2019 Mazda 3 hatch review

Australian first drive & full detail video

Rating: 8.2
$24,990 $37,990 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
    6.2L
  • Engine Power
    114kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    N/A
  • ANCAP Rating
    5Stars

The new Mazda 3 hatch prioritises sporty looks and luxury features over cut-price positioning and interior space, even more than its predecessor did. It's a step forward that ironically enough will probably have a smaller audience.

Mazda’s approach to the new-generation ‘3’ hatch is bold. It’s taken an enduringly popular offering in a segment full of conservative rivals, and prioritised design over space while increasing the price of entry in exchange for more technology and a premium cabin feel.

The company’s choices seem to suggest that practicality-minded buyers want SUVs – Mazda offers plenty of those – while bargain hunters buy other brands. This leaves a smaller pool of devotees who want a Volkswagen Golf-like premium feel and some design savoir faire.

As a headline, Mazda opted not to offer a ‘base’ Neo variant this time. Instead, the starting (renamed) G20 Pure grade is $4500 higher than before at $24,990 before on-road costs. You might note that Toyota made a very similar choice with the new Corolla hatch last year, axing the Ascent grade.

“We’re re-orienting the vehicle to a more premium position,” claims Mazda Australia marketing director Alastair Doak. “It’s what our customers have asked for. We’re a private-buyer-focused brand… And in the last five years we’ve seen Mazda 3 buyers move away from the entry grade."

Yes, the G20 Pure’s price is $5000 more than a Hyundai i30 Go, but that would be an erroneous comparison since the ‘base’ Mazda has a head-up display projecting speed and navigation onto the windscreen, LED headlights, an 8.8-inch display with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and alloy wheels.

MORE: 2019 Mazda 3 pricing and specs

Additionally, every Mazda 3 gets button start, seven airbags, and safety tech such as radar-guided active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and front/rear autonomous emergency braking that detects cars, pedestrians and cyclists, day or night.

It's a little confusing that there isn't yet an ANCAP crash test score, which has forced us to temper our rating on the car's safety credentials for the time being.

Without turning this into a spec-sheet rehash, the model walk goes like this: $26,690 gets you a G20 Evolve with 18-inch wheels, climate control, and a leather wheel and gear shifter, while $28,990 gets you the G20 Touring with electric leather seats and keyless entry.

Then there’s the $29,490 G25 Evolve, which is essentially the G20 Evolve with a bigger engine to be detailed in a sec, while the G25 GT is $33,490 and adds features such as nicer-grade heated leather seats and a ramped-up 12-speaker Bose audio system.

Once you hit the flagship G25 Astina at $36,990 you get a sunroof, black wheels, adaptive (auto high-beam) anti-dazzle headlights, a 360-degree around-view camera array, the option of burgundy or black seat leather (the sedan gets white or black), and extra safety tech such as front cross-traffic alert and a driver-drowsiness monitor.

A few pointers: the prices listed are all before extra on-road costs like compulsory third-party insurance, licensing, duty, and delivery charges that vary by state but are usually a few thousand bucks. Also, each quoted figure comprises a manual gearbox. The automatic option is a further $1000, while the metallic paint colours Polymetal Grey Metallic, Machine Grey Metallic and Soul Red Crystal Metallic are a reasonable $495.

Interestingly, Mazda's research suggests that 55 per cent of buyers will opt for the G20 Pure and Evolve, 60 per cent of buyers will opt for the hatchback rather than the sedan due in a few months' time, and 90 per cent will want the auto.

Right, enough of that. To the outside. The hatch’s exterior design has been a source of polarisation, eliciting strong responses and few fence-sitters. Mazda refers to it as ‘less is more’, as well as ‘sporty and seductive’.

What the waffle means is a reduction of character lines all over, a much sleeker headlight and grille design, and that massive C-pillar giving the car a dynamic stance.

It’s evolutionary, but positioned next to an old one, the differences are obvious. The new hatch is actually slightly lower and shorter than the outgoing model too, but sits on a 25mm-longer wheelbase. It also weighs between 39kg and 55kg more than before, because the body is stronger and stiffer.

The interior layout is more driver-oriented than before, with a cleaner look and more high-grade materials such as copious leather-like dash padding. The cupholders have been moved ahead of the shifter, allowing a longer centre armrest and a bigger console. There’s notably more storage up front than before.

The driving position is low, the vents are tilted in to face you, ditto the new 8.8-inch centre screen that’s been pushed further away, while the head-up display declutters the instruments. It feels rather coupe-like from behind the wheel, actually.

Mazda uses this rather lovely line ‘Jinba-ittai’, which translates to ‘horse and rider as one’. I like that.

That new screen is running a much-needed new infotainment system (new hardware and software) with better loading times, conversational voice control and a cleaner user interface.

