The new 2019 Mazda 3 could well be one of the most important cars the Japanese brand has brought out in years – not necessarily for sales volume, but as a preview of its future product.
When revealed at the 2018 Los Angeles motor show, Mazda said the new 3 signalled "a new era". Key changes included the latest evolution of the company's 'Kodo' design language, with a renewed focus on luxury levels of design, materials, and technology.
Mazda also said the 3's two body styles – still five-door hatch and four-door sedan – would have 'distinct personalities', with the hatch being 'emotive' and the sedan being 'elegant'.
The new hatchback landed in Aussie showrooms back in March, and its aggressive coupe styling has been met with mixed opinions not just about the aesthetics, but also its practicality – with reduced rearward visibility and a smaller boot than the outgoing generation being sore points.
So, now we have our hands on the new sedan, which arrived shortly after its five-door sibling last month.
On test we have the Mazda 3 G25 Evolve sedan, which is positioned mid-way through the line-up, though it's also the entry point into the larger 2.5-litre petrol engine – we'll get to the nitty-gritty of the powertrain in a bit.
Pricing starts at $29,490 for the six-speed manual-equipped version, though our tester's optional (and likely more popular) six-speed automatic ’box bumps the ticket up by $1000 to $30,490 before on-road costs.
The Machine Grey metallic paint you see here is one of two cost-option finishes ($495), the other being Soul Red Crystal. As tested, the Mazda 3 G25 Evolve you see here retails for $30,985 plus ORCs.
Equipment highlights for the G25 Evolve specification include keyless entry, 10-way power adjustment for the driver's seat, 18-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control with rear air vents, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, leather gear shift and steering wheel trim, paddle shifters, and a folding centre armrest in the back seat.
That builds on the fairly comprehensive spec sheet of the entry-level 'G20 Pure' (from $24,990), which includes an 8.8-inch infotainment system with navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 7.0-inch TFT driver's instrument display, a head-up display, eight-speaker audio, DAB+ digital radio, an electric park brake with auto hold, cloth trim, LED headlights with automatic high-beam, keyless start, rain-sensing wipers, auto-folding side mirrors, rear parking sensors, and a rear-view camera.
Safety and driver-assist tech includes autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, traffic sign recognition, tyre pressure monitoring, driver-attention alert, and seven airbags. Impressive.
Recently, the Mazda 3 scored a five-star ANCAP safety rating based on the latest, strictest 2019 criteria, with an excellent 98 per cent result in adult occupant protection and 89 per cent in child occupant protection.
We've touched on the design already, but let's dive a little deeper. The Mazda 3 sedan is essentially a production version of the sexy 2017 Vision Coupe concept, and while it might not quite be a four-door coupe like the show car, it's certainly a beautiful and elegant shape that should offend few, unlike the more avant-garde looks of the hatch that seem to divide opinion.
Our tester's Machine Grey paint adds to the understated yet sleek aesthetic, and the 18-inch alloys fill the arