You’ve made up your mind. You want a Mazda 3, and that’s that. But which Mazda 3 is the right one for you?
With six different model variants to choose from, not to mention manual and automatic transmissions and two different bodystyles, there are plenty of options for buyers.
That’s where these six cars come in – CarAdvice is here to help you make the right choice, with our 2016 Mazda 3 Range Review. So let’s find the sweet spot.
We tried to keep things relatively simple, with all six versions of the Mazda 3 represented, from the base model Neo up to the top-spec SP25 Astina.
We opted specifically for the hatchback, which accounts for the majority of Mazda 3 sales (58 per cent), and we’ve gone for the six-speed automatic versions of each of these variants because hey, the six-speed manual buyer base is pretty small (16 per cent).
The three on the left are the more affordable models, and all three of them have a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine with 114kW of power and 200Nm of torque. The three on the right have the more powerful 2.5-litre engine (with 138kW and 250Nm).
Before we compare driving notes, let’s run through the cars and what they’ve got (or are missing).
Mazda 3 Neo
Pricing before on-road costs: $20,490 manual, $22,490 automatic
Three key features:
16-inch alloy wheels
Bluetooth phone and audio streaming
Forward collision alert with low-speed autonomous emergency braking
It wasn’t long ago that the first car in this class with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) as standard arrived on the scene – the Skoda Octavia. And now, the entire Mazda 3 range has it, though it was optionally available previously. It’s designed to stop you rear-ending the car in front when you’re not paying attention.
The alloy wheels, which not every entry-level small car gets, also add some appeal.
There’s no sexy colour media screen, and that means you miss out on the excellent MZD Connect media interface. You don’t get a rear-view camera either – it is optional though, costing $650 fitted. However, rear parking sensors are standard.
You get cloth trim, a plastic steering wheel and a plastic shifter, and as a result it looks and feels like a base model inside. As with all Mazda 3 models, the rear seat space is on the tight side for leg and headroom, and trying to fit three adults across the back will be tight. The boot is smaller than most rivals, too, at 308 litres (408L for the sedan).
Mazda 3 Maxx
Pricing before on-road costs: $22,890 manual, $24,890 automatic
Three key features:
7.0-inch media screen with MZD Connect and satellite navigation
Driver assist safety systems
The only difference on the outside is LED fog lights. That’s it – but it’s what’s inside that counts with the Maxx, because there’s a bunch of safety kit that this car gets that the base model misses out on.
The big items include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and while the base model has low-speed AEB, the difference in this spec is that it also works when you’re reversing. That’s right – when you reverse, and it thinks you won’t stop in time, it may apply the brakes for you. And that’s made even better by the fact this model has a rear-view camera.
It shows up in that nice dash-top screen which is controlled both by touch (when stationary) and by the rotary dial controller. It has DAB+ digital radio reception, too.
There’s still cloth trim on the seats, but there are other nice touches like a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearknob, and it also scores paddle-shifters, and an auto-dimming rear mirror.
So, you get quite a lot more for just $2400.
Mazda 3 Touring
Pricing before on-road costs: $25,290 manual, $27,290 automatic
Three key features:
Automatic headlights and wipers
Leather seat trim
Dual-zone climate control
This is the Touring? This one? Again, there’s not much to visually differentiate this Touring model from the versions below it. But you do get auto-folding side mirrors, and auto headlights and wipers: but can you tell by looking at it? Nope.
But for your $2400 premium over the model below this, the Touring, brings some comfort and convenience items.
The cloth seat coverings make way for leather trim, and you also get dual-zone climate control and a space-saving electric park brake.
The driver also gets lumbar adjustment, and both seats come with illuminated vanity mirrors and there’s a sunglasses holster.
On the road, here’s how the 3 with 2.0-litre drives. (Note: there are no drivetrain or chassis differences, only a 12-kilogram weight variance due to equipment inclusions – the lightest auto hatch weighs 1296kg, the heaviest 1308kg).
Pictured: Mazda 3 Maxx
Mazda has added a new torque vectoring system that’s supposed to make it feel more agile in corners, but really, it’s almost imperceptible.
What you can notice is that the suspension and steering has been tweaked to make it a little easier to live with – less sharp, essentially – and it is a little softer than the pre-facelift version. It rides decently, the steering is pretty quick, and it holds a nice line through corners.
Pictured: Mazda 3 Neo
As for noise insulation, Mazda doesn’t have the best reputation for quiet cars, and this isn’t exactly quiet, despite the brand claiming it did some work in that area. There’s plenty of engine noise when you’re revving it – and you need to, if you want to get anywhere on time – and road noise is pretty evident, particularly on coarse-chip roads.
