If you’re looking for the best-equipped, most prestigious Mazda 3 model on sale, this is it: the 2016 Mazda 3 SP25 Astina.
As part of the 2016 Mazda 3 update, this model saw some comprehensive upgrades to its equipment list, including plenty of safety equipment that some of its key rivals – such as the Hyundai i30 and Volkswagen Golf – don’t have standard.
It has autonomous emergency braking (AEB) – which is standard across the model range, even in the base model Neo from $20,490 – 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. These are items that aren’t standard in some cars three times the price.
Speaking of the cost, this automatic version comes in at $35,490 plus on-roads whether you choose the sedan or the hatch, and along with the safety kit mentioned above you also get lane departure warning and lane keeping assistance, as well as a rear-view camera, and front and rear parking sensors. There’s even a head-up display with traffic sign illustrations.
The interior is trimmed in leather, the front seats are heated, and the driver’s side has electric adjustment with memory settings. There’s dual-zone climate control, but no rear air-vents. There’s a sunroof if you want to let some fresh air in, but only the driver gets auto up/down window controls.
As for connectivity, the Mazda 3 has Bluetooth phone and audio streaming with dual USBs and an auxiliary jack. Unlike some rivals, it misses out on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but there’s DAB+ digital radio reception and satellite navigation with live traffic updates. Audiophiles may not like that the CD player has been deleted as part of the update, but it also has internet radio integration with Stitcher, Pandora and Aha apps.
The SP25 Astina has auto on/off LED headlights and LED daytime running lights, 18-inch alloy wheels and a space-saver spare.
So it’s pretty well priced and decently equipped – you can see how it fits in to the range by checking out our 2016 Mazda 3 Range Review – but does it feel like it’s worth that much inside and on the road?
Well, that head-up display isn’t the most premium looking thing: the fact it displays on a mini plastic screen rather than onto the windscreen means it is a bit naff looking.
Still, the Mazda’s MZD Connect system with 7.0-inch screen (touch-capacitive at standstill) and 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. But the system is slow to load: if you start the car and select reverse when you’re in a hurry, the camera takes a second or two to boot up, and likewise if you needed to get the navigation up smartly it can delay you.
As for other elements of the presentation of the top-spec Mazda 3, the finishes, materials and ambience of the cabin is up there with the best for this kind of money.
It has nice bits like soft lining that runs alongside the transmission tunnel – plush – and the leather trim and stitching is good throughout, too. But we aren’t so sure about the mass of piano black around the window buttons, which get grubby easily.
The Mazda 3 has never been up there with the best in class in terms of spatial packaging, lacking loose item storage compared to its rivals. It’s better as a result of the recent update, with bigger door pockets all around, but it still lacks loose item storage up front: you may struggle to fit your phone and wallet if your cup-holders are full.
Its back seat space isn’t great either: the hatchback’s high and rising beltline could leave little occupants unhappy with the view. It lacks room for adults, too, with tight knee-room and headroom. And you can’t use the rear lights for reading – they only come on when you open the door.
And the update didn’t address the shortcoming of the Mazda 3 hatch’s boot space, which at 308 litres is pretty tiny. The sedan, if that’s more your thing, has 408L.
At the other end of the car is a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine (hence the SP25 name), which is big for a car of this size. Many rivals are downsizing with small displacement turbocharged engines, but not Mazda.
The SP25 produces a class-competitive 138kW of power (at 5700rpm) and 250Nm of torque (at 3250rpm). It has a six-speed automatic gearbox, but you can get a six-speed manual if you prefer.
The nature of the Mazda’s engine is that you need to push it hard to get the most out of it, and the best way to do that is engage the transmission’s Sport mode. That allows the powertrain to rev more freely, even blipping on downshifts. It’s quite aggressive when kicking down in Sport mode, and while the engine has good poke and instant response, it sounds a bit tinny and needs revs.
The engine is smooth enough in terms of the progress, but the sound it makes could be grating if you enjoy exploring the upper reaches of the rev range.
All that time spent high in the rev range makes for fuel consumption above the claimed average of 6.1 litres per 100 kilometres: we saw 8.6L/100km over a mix of highway, back road and urban driving.
But the plus is that the Mazda offers an involving experience from the driver’s seat, with pointy steering inspiring confidence at the tiller. The response is quick when you’re cruising around town, despite being a little inconsistent through sharper corners in terms of its response, particularly when changing direction quickly. Further, we noticed plenty of kickback through the steering wheel over mid-corner bumps.
But it made up for that with a fine ride and good grip from its Dunlop SP Sport Maxx TT 215/45/18 tyres. The suspension was firm but not jittery, and despite being initially sharp over bumps it settled nicely, no matter whether you’re driving around town or on the open road.
That said, potholes made the Mazda feel a touch brittle at the front end, with it crashing down in an unsophisticated way. The Mazda’s brakes didn’t like being pushed hard, either.
It’s fair to say we expected a little more of this car in terms of its dynamics, then – though it was mostly inoffensive around town, which is where the majority of buyers will likely spend most of their time…
As for ownership credentials, the Mazda 3 requires visits to the dealer every 12 months or 10,000km – which could be annoying if you do a lot of distance. 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 – fine, but not up there with the best in class.
Indeed, that’s how we came away feeling after spending some time in the 2016 Mazda 3 SP25 Astina – it's a good car, undoubtedly, and if you’ve got your heart set on one then we would think you could buy it without remorse.
But as it stands, there are better small cars out there – the Volkswagen Golf remains our pick, and even a high-spec Peugeot 308 could pip this Mazda for specialness.
Our pick of the range remains the SP25, which is a damn sight cheaper than this car yet still gets most of the good stuff you’d want.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn.