First, the new 2019 Mazda 3 must live up to its predecessor's mix of affordability, quality and driver-focused dynamics. Second, it has to raise that bar at least a notch, if not two, in a competitive market. And third, it has to tackle the new Corolla, established i30 and new Cerato, as well as segment frontrunner Golf, in what has become a serious battleground locally.
While the HiLux and Ranger sit brashly atop the Australian new-car sales chart, there’s no doubt small hatches – and indeed small sedans – have seen something of a resurgence as savvy city dwellers realise that bigger isn’t always better. As such, the new Mazda 3 is primed to make inroads if the specification – and price – is right.
Both hatch and sedan will be offered as expected, and I don’t generally buy into marketing guff, but for the record, Mazda states the hatch will be ‘emotive’ while the sedan will be ‘elegant’. Um, yeah, nah to use an Australianism most of us still don’t quite understand. If I were working in Mazda PR, I’d stick with the following: ‘The new Mazda 3 is an elegant restyle of a popular hatch and sedan range, and we think it’s more beautiful than the outgoing model’.
For mine, the sedan pips the hatch – just – in the styling stakes, but both look attractive, with a distinct lack of sharp edges and style lines, and a more flowing appearance than previous Mazda styling cues. Regardless, that’s a personal thing, and I’m positive you’ll let us know what you think in the comments section below. Does it look premium? I’d say yes, carrying on that tradition from recent models.
As James wrote in his news piece, the hatch looks a lot like the Kai concept, and the sedan looks a lot like the Vision Coupe concept. Which, in reality, is a good thing. Too often an awesome-looking concept is relegated to the annals of history and never seen in the flesh. The most obvious changes are external, and plonk a new Mazda 3 next to the older model, and you’ll notice the stark styling differences between the two.
At launch, Mazda noted a wheelbase increase of 25mm, but that’s to accommodate the AWD system rather than add to cabin space. Other dimensional increases are subtle for both sedan and hatch, and it doesn’t seem to me that the Mazda 3 hasn’t grown for the sake of it. Certainly that’s the case when you look at the new car externally.
At launch, we’re driving US spec and Euro-spec 3s, and our final specification will fall somewhere between them. Crucially, our 2.0-litre engines will get more power than the limited Euro version, up to 114kW instead of the 90-odd the Europeans have to cop. I drove an automatic sedan and a manual hatch at launch to get a sample of both engines. Both are six-speed gearboxes, but the 2.0-litre manual I drove isn’t the one we will get in Australia as we aren’t getting Mazda’s new ‘mild hybrid’ engine option.
The 2.0-litre that Australia will get makes 114kW and 200Nm, while the 2.5-litre punches out 139kW and 252Nm. Peak power is at 6000rpm, and peak torque at 4000rpm for both engines. The 2.5 uses a claimed 7.8L/100km on the combined cycle (taken from the US data), while the 2.0 uses 6.3L/100km. We didn’t bother trying to get a fuel reading at launch, because we drove both cars pretty hard on twisty country roads, so the figures wouldn’t have been indicative of what they are capable of in the real world at sedate speed in any case.
The front seats are excellent, with Mazda employing human movement experts to better understand the way the body responds to being in a seated position for long periods of time. The theory being that sitting in the Mazda 3 should be as normal and as intuitive as walking. As such, the seats help to maintain the natural ’S-shaped’ curvature in the human spine, while being more rigid.
We did a strange low-speed exercise, with a weird orthopaedic saddle in place of the standard seat, to test how the new chassis makes a difference. And while it’s hard to explain in writing, suffice to say the new seats are definitely comfortable after a few hours behind the wheel. I’m not sure about the lengths Mazda has gone to in regard to human movement experts, but the engineers seem convinced it’s a worthwhile pursuit, and we’re the first to complain about uncomfortable seats.
The highlight of the cabin for me is the redesigned infotainment system, with a clear screen and control system that has been tweaked for added ease of use. I love the way it is so simple to access and understand, and how intuitive it is. For example, there’s a full user manual in there that you can access to find out anything you need to know about the car’s settings. It’s a really solid improvement on what was initially a standard-setter for the segment.