Interestingly, just like we’ve seen some Audi product do, the screen doesn’t offer touch functionality. Instead, you must use the plastic rotary dial and shortcut buttons. This somewhat undermines the welcome addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto designed for smartphone-style touches.

Special shout-out to the 12-speaker Bose sound system, which is simply excellent, making Danny Carey’s drum fills and Jonny Greenwood’s guitar distortion work equally well over the course of my playlist.

The negatives are actually few and far between up front, given how sporty and luxurious it feels for the class. The more highly specified versions genuinely feel on a par with Lexus, down to the damped and felt-lined glove box. Okay, there’s too much glossy black plastic used, which draws smudges and scratches.

Naturally, the design language deprioritises back seat and boot space, which is something we’ve also criticised the new Corolla for. The back seats aren’t the most capacious out there, and a Honda Civic makes it look pokey indeed, while the small side windows and big rear pillar mean kids will find it hard to see out of.

However, much like the similarly encumbered Toyota C-HR, there’s actually sufficient room for anyone 180cm or less (like our video producer David) once you’re settled in. It’s deceptive. Still, if you regularly shuffle four occupants, a Golf, Civic or i30 is going to be a better bet than the Mazda.

The 295-litre boot is 13L smaller than before, albeit better than the Toyota’s. There’s room for a few big Pelican cases or something similar. The imminent sedan derivative due in July is said to be much more practical, however. More on that at a later date.

What’s underneath?

The company's ethos has long been about offering responsive steering, good body control, sharp turn-in and a firm-but-not-harsh ride character. Mazda's project manager said the goal this time wasn't to simply smooth out harsh inputs, but instead to make the car's motions more pronounced and predictable to the driver, as natural as walking. Hmm.

The 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 rear is now a cheaper and easier-to-package torsion beam – a similar approach to the new Ford Focus and Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Do buyers mind?

One positive is that Mazda has made the torsion bar's mount point as strong as possible, reducing rear toe-in and by extension understeer. To be frank, you'll only notice diminished roadholding at 10/10ths, however it's rather odd optics to increase your pricing while simplifying the rear suspension set-up away from bulkier-but-better IRS. It's interesting that the boot is smaller...

Overall, the ride quality is pretty good, with more damping from the tyres and the stiffer body keeping things calmer and more controlled over corrugations. Mazda showed us a video of the driver's head movement over a vertical hit on the new car versus the old, and the reduction was substantial. The more rigid suspension mounts also smooth upward wheel movement.

The steering is direct, and the old model's annoying kickback over mid-corner hits has been comprehensively ironed out. The driving position is simply great.

Mazda has also fettled its G-Vectoring Plus system that cuts engine torque according to steering input, effectively transferring the car’s weight and improving stability and turn-in.

A major focus was on reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). This has long been a Mazda bugbear. There are rubberised nodes in the sandwich-style sheetmetal, different fabric fibres in the seats and headlining, more insulation, better engine mounts... We saw a list of 49 different techniques used to cut out noise and vibrations.

It's as quiet as the new CX-5 on coarse-chip roads, meaning civil conversations are simple. It's not quite Golf level perhaps, but vastly better than before, and far more suitable given the premium interior feel. Finally, a Mazda 3 that doesn't fail to cut out tyre roar and wind noise!

The main grievance we had while driving was with the lane-keeping aid system, which only sometimes managed to read the road lines and steer us back between them, and doesn't seem to offer lane-centring. The Hyundai i30, Kia Cerato and Ford Focus systems are more sophisticated.

There are two engines at launch, which are entirely familiar from the outgoing car. No big changes here. Models designated ‘G20’ use a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol-fired four-cylinder making a familiar 114kW of power and 200Nm of torque, with start/stop, and a fuel-use claim from 6.1L/100km.

The engine in the ‘G25’ models is the 2.5-litre petrol four with slightly uprated outputs of 139kW and 252Nm, attached to the same transmissions, and claimed fuel consumption starting at 6.5L/100km. This engine also has a low-stress cylinder deactivation system.

The G25, being the performance option, is what we sampled. It lacks a turbocharged unit's low-down torque, meaning you need higher revolutions to get the most from it. The chassis could certainly handle more, and a 150kW i30 N Line feels more muscular. The 6AT remains slick, with a sport mode that aggressively downshifts, and paddle shifters.

On the plus side, the fuel consumption claims proved accurate, and both engines will happily drink regular 91-octane fuel.

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.

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). It's worth noting that Mazda is often one of the market's best performers in customer satisfaction surveys.

So that's a launch review of the new Mazda 3 hatch, which has a more targeted focus than before, and is bound to polarise the market more than your run-of-the-mill mainstream car. Yet, its positive attributes are manifold. It won't appeal to everyone, but the company knows this, so we'll defer to the market to decide the wisdom of this tactic.

If a premium-feeling, sharp-handling, eye-catching small car is what you're after, though, then it mounts a stronger case than ever – just be prepared to pay for the privilege.

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