While its higher-specified siblings get most of the plaudits, the entry grade Mazda 3 Neo variant has long been the real hero in the company’s top-selling model range.
Over the current Mazda 3’s life cycle, it has accounted for 35 per cent of all sales. And when you consider that the Mazda small car is one of Australia’s top-five-selling cars (and sometimes outright first), this makes it very significant indeed.
As we’ve covered here, the Mazda 3 scored a significant range-wide update recently, bringing more equipment across the board and claimed dynamic and packaging improvements to boot. The base Neo was no exception.
Importantly, and unlike its five higher-specified siblings (Maxx, Touring, SP25, SP25 GT and SP25 Astina), the Mazda 3 Neo’s price remains as before — $20,490 plus on-road costs, or $22,490 with the six-speed automatic gearbox as we’re testing here.
As such, the Neo’s closest rivals in the price-intensive bottom end of the small car market the Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport ($22,790 list) and Hyundai i30 Active ($23,750 list, but a car that is regularly sold at $19,990/$20,990 drive-away with auto — a huge saving).
Standard equipment is relatively basic, including manual air conditioning, cruise control, push-button start, rear parking sensors, cloth seats, Bluetooth/USB connectivity and steering wheel audio controls.
We’d also point out that the Mazda 3 Neo has two stylistic elements that some rivals do not — 16-inch alloy wheels instead of steel wheels with hubcaps, and free metallic and mica paint (except for the premium Soul Red and new Machine Gun Grey, both a very reasonable $250 extra).
Additionally, the updated MY16 car commendably gets low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB), a drive selection switch with transmission sports mode, a button to electrically tuck in the side mirrors, and Mazda’s new G-Vectoring chassis management system that improves body control.
The fitment of AEB across all Mazda 3 variants is a move worthy of applause, and sets the standard at the high-volume end of the small car market. Well done.
The Neo’s cabin is austere. While all other variants get a leather-trimmed steering wheel, this version has one made of urethane. And while other variants sport a floating tablet screen with BMW-style rotary dial, the Neo has a black and white display with buttons.
The four-speaker audio system looks decidedly old school in the modern era, especially when the base Corolla, Golf and i30 — and base versions of light cars such as the Honda Jazz and many others — get modern touchscreens as standard fare. This is amplified by the fact that the i30 and Golf also get Apple CarPlay.
The basic system also means no rear-view camera, which is increasingly a standard feature in rivals. You can fit one in the rear-view mirror, but Mazda will charge you a $650 accessory and fitment price. This isn’t good enough any more.
Our advice — upgrade to the Mazda 3 Maxx for $2400 more, which gets you the 7.0-inch tablet screen with MZD Connect, a camera, DAB+ digital radio, satellite navigation and blind-spot monitoring (among other features) as standard. It’s worth the coin if you can spare it.
Beyond this, though, the cabin has a number of likeable elements. The material quality is excellent, as is the driving position. The design is also much more cohesive than many rivals, despite the dearth of modern infotainment.
There are also better door pockets than before, though the Neo doesn’t get the electric park brake and sliding storage area, nor the cool rooftop sunglasses-holder, found on more up-spec Mazda 3 derivatives.
Rear seat space is decent, with sufficient space for two adults and two ISOFIX anchors and top-tethers for child seats. Legroom and headroom is similar to the i30/Golf/Focus, though there are smallish side windows and there’s no flip-down central armrest with cupholders like you get on top-spec versions.
Cargo space is a relatively small 308 litres (378L for the i30, 360L for the Corolla, 380L for the Golf), expanding when you flip the back seats 60:40. Under the floor is only a space-saving spare wheel.
In our view, the Mazda 3 Neo’s cabin is too much of a step down from the Maxx unless your budget is extremely stretched. It’s a base car and in some ways feels it, despite the commendable fitment of AEB.
But what about behind the wheel? The Mazda has long been so popular based on the company’s image as a maker of fun and sporty cars that add some colour to a segment dominated by shades of grey.
There are no changes under the bonnet. Retained is a 2.0-litre high-compression SkyActiv naturally aspirated petrol unit with 114kW and 200Nm. These are competitive figures that outstrip some rivals, and in general urban driving the Mazda feels relatively responsive and sprightly off the mark.
Claimed fuel economy of 5.8 litres per 100km is good, while our real world figures in the 8s are on par for the segment. The six-speed auto is also an excellent unit, while the new sports button (also used in the Mazda 2) gives it the ability to downshift aggressively ahead of corners in more challenging driving. Win.
Downsides are the fact that peak torque arrives at 4000rpm and peak power at 6000rpm, meaning it needs to be carrying a lot of revs to show you much pep, which in turn hurts refinement. Additionally, the engine remains quite loud on cold start, with a distinctive and slightly tinny idle.
At the end of the day, it’s an unspectacular engine that will serve most buyers just fine. For another $5200, you can get yourself the better equipped Mazda 3 SP25 auto with a larger 2.5-litre engine with 138kW/250Nm, which is more suited to people wanting some poke.
As ever, the Mazda 3 remains one of the more fun cars to punt around a twisting road. It feels light and nimble, while the turn-in is sharp and the steering is light but quite direct, though some rack rattle can be elicited over mid-corner hits. Additionally, the body control is good for the class.
Fitted to all Mazda 3 variants is the new G-Vectoring system that detects steering inputs and uses that resulting data to cut torque to the wheels. That cut then shifts the weight ever so slightly forward over the front wheels, which has the same effect as lifting off the throttle as you might do on a racetrack.
The difference is subtle but noticeable. On something like a slalom or a sequence of tight turns you’ll keep a neater line, while a fast and open bend can be taken fast with less fear of tyre squeal and a diminution of grip.
Mazda also claims to have improved the straight-line stability, tyre grip and ride comfort by also tweaking the springs, dampers and stabilisers. The urban ride remains decent for the class, erring towards being firm but rarely brittle or uncomfortable.
The company also says it has added insulation to improve noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels over the old car, but we can say that tyre roar remains more noticeable on the Mazda than the Golf and some others. Will it bother you? Potentially. In isolation it’s fine, it’s only when you drive it back-to-back that you’ll notice.
From an ownership perspective, all Mazdas get a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, while roadside assistance can be had for an annual fee from $68.10. Lifetime capped price servicing covers each dealer visit and intervals of 12 months/10,000km, with most of your services costing (at current rates) either $297 or $324.
This means the warranty is shorter in years than the Hyundai i30 or Kia Cerato, the roadside assist more expensive than most rivals, and the early term servicing pricier than the Corolla, which has the same kilometre intervals (though requires a visit every six months). However, Mazda dealers regularly boast industry leading satisfaction ratings in surveys.
While still good, the Neo is probably the weak point of the Mazda 3 range. We commend the addition of G-Vectoring and AEB, and find the sprightly little car much more interesting than a base Corolla or i30, but you can’t escape the fact that the Mazda 3 Maxx is by far the better buy if you can stretch.
Click the Photos tab for all images by Sam Venn and Glen Sullivan.