Interestingly, though, Mazda has moved the screen a little further away from the driver, and at the same time removed touchscreen functionality. I don’t love smartphone interfaces that eschew touchscreen functionality given that’s how we use our phones now, but Mazda engineers say the screen is now better placed for the driver's eye line, and combined with the head-up display (in model grades so equipped) it makes for a much safer driving experience. I tested Apple CarPlay briefly and it’s easy enough to use with the control dial, but I’d still prefer a touchscreen. The screen itself, though, and the elegance of both the font and layout are excellent.
Mazda has worked hard on NVH improvements and the overall quality of the audio sound reproduction as well. High grades get a 12-speaker Bose audio system and the sound quality is excellent. It’s as good as anything else in the segment, if not better. Much of the improvement comes from speaker repositioning, with the subs, for example, placed up under the dash but behind the front wheel wells in what would otherwise be dead space. The door speakers have also been moved higher up the door to deliver clearer sound into the cabin from the new location.
Engineering changes to the panels themselves mean the cabin is quieter too. Mazda has added rubber dampers into the cavity between the two skins through the cabin section to better dampen any noise intrusion into the cabin. Cabin quietness is an area Mazda hasn’t always excelled at, but it seems to me that the new car is significantly more insulated and quiet than the old 3.
Into the second row, it’s very much standard Mazda 3 fare in that there is enough room for adults, but it can’t match the segment leaders for outright knee, leg and shoulder room. Despite the slight increase in wheelbase for the new Mazda 3, it doesn’t seem that much of it has made its way into the cabin. If you only occasionally use the second row, or you don’t have super-tall occupants up front, it’s not going to be an issue.
The boot capacities have changed slightly too. The sedan goes from 408L to 445L, while the hatch is down from 308L to 295L. Those were the numbers we were quoted at launch in any case, but we’ll report back again more definitively once full Australian specifications have been released at the local launch.
I’ve always thought the Mazda 3 platform struck a near perfect balance between ride comfort and handling ability, thanks largely to a quality chassis and clever suspension tune. This new 3 does the same dance between the two contrasting disciplines as well, albeit on Californian roads with suspension tunes that will differ slightly to Australian cars.
Cruising up into the mountains in the automatic sedan, I’m impressed with the balance, poise and precision of the 3 up to the speed limit. We weren’t driving like we were on a racetrack, but it’s beautifully balanced and sharper than you’d expect a non-hot hatch to be. Likewise, the 2.0-litre manual we punted back down the mountain, which felt even sportier thanks to the manual transmission.
Both sedan and hatch had beautifully weighted steering, accurate turn-in, and weren’t easily unsettled by mid-corner bumps. The manual 2.0-litre – while less powerful than the 2.5 obviously – still felt like it was happy to be pushed along at redline on twisty roads. The brakes were likewise precise and fade free, with a solid feel through the pedal. The 3 never felt like it had a tendency toward understeer either, maintaining the line I chose through the corner at all times.
Beyond the driving experience and the changes to the new Mazda 3, one thing remains a constant. That is, Mazda has managed to deliver a quality product that is finished to a high standard and feels like it should cost more than it does. Premium is such a difficult concept to define. What constitutes it? Is it the thud of a door? The panel gaps? The lack of road and wind noise in the cabin? The comfort of the seats? All those things?
Mazda engineers have spent time tweaking the subtle details, like the touchpoints for elbows on the doors and centre console, and I appreciate that attention to detail. If you’ve never bashed an elbow or funny bone on hard plastic, you might not appreciate it as much as I do. Still, touches like that define premium for me.
So, after a brief drive on foreign roads in cars that aren’t quite exactly like what we’ll end up with, is the 2019 Mazda 3 still positioned to be a segment favourite? While we don’t know final model grades – or pricing – yet, I think it’s a strong contender. We’ll let you know what those prices and grades are as soon as we can.
But in the meantime, you should be waiting for the new Mazda 3 to land locally before you buy your new small car. It’s a subtle improvement on an already high-quality entrant in the segment.