gone over some of the equipment highlights, but what about presentation and practicality?
Well, as we said above, the i30 will be the one that’ll likely attract the most showroom “whoa” moments due to that big glass roof and its sportier interior trim – even its dials are nicer than the other cars here.
Still, the Mazda’s dash-top media display and head-up display is novel in this company, but it looks a bit aftermarket – the fact it doesn’t project on to the windscreen, rather on to a plastic screen that pops up out of the dash, detracts from its premium-ness a bit.
The Golf? Well, if you say “wow” when you slide into the driver’s seat, you need to think about an adventure holiday to New Zealand. It is, it’s fair to say, bland, boring and simple. But boy oh boy is it thoughtfully finished.
For example, the VW’s door pockets are the only ones here that are flocked/lined, which will stop things rattling around when you’re driving – just make sure you don’t put a half-open packet of chips in there…
Indeed all three have good-sized door pockets up front – the Mazda’s are bigger than they used to be, which is good, but they’re still not as copious as the Golf’s. The i30’s are good, too. And the Golf is the only one of these three with under-seat storage drawers, and it has coat hooks on the B-pillars as well. Clever, right?
All three have well-positioned cup holders up front, and each has a roller cover for the cup holders if you need it. The Mazda’s loose item storage area in front of the shifter isn’t quite as good as the Golf or i30, and in fact you may struggle to fit your phone and wallet if you’re the sort of person who leaves cups/bottles in the cup holders all the time. Go on, admit it – you’re that sort of person.
Still, the Mazda’s materials, particularly the soft lining that runs alongside the transmission tunnel, makes it feel more premium in its execution: the VW and i30 have hard plastic sections there instead. That said, the Mazda’s piano black plastic sections on the window button surrounds show up grubby fingerprints; the Golf enjoys a liberal use of the shiny black plastic across its dashboard, too, but it’s used sparingly where you might actually make contact with it; and the i30 has just a small amount around the screen and ventilation controls. The i30’s plastics, on the whole, felt a little cheaper than the other vehicles here, particularly lower on the dash and doors – but its nicely stitched steering wheel further added to its flair.
As for seating, the Mazda and Hyundai both have driver’s-side electric seat adjustment and manual passenger-side toggles, where the Golf misses out on electric adjustment altogether. Still, the Golf’s leather seats are comfortable and offer great adjustment, where the other two fell a little short in terms of support.
Pictured above: Hyundai i30 (top); Mazda 3 (middle); Volkswagen Golf (bottom)
The Mazda 3 arguably wins the screen battle if you can live without CarPlay/AA. That comes down to the fact it has the MZD Connect system with its brilliant rotary dial interface that makes dealing with the media/phone/nav situation on the move just so much simpler than trying to hit a screen while you’re jostling along a bumpy back road.
That said the MZD system, with its 7.0-inch touchscreen, is slow to load, whereas the 6.5-inch screen in the VW and the Hyundai’s 7.0-inch screen both booted a little quicker – for instance, if you jump in, start up and select reverse, the camera in the German and Korean models was faster to display, and likewise if you needed to get the navigation up smartly. The menus of both of those systems are, thankfully, simple, and that means that using the infotainment screens when you are driving isn’t as hard as it could be.
As for the cabin space the i30’s big glass roof meant it felt positively airy in comparison to the Mazda 3, which was judged by our experts as feeling the most cramped, both up front and in the back. That’s partly due to the fact you feel like you’re hemmed in by the cabin in the front seats of the 3, where the other two have space between the front seats and more room between the passenger and the dashboard. The Golf, with its big, squarer windows was judged the second-best for atmosphere, both up front and in the rear.
Pictured above: Hyundai i30 (top); Mazda 3 (middle); Volkswagen Golf (bottom)
The Mazda’s rear seats were found to be the least enjoyable to be in, with its high – and rising – beltline likely to leave kids unhappy with the view. That it has no rear vents could also make the little ones upset on hot or cold days.
The amount of room was another issue we found in the Mazda. With the front passenger seat set to the same position in all three cars, the 3 was found to be the least spacious, both in terms of knee room and head room. It and the Golf both had decent toe room, though, where the i30 had very little toe space.
The Golf and i30 were about equal in terms of space, with both offering better head and knee room than the 3, and the i30’s seat base can be folded up for storage of bigger items.
“Of the three, the Mazda is the last one I'd like to spend a lot of time in the back on a road trip,” said one judge, where another said the Golf “is my favourite – it’s easier to see out of, nicer to spend time in and has the most comfortable seats”. And you’re going to try and fit three across the back, the order we’d suggest would be: Golf, i30, Mazda.
If you’ve got youngsters, all three have dual ISOFIX outboard seat anchor points, and three top-tether points, too.
All three have flip-down armrests with cup holders, but only the Golf has a ski-port for long items. And as for storage, the big door pockets of the Golf again proved better than the competitors (i30 next best), and its dual, fully-lined map pockets are definitely better than the Mazda’s single map pocket and the i30’s mesh one, which is backed by hard plastic which can be hard on the knees of taller occupants.
