The top-spec Mazda 3 has just about everything you could want in a small car, but is it worth similar money to an Audi A3?
The Mazda 3 has been a sales favourite for quite some time – you may even have owned one yourself or know someone who does. However, at the pointy end of the range, the Japanese small car is priced rather close to its premium rivals – question is, is it worth the money?
Enter the 2018 Mazda 3 SP25 Astina priced from $33,490 before on-road costs. Our hatchback tester is optioned with the six-speed automatic, bringing the as-tested ticket to $35,490 plus on-roads.
The Sonic Silver metallic paint is a no-cost option, with the only extra-cost item available being the beautiful Soul Red Crystal, which commands a measly $300 premium.
At this price point, the Mazda isn't just competing with natural rivals like the Hyundai i30 Premium (from $34,490) and Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Highline (from $34,990), but also the Audi A3 1.0 TFSI (from $36,200) and the soon-to-be replaced Mercedes-Benz A180 ($38,700).
Where the Mazda trumps European rivals is the level of standard specification. A recent 2018 update may not have brought anything new for the higher-spec SP25 grades, though standard inclusions are still plentiful.
Equipment highlights for the Astina include adaptive LED headlights, autonomous emergency braking (4–80km/h forward, 2–8km/h reverse), dark-finish 18-inch alloy wheels, 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat with memory, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, and an electric sunroof.
That's on top of features carried over from lower grades, such as keyless entry with push-button start, leather trim, automatic headlights and wipers, heated front seats, a head-up display, nine-speaker Bose audio system, power-folding heated side mirrors, LED daytime-running lights and fog-lights, traffic sign recognition, and a 7.0-inch MZD Connect infotainment system with satellite navigation and DAB+ digital radio.
Rounding out the equipment list are steering-mounted paddle-shifters, dual-zone climate control, rear spoiler, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, auto high-beam, rear parking sensors and rear-view camera, along with an electric park brake.
However, there's still no sign of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone mirroring, front parking sensors, or semi-autonomous parking systems. That may sound like nitpicking, but it's stuff competitors offer as standard or optionally.
All Mazda 3 variants come equipped with six airbags and ISOFIX child seat mounts in the outboard rear seats. The range wears a five-star ANCAP safety rating, though the tests were conducted in 2016.
The overall design of the Mazda 3, meanwhile, has aged rather well – at least in this reviewer's opinion – considering it hasn't received a major design overhaul since the current-gen’ version launched in 2014.
Our tester's silver paint looks sleek and goes well with the dark-painted 18-inch alloys, while the LED headlights and aggressive front fascia lend a classy and aggressive look.
At the rear, the hatchback gets a fastback-style tailgate and subtle roof spoiler, while it also uniquely scores exposed dual tailpipes compared to the sedan's hidden units.
But it's what's on the inside that counts, right? Good thing, then, that one of the Mazda 3's strong points is its well-finished and attractive cabin.
Up front, the driver gets a leather multi-function steering wheel borrowed from the MX-5 sports car with paddle-shifters, and the instrument cluster is clean and uncluttered with a pair of digital displays positioned each side of the central tacho and speedometer dial – which looks like a Japanese sports watch.
Soft-touch materials adorn the dash and door tops, while soft-touch materials are used for the central armrest and door inserts, along with leather-look trim lining the centre tunnel.
Our tester was optioned with the black interior, which is contrasted with brown leatherette surfaces in the doors and centre tunnel. For this reviewer, the uniqueness and allure of the no-cost option Pure White leather would further lift the ambience, though you'd probably need wet wipes handy every time you or a passenger wear blue or black jeans.
When optioned with the dark interior, the Astina looks no different to any other Mazda 3 with leather trim either, which is another reason to opt for the white leather.
All the buttons and dials look and feel upmarket, though, and everything is ergonomically laid out. The fact most Mazdas are set out the same means if you're coming from a Mazda 2 or CX-5, it feels like home.
It's a comfortable and classy place to be, though the headliner isn't the nice textile kind you might find in a Golf, and the trim insert that spans the width of the dashboard is finished in this metallic grey paint – surely a gloss-black insert (which featured in the pre-facelift version) or shiny metal-like finish from the door handles would be a better fit.
Those who carry larger passengers as well may not be too impressed with the second row, either. Head and leg room are only average for the class, while there are no rear air vents or power outlets. It's enough for two average-sized adults in most scenarios, and kids with child seats will be fine back there, though it's no standout in terms of practicality.
The rising window line also means outward visibility in the rear isn't great for shorter passengers like kids, and the thick C-pillar creates a blind spot when reversing – luckily rear cross-traffic alert is standard.
