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There are a number of car brands in Australia that must long to be Mazda, and not simply because it’s number-two in the sales race behind Toyota.
Market research and sales data suggest that prospective customers are easily ‘up-sold’ into more expensive premium versions of its Mazda 3 small-car staple. They’re not after a $20k ‘base’ grade, instead wanting something nicer.
This enviable position explains the company’s approach to the new sedan and hatch range. The old base Neo, Neo Sport and Maxx Sport grades are gone, replaced by the G20 Pure and G20 Evolve, priced at $24,990 and $26,690 before on-road costs.
This positions the new entry versions where the old generation mid-range models sat. But in exchange for this, you get a vastly longer list of standard tech. For example, the entry G20 Pure gets AEB, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, active cruise control, a heads-up display, 8.8-inch screen with satellite navigation, DAB+, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
Tellingly, Mazda’s tactic is similar to what we’ve just seen Toyota use with its new Corolla, and which Volkswagen has long done with its Golf. These brands have all decided that low-margin fare aimed at bargain shoppers and box-ticking fleets aren’t desirable, yet their private sales remain high. In Mazda’s case, it suggests the CX-3 crossover will pick up some slack.
That’s the company’s prerogative, and it will be fascinating to see how people respond. What we’re more interested in is the car itself. After all, the outgoing model is Australia’s fourth most popular car, so releases don’t get much bigger.
The ‘proper’ market launch will occur around April or May, but Mazda this week held a quick-drive event, to build anticipation and get some airtime. For the full variant breakdown, head over to our separate 2019 Mazda 3 pricing and spec story.
We drove the hatch version (expected to account for 60 per cent of sales volume) in its top-of-the-range Astina guise, priced at $37,990 before on-road costs. That’s giving the Golf GTI a nudge, though perhaps a better comparison is with something like an Audi A3 1.0 TFSI Sportback. That’s what the company is pitching at.
This range-topper sits one rung above the G25 GT ($34,490) and two above the G25 Evolve ($30,490). Mazda expects it to account for only 10 per cent of Mazda 3 sales in the first year, but it’s a neat way to show you everything that’s available.
From a design perspective there are few more eye-catching small cars out there, especially if you’re willing to shell out $495 extra for Soul Red Crystal paint or a new hue called Polymetal Grey metallic. It’s strange that more brands don’t focus on paint like Mazda (or Lexus) does. Update: feedback suggests Mazda paint thickness has drawn criticism from some customers. This has been noted and we'll watch for it in future - Mike.
Not everyone loves it, with most of the criticism levelled at the rear (c) pillar, which is absolutely enormous. This, plus the slim side and rear windows, gives the hatch an aggressive stance and profile. The sedan version is more elegant and ‘traditional’. in comparison.
The new hatch is actually slightly lower and shorter than the outgoing model, but sits on a 25mm-longer wheelbase. It also weighs between 39kg and 55kg more depending on spec grade, and its pokey 295 litre boot is 13L smaller than before, albeit better than the Corolla’s. For context, the 3 sedan’s boot is 444L.
The back seats are also on the small side, with headroom especially quite limited, though commendably enough every version above the G20 Pure gets rear air vents. Mazda’s research suggests three-quarters of current 3 hatch owners usually drive solo or with one passenger only, though a flaw is a flaw.
The interior layout is even more driver-oriented than before, with a cleaner look and more high-grade materials such as red leather-like dash padding, to justify the shift upmarket. There’s a new steering wheel, plus a bigger 8.8-inch screen running an overdue new operating system with what struck us as a clean UI, and which runs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto at last.
Interestingly, there’s no longer touchscreen functionality, with all inputs done via the rotary dial with shortcut buttons. Augmenting this setup is a head-up display that projects onto the windscreen (much better than the old flip-up glass unit) and crisp analogue TFT instruments.
The driving position remains low, while comfort is improved by cupholders that have been moved ahead of the gear-shifter, allowing designers to fit a longer centre armrest. Additionally the steering wheel has a greater range of telescopic reach adjustment, the a-pillars are said to be slimmer to help forward vision, the windscreen wipers have a wider arc, and the seats are billed as more supportive.
Other features include a sunroof, electric-adjusting and heated leather sets (in black or burgundy), electric-folding mirrors, a Bose audio system, proximity key, dual-zone climate control and rain-sensing wipers. The long list of active safety tech on all grades was mentioned earlier, but the Atenza adds a (much higher-resolution this time) 360-degree camera, LED headlights with adaptivity, front cross-traffic alert and reverse AEB.
There are two Euro 5 engines at launch, which are largely familiar from the outgoing car. While they’re not all that old in the scheme of things, some may be disappointed by this.