One weird issue we found with the Mazda is that you can’t use the rear lights for reading – they only come on when you open the door. The other two cars have reading lights that are operable whenever. And the Mazda is the only one of this trio that doesn’t have auto up/down windows for all doors – only the driver’s window gets it, where the others have auto up/down all around.
Pictured above: Hyundai i30 (top); Mazda 3 (middle); Volkswagen Golf (bottom)
As for boot space, the Mazda 3 has a significantly smaller cargo area: it has 308 litres of boot space, where the i30 has 378L and the VW tops this trio with 380L of room.
Our judges agreed the i30’s interior felt the oldest of the three cars here, and while it was of a high standard, it wasn’t quite as premium as the model name may lead you to believe.
The Mazda? It felt upmarket, but in a budget way – or, said another way, it doesn’t hit quite the high levels of interior pleasantry its price tag suggests it could.
And the Golf – well, it felt like a car that hasn’t seen expense spared in terms of interior finishing, and while it isn’t as contemporary as the 3 or as awe inducing as the i30, it is a complete and comfortable cabin.
We have a fair spread of powertrains here: in fact, there’s 1.1 litres of engine capacity separating the smallest and largest engines. But the small one has a turbo, and it’s the only one here with that…
That one is the Volkswagen Golf’s 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine, which has 110kW of power (from 5000-6000rpm) and 250Nm of torque (from 1500-3500rpm). Helping it move is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG) transmission.
The next biggest engine is the i30’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder, which has more power than the Golf with 124kW (at 6500rpm) but a deficit when it comes to torque (201Nm at 4700rpm). It has a conventional six-speed automatic gearbox.
The big dog here, though, is the Mazda 3, as its 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine out-muscles the others by a margin with 138kW of power (at 5700rpm), while it is equal to the VW for torque, with 250Nm (at 3250rpm). It has a six-speed automatic gearbox, too.
To get the most out of the Mazda’s engine you need to push it hard, and the best way to do that is to engage Sport mode for the transmission, which allows the little engine to rev freely, and will even blip on the downshift. As one of our testers put it, “the gearbox is very aggressive to kick down in Sport mode”, and “the engine has good poke and instant response, but sounds tinny and needs revs”
True that. It whines as it churns up through the rev range, and while it does it smoothly enough in terms of progress, the sound it makes could be grating if you enjoy exploring the upper reaches of the rev range on occasion. But at least the gearbox didn’t insist on overruling the driver in the Mazda like it did in the Hyundai.
The i30’s engine isn’t quite as annoying in terms of noise, but it isn’t pleasant, either – especially if you’re giving it a bit. You have to push it hard to get the best out of it, too, with a lack of low-down torque meaning it can find itself in a grunt black hole every now and then, and that means the gearbox kickdowns can be “abrasive” when you’re going up hill.
Off the line, though, it is quick – there’s no lag, and if you’re the sort of person who is always trying to pick the gap from the lights, it won’t disappoint in terms of rapidity.
The Golf is the only car here without paddleshifters, but that’s not necessarily to the detriment of the drive experience because the gearbox really knows that it’s doing.
The shifts are smooth, sharp and well timed, and while it can be a little fiddly with transmission hesitation at low speeds, once you learn that you simply can’t mash the throttle on take-off, it is entirely manageable. It just means that you may decide to wait for a bigger gap in the traffic in the Golf than you would in the other two.
At speed the Golf builds pace calmly and in a measured manner, without the thrumminess or raucous roaring that comes from under the bonnets of the other two cars here. It is strong in the mid range and while there are still hints of hesitation upon throttle application, it is easy to accustom yourself to.
As for fuel, the claimed consumption for all three proved unachievable on test. The Hyundai claims 6.0 litres per 100 kilometres, and over a mix of driving we used 8.8L/100km. The Mazda claims 6.1L/100km, and we saw 8.6L/100km. The VW claims the lowest fuel use here at 5.4L/100km, though it managed to equal the Mazda at 8.6L/100km. It’s the only one here with a thirst for premium (95-octane) fuel, too.
That said, over a more spirited section of driving, we saw 12.3L/100km from the Hyundai, 11.3L/100km from the Mazda and just 9.5L/100km for the VW…
We drove around town, on highways and on quiet, twisty, bumpy back roads, and there was one car here that proved to be the pick of all three judges: the VW, again!
It was described as being “beautifully settled even on wet and slippery and bumpy twisty roads”, with “highly disciplined body control” and a “softly sprung” chassis that maintained its composure beautifully.
Indeed, over some torturous undulations the Golf dispatched the bumps without issue, while over a series of repetitious bumps the VW had the best measured ride compliance. It coped better with the rough sections of road and the sharp edges out of town, while around town it was equally well sorted.
It offered the most consistent steering, too, with nice weight and good resistance as the driver went from corner to corner. And not once did it step out of line despite the greasy conditions, undoubtedly helped by the brand’s electronic diff lock system that helps apportion power to the wheel that needs it most.
