Chances are, you know someone who owns a Mazda 3. Now into its third generation (not including the 323 before it), the compact hatch and sedan are big drivers of the brand’s success Down Under.
In an attempt to keep that success rolling, Mazda recently gave the car a subtle MY2018 update. Gone is the Neo badge, replaced by the Neo Sport moniker you see here. Coupled with a proper MZD Connect infotainment system, what has the mild model-year update done to the entry-level sedan?
The current Mazda 3 has been around since 2014, although a facelift added a bit more sparkle to the exterior and cabin in 2016. In other words, there aren’t too many surprises to be had here, even after the MY18 upgrades aimed at keeping the car relevant against its newer rivals. Given we’ve been fans of the car since launch, that’s no bad thing.
Power comes from a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine making 114kW at 6000rpm and 200Nm at 4000rpm. A six-speed manual is available, but our tester was equipped with the optional six-speed automatic transmission.
As tested it’s a $23,490 proposition drive-away, matching dollar-for-dollar the manual Maxx sitting above it in the range. Although it has previously accounted for as little as 20 per cent of model line sales, Mazda has said it expects the Neo to account for more than a third of all Mazda 3 sales as the current car heads for retirement.
Thanks to the 2018 update, you get plenty of gear for that money. Gone is the screen-free base radio unit previously offered and replaced by a 7.0-inch MZD Connect system packing digital radio, a rear-view camera and six speakers – up from four.
You do miss out on some equipment compared to the Maxx Sport, though. Whereas the base model still has a manual handbrake and manual air-conditioning, the more expensive model runs with dual-zone climate control and an electric parking brake. The modern park brake also brings a new centre console design, if that's the sort of thing you're into.
The higher-grade car also gains blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross traffic alerts and rear auto-emergency braking.
Mazda won't be giving more modern class-leaders any nightmares with the design, but it's well put together and handsome, even today. The only low point is the cheap-feeling plastic steering wheel, which has the same basic design and button layout as the more expensive leather, but provides a constant reminder you bought the base-spec car.
The instrument binnacle is still attractive, although the large central speedo and twin monochromatic displays are starting to look a bit tired compared to the latest offerings, largely because there's no digital speed readout option.
It's a new addition to the Neo Sport, but the MZD Connect infotainment system has been around for a while now. It's still very good, with a BMW-aping rotary controller and shortcut buttons on the centre console to back its touchscreen capability, although a processor bump wouldn't go astray.
It's slow to start up, and occasionally gets laggy if you ask too much of it. It's also missing Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, something that'll be rectified when Mazda finally rolls smartphone mirroring out across its range at some point late 2018 or early 2019.
Given what it's replacing – a black-and-white radio unit with a tiny screen and no room for a reversing camera – the system is a huge improvement, and likely to draw more buyers to the entry-level Mazda 3.
Beyond the technology, the manually adjusted driver's seat is comfortable for long stints on the road, and there's plenty of head room for taller drivers up front. Rear leg room is acceptable, as is head room, while there's 408L of boot space.
As for the drive? It's still a Mazda 3, which once again is a good thing. The engine isn't the world's most refined unit – it lacks the mid-range punch of a turbocharged Volkswagen Group four-cylinder mill – but it makes a pretty partner for the six-speed automatic transmission, going unobtrusively about its work at city speeds.
When you come to a stop, the i-Stop system is quick to kill the engine when you apply a bit of excess brake pressure, although it's not quite as smooth as Volkswagen Group products on restart.
It's relatively smooth and punchy up to 60km/h, although frequent highway drivers might want to opt for the 2.5-litre engine offered in the SP25. The 2.0-litre gets a little thrashy as you push toward redline, but it's never outright unpleasant. It did prove efficient: in a week of mostly city driving, with one long highway run, it averaged 7.1L/100km.
Mazda claims 5.8L/100km, for reference. We've previously seen as high as 9.0L/100km in testing, so the highway drive clearly made a difference.
Flipping into Sport Mode encourages the gearbox to hold a lower ratio, but you're better served shuffling ratios yourself if vigorous driving is what you're into. There are no paddles, but the gearstick works in the correct way: pull back to shift up, push forward to change down.
It's an effective way to get the car in its sweet spot before overtaking, and no more strenuous than flipping some paddles. It's also far less strenuous than, you know, shifting gears yourself. Australians are allergic to that anyway.
In fact, it's not the engine that holds the Mazda 3 back at highway speeds, it's the road noise. This isn't the first review to mention NVH in a Mazda, and it won't be the last, but here goes: the amount of tyre roar in the cabin is acceptable up to about 80km/h, and bearable on smooth roads beyond that point.
But if the roads aren't smooth – if they're coarse chip, like most semi-rural roads in Australia – you'll need to crank up the radio to drown the drone, and keep a close ear on what your passenger is saying.
On a trip down Victoria's surf coast, my girlfriend (herself a previous-generation Mazda 3 sedan owner) noted the road roar without prompting.
Pushing beyond the road noise, the Mazda 3 is a great steer on twisty country roads. The steering is direct off-centre, and the front end is more than capable of keeping pace, making the car feel light, like it's up on its toes. Mazda might not peddle the Zoom-Zoom taglinein the same way it used to, but there's more than a hint lurking in the car's chassis.
As a package, then, the Mazda 3 is still an excellent compact car. It's handsome, practical, fun to drive and – by all reports – reliable, although we'd love to see a five-year (or even seven-year) warranty replace the current three-year offering.
But it doesn't make quite as much sense in Neo Sport trim as the slightly more expensive Maxx Sport. You'll pay $2000 more upfront, but that extra coin brings a raft of useful features. Things like the leather steering wheel, electric park brake and dual-zone climate control are nice, while blind-spot monitoring, rear auto-emergency braking and cross-traffic alerts could save some serious headaches.
There's nothing strictly wrong with the Neo Sport, don't get us wrong, but the jump to Maxx Sport is definitely money well spent.