The 2.0-litre engine is smooth enough, but it’s not the gruntiest thing, particularly when you’re tootling about town under light throttle. The gearbox is good, shifting quickly when required despite a tendency to always go for the highest gear possible to help save fuel.
On that topic, the Mazda 3 range with the 2.0-litre engine claims usage of between 5.7 and 5.9 litres per 100 kilometres, which is just a touch below what the bigger 2.5-litre engine claims (6.0-6.5L/100km).
We’ll get to how that one drives soon…
Mazda 3 SP25
Pricing before on-road costs: $25,690 manual, $27,690 automatic
Three key features:
18-inch alloy wheels
Bigger engine with more power and torque
All variants with the bigger engine have 18-inch alloy wheels, which certainly set these versions apart from the cheaper examples in the car park.
That said, despite being $400 more than the Touring model, the SP25 misses out on some of the equipment of that smaller-engined flagship model.
You lose leather seats, and those illuminated vanity mirrors, and the sunglasses case. You don’t have lumbar support anymore, either.
The biggest equipment difference is that this has keyless entry, meaning you don’t have to get the key out to unlock it. All Mazda 3 variants still have push-button start.
Pictured: Mazda 3 SP25 Astina
And as soon as you push that button, you get that “that’s more like it!” feeling. There’s definitely more grunt, and it feels like the right engine for this size of car, even though there are plenty of small cars with much smaller four-cylinders. We’re talking about 25 per cent more push. And it’s even more noticeable when you hit the Sport mode trigger for the transmission.
That switch means the gearbox will hold gears longer and therefore allow the driver to get the most out of the engine. It’ll blip on the downshift, too, and the 2.5-litre – while still noisy – is a little more pleasant to listen to.
The bigger wheels and skinnier tyres means it is a bit firmer over bumps, but with the more powerful engine under the bonnet it’s definitely more fun in the driver’s seat.
For the CarAdvice crew who drove both the 2.0-litre and the 2.5, there was a consensus that all of us would choose the latter. We took this drive in the SP25 as indicative enough of the entire 2.5-litre model range, as there’s only 13kg difference between this version and the range-topping SP25 Astina (1328-1341kg for the auto hatches).
Indeed, this variant argues a strong case, but it is missing some nice bits that the Touring model has.
Let’s see what the next model up has in store.
Mazda 3 SP25 GT
Pricing before on-road costs: $29,990 manual, $31,990 automatic
Three key features:
LED headlights, tail-lights and daytime running lights
Heated leather electric seats
Colour head-up display
This is a pretty big price jump, $4300, but there’s quite a big list of additional goodies.
You get LED lighting up front and at the rear, which sets it apart from the model below from the outside. You also get a shark-fin antenna.
And on the inside, it’s quite a step up, too. You re-gain leather seats, which could be enough to get you over the line, and the driver’s seat has electric adjustment, too, while both fronts are heated.
There’s a nine-speaker Bose sound system and a couple of other cool things like traffic sign recognition in the sat-nav system (which shows up diagrammatically on the head-up display), and there’s a driver attention system to let you know if the car thinks you need a break.
Mazda SP25 Astina
Pricing before on-road costs: $33,490 manual, $35,490 automatic
Three key features:
Radar cruise control
You may have thought you got a lot of kit in the models below, but the flagship SP25 Astina has lots of fruit for an extra $3500 over the model below it.
Our test car had optional wheels, but the standard 18s get a different finish on the SP25 Astina, too. Also, you get adaptive LED headlights.
Inside, the driver gets memory settings for their seat and extra seat adjustment, but the passenger seat is still just a manual one, which isn’t great at this price point.
The driver also gets lane-keeping assistance, lane departure warning, and the AEB system steps up to a high-speed unit that works in conjunction with the adaptive cruise control. It can react at speeds up to 145km/h.
But at more than $35K for the auto model, it’s pushing the price envelope a bit for a small car.
For our very first Range Review, we found that the sweet spot of the 2016 Mazda 3 range is the fourth variant up, the SP25.
With its attractive pricing, that stronger 2.5-litre engine, and still plenty of equipment and safety aides, the SP25 is the one the CarAdvice crew rated the highest.
If you can’t stretch quite that far, our second choice would be the Mazda 3 Maxx, which is expected to account for a fair share of sales – and with good reason.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn and Glen Sullivan.