From the backseat, our resident bandit said the Golf offered “excellent ride comfort with bumps large and small absorbed nicely, and excellent rebound after big bumps – this car settles really quickly after a bumpy ride”.
It wasn’t all peachy for the Golf, though, with some axle tramp – where the front wheels bob up and down in the search of traction under hard throttle – noticeable in the wet, and some wheelspin in the dry. But, as we said earlier, just drive it more gently from a standstill… not so good for the 225/45 Pirelli Cinturato tyres!
The next best in terms of road manners was the Mazda 3, which offered an involving experience from the driver’s seat.
Its pointy steering had a lot to do with that – it’s the sort of thing that inspires confidence as soon as you’re buckled up.
It is quick when you’re cruising around town, but we found it to be a little inconsistent through sharper corners, particularly when changing direction quickly. Further, we noticed plenty of kickback through the steering wheel over mid-corner bumps, which one judge described as “rubbish”.
But it made up for that with a fine ride on its bigger wheel package, and the grip from its Dunlop SP Sport Maxx TT 215/45 rubber was adequate. The suspension was judged to be “firm but not jittery”, and “decent over sharp bumps despite being initially sharp”, no matter whether you’re driving around town or on the open road.
And while it may not have been jittery, potholes saw the brittle front end crash down in an unsophisticated manner. The Mazda’s brakes didn’t like being pushed hard, either, but they were better than the i30’s in that regard – the Golf’s brakes had no complaints whatsoever.
And from the back seat? Our judge said “the Mazda had the most body roll but wasn’t too sharp over bumps”, though it had the “noisiest cabin thanks to road noise”.
The least impressive of the three cars tested here was the Hyundai – not necessarily because of its suspension or its steering, but its tyres.
The Nexen Roadian 581 tyres, in 225/45 size, simply sucked on the surface we were on. There was a lack of grip in the twisty stuff, to the point where one judged used the simile of “like wrestling a greasy snake”.
Tyres aside, the steering of the i30 wasn’t quite as accurate as the other two cars. It has the multi-mode steering system – with a light Comfort, heavy Sport and, er, normal Normal mode – but none of them were perfect. Our judges found the Comfort mode allowed the best level of engagement, with the other modes feeling dull and “squishy”.
The i30 is the only car here with a torsion beam rear suspension setup, and the ride was judged to be “much firmer than the Golf”, as the suspension transmitted plenty of bumps and corrugations into the cabin – more than the other two, certainly.
And from the second row: “There’s more road noise and vibrations than the VW, and it offers less discipline over big undulations – it didn't settle after one compression and extension, rather it pogoed”.
One judge summarised the road manners of these three as such: “The Golf is better in every way than other two; the Mazda, though, is slightly better than i30 due to its better responsiveness”. The entire crew concurred.
After fighting out equipment, interiors, driving and drivetrains, there’s one consideration that could push buyers over the line, one way or another: ownership.
The Hyundai argues a pretty strong case straight off the bat here, with the longest warranty program – five years/unlimited kilometres. It also has a lifetime capped-price servicing program, with maintenance due every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first. And the average cost over, say, six years, works out at just $285 per visit. Further costs may include cabin air filters and brake fluid.
If you like the idea of pre-paying for your maintenance, Hyundai offers buyers the option of paying ahead for three, four or five years of servicing, and it can be paid monthly to help dull the pain, too.
The Mazda requires the most regular maintenance of these three, with visits required every 12 months or 10,000km – so it may be a disadvantage if you do a lot of mileage. The average cost per visit works out to be about $312 over a five-year period, before you include additional bits such as the brake fluid (every two years or 40,000km) cabin air filter (every 40,000km) and engine oil.
The Mazda has a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.
The Volkswagen also has a capped-price service plan, which spans six years or 90,000km. Maintenance is due every 12 months or 15,000km, and the average minimum cost per visit is $397 over that period. Additional cost items such as brake fluid and a pollen filter are needed every two years.
The Vee-Dub’s warranty program is three years/unlimited kilometres.
If you’re in it for the long run, you can’t ignore the Hyundai i30 SR Premium. That ownership program is the best here, and we can understand why you’d put it on your shopping list. It’s the sort of car we recommend to people all the time based on the ownership aspect alone.
But in this company the i30 falls short in a few ways. While it has plenty of equipment and bling bits, it can’t match the others for safety, and its tyres negate the drive experience somewhat, too.
The Mazda 3 SP25 Astina, while killing the others for standard-fit safety gear, comes second in this test.
It is better than it was previously, but still can’t match the class-leaders for interior space, drivetrain precision or on-road refinement. It is, however, commendably priced and equipped.
That leaves the Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Highline on top of the small car pile. We admit it isn’t as fresh as it once was, and while it is decently equipped, to get one with all the fruit the Mazda has would see it pushing above its Japanese compatriot’s price tag.
But – and it’s a big but – the Golf feels the most precisely engineered, the most thoughtful, and the most premium of these three as a result.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn (in the warehouse) and Glen Sullivan (driving shots).