Models designated ‘G20’ use the 2.0-litre SkyActiv naturally-aspirated petrol-fired four-cylinder making a familiar 114kW at 6000rpm and 200Nm at 4000rpm, with start/stop, a 91 RON fuel use claim from 6.1L/100km (actually slightly worse than before), and the choice of six-speed manual or six-speed torque-converter auto transmissions on all grades, the latter now costing only $1000.
The other engine in the ‘G25’ models (and our tester) is the current 2.5-litre petrol four with slightly uprated outputs (up 1kW/2Nm) of 139kW at 6000rpm and 252Nm at 4000rpm, attached to the same transmissions, and claimed fuel consumption starting at 6.5L/100km. This engine also has a low-stress cylinder deactivation system to reduce fuel use.
Commendably enough, Mazda offers a manual gearbox on all variants unlike nearly any other rival, despite demand being so low. "If we only make a few hundred customers a year happy, it's worth doing," claims the company's marketing director Alastair Doak. It helps having such scale.
While some rivals have migrated across the small turbo engines with wider peak torque bands or, in the case of Toyota, a petrol-electric hybrid offer, the high-capacity, naturally aspirated engine type still offers a pleasant, rev-happy demeanour, and the auto transmission responds quickly. Existing quirks such as loudness on cold starts likely remain.
You’ve still got a Sport mode build into the gearbox that tells it to downshift more aggressively and hold onto lower ratios for longer, and which does indeed add some pep to its step. If you’re expecting a i30 N Performance or Golf GTI experience though, it’s not quite as muscular. Diesel, or a 2.5 turbo? No to both for now.
Those who want something new will have to wait until the end of the year, when the much anticipated SkyActiv-X petrol engine with world-first mass-production compression-ignition technology – designed to offer signature petrol-engine power and response, with diesel-like torque and frugality – arrives to top the range late this year. Read our prototype review.
The Mazda 3’s platform and body are said to be stiffer now, while the suspension has been overhauled. The MacPherson strut arrangement remains at the front, but the old multi-link setup at the rear has been replaced by a cheaper and easier-to-package torsion beam, a similar approach to the new Ford Focus and Mercedes-Benz A-Class, which do likewise.
Mazda’s bet is that punters won’t mind this, and we suspect it’s correct. This setup also improves boot space slightly, since the deleterious issue with a rear IRS can be seen in the new Corolla’s hatch. We’d note that hot hatches like the Fiesta ST and previous Renault Megane RS used twist beams, so let’s not get too upset over it for now…
Another major focus was on reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). This has long been a Mazda bugbear. More sound-deadening, different seals, plus revised engine mounts and dampers reduce the tyre noise, wind roar and former unpleasantries such as steering-rack-rattle. There’s also 10-times more ultra-high-tensile steel in the body/framework, up to 1310MPa-grade.
Mazda has also fettled its G-Vectoring system that cuts engine torque according to steering input, effectively transferring the car’s weight and improving stability and turn-in, albeit by small degrees.
Alas our short drive didn’t give us the chance to tackle many corners, but one of the company’s engineers conceded goals were to remove some of the steering ‘deadness’ on-centre and go back to the dartiness of the first Mazda 3 model, get rid of any lingering rack-rattle, and retain the nimble road feel while improving refinement. All good things.
What we can say is the sound-deadening is certainly better, as is the car’s ability to round off sharp inputs and float more comfortably over low-amplitude hits. Driving over a patchwork Melbourne road was a quieter and more comfortable experience in this 3 than the old one. Putting one back-to-back against the new TNGA-based Corolla and an outgoing Mk7.5 or even the new Mk8 Golf will be fascinating, and highly informative.
Ownership-wise, the Mazda 3 will be covered by a five-year warranty with no distance limit and advertised servicing prices with 10,000km intervals between visits (or 12 months, whichever comes first). The annual visits are fine, but most rivals have 15,000km intervals.
We’re not going to give you a definitive verdict until we’ve spent time in some other variants of the new Mazda 3, and more time at that. But clearly the new model moves the dial over its predecessor and sets up a compelling comparison against the new i30, Focus, Corolla, Civic, Cerato and co. And in the G25 GT's and G25 Atenza’s cases, bonafide small luxury cars too.
In terms of (subjective) style, safety and luxury it’s a winner, and old weak points such as NVH have also been addressed. There will be those put off by the higher entry pricing, the pokey back seats and the short servicing intervals, but based on trends and history, we’d suggest this new Mazda 3 will mostly build on what its predecessors have set up.
It’s certainly anything but boring, especially once that SkyActiv-X engine drops… If you’re looking at small cars at the moment, wait a few months and go kick the tyres on the Mazda. And if you're one of the hundreds of thousands of existing Mazda 3 owners, rest assured you should be very happy upgrading.