That theme continues to the luggage area, which measures just 308L for the hatchback, and Mazda neglects to quote a figure with the second row folded. With the second row in place, the Mazda offers less space than some vehicles from the class below, such as the Volkswagen Polo (351L), though opting for the sedan body increases capacity to a more usable 408L.
However, the space itself is nice and square, and the rear seats fold almost completely flat – meaning trips to Ikea should be no issue provided what you're carrying isn't too long. Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare wheel.
One area where the Mazda has always impressed is its on-road manners, and the Astina generally upholds that reputation.
Power in all SP25 grades comes from a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four making 138kW of power at 5700rpm and 250Nm of torque at 3250rpm. In the case of our tester, drive is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. For $2000 less, you can have a six-speed manual.
Despite the healthy outputs, the naturally aspirated 3 lacks the low-down torque surge we've become accustomed to from turbocharged rivals. However, the 2.5-litre petrol is a willing and free-revving unit that is by no means sluggish.
Power delivery is smooth and linear, aided by the torque-converter automatic that provides slick shifts. There's no low-speed hesitation or jerkiness here, and Mazda's stop/start technology is one of the quickest and smoothest in the business.
In saying that, the motor can get a little noisy under hard acceleration, and getting up to freeway speeds quickly requires a decent stab at the accelerator pedal.
For more spirited driving, you can flick the switch next to the shifter for 'Sport' mode, which sharpens throttle response and holds gears when in 'Drive'. Using the steering-mounted paddle-shifters further enhances the sporty feel.
We'd argue, though, the six-speed manual is far more engaging to drive and helps to get the most out of the naturally aspirated engine. Mazda does great stick-shifters, and the 3 is one of the few in the segment that offers a manual across all grades.
The 3's steering is also a highlight. It's weighted on the lighter side, but there's still good feedback through the wheel. It's beautifully direct as well, meaning you can take corners with confidence, while navigating city streets and tight car parks is a breeze.
Another strong point is the ride quality. Despite not having a local suspension tuning program, and the fact it is riding on 18-inch wheels and low-profile rubber, the Astina finds a wonderful balance of comfort and dynamics.
Speed humps and potholes are dealt with a composure and refinement normally associated with luxury sedans, though it still sits nicely through corners without wallowing about.
However, the 3 still lacks the insulation from road noise compared to class benchmarks like the Golf. It's not the worst in the segment, though tyre roar is noticeable over coarser surfaces.
Sure, turning up the volume on the solid Bose audio system can be considered an easy fix, but it's a shame Mazda hasn't been able to stamp out a long-running weakness of the 3. Wind noise, on the other hand, is kept to a relative minimum.
Fuel use was adequate during our time with the car. Over around 500km of mixed driving favouring urban environments and peak-hour traffic, the Astina returned an indicated 9.1L/100km. That's 3.0L/100km up on Mazda's official combined figure, but it's a respectable effort from a naturally aspirated engine that's one of the largest in the class.
It's worth mentioning that the 3 is happy on regular 91RON unleaded, whereas rivals with turbocharged engines generally ask for at least 95RON.
From an ownership perspective, Mazda's three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty doesn't stand out against brands with five and seven years' cover. However, the Japanese brand's dealer network is renowned for customer service, while the vehicles themselves have a strong reputation of reliability.
There is a capped-price servicing program, too. Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 10,000km (whichever comes first). For the first five visits, the SP25 Astina will set you back $308, $336, $308, $336 and $308 respectively. That means for the first five years or 50,000km, you're looking at $1596 in servicing costs.
Additionally, brake fluid needs to be replaced every 40,000km or 24 months ($65), while the cabin air filter change every 40,000km will add another $69 to the bill.
If you're doing 15,000km and over per year, the Mazda won't be the most affordable small car to service – considering numerous competitors offer 15,000km service intervals.
All told, the Mazda 3 continues to be a solid option in the small car class, and it's clear why the Japanese hatchback and sedan have proven so popular with Australians.
In SP25 Astina trim, the 3 offers a quality cabin, fun-to-drive factor, a comfortable ride, and just about every equipment item you could ask for. However, it can't match the refinement of certain rivals on the open road, and in hatchback guise it lacks the practicality of vehicles even in the class below.
It also isn't as attractive from a value perspective either, with a list price that is in the ballpark of entry-level premium small cars, while its naturally aspirated engine lacks the low-down urge and overall refinement of torquey turbocharged competitors.
We'd argue the SP25 GT (from $29,990) is a better value proposition, and gets you most of the available features in the Mazda 3 range without having to pay top dollar.
If you really want the Astina, though, opting for the six-speed manual saves you two grand and also gets you a more engaging drive – provided you don't mind changing gears yourself.
Furthermore, the next-generation Mazda 3 should be revealed before the year's end, bringing the company's torquier new SkyActiv-X compression-ignition engines, along with a likely lift in cabin refinement, NVH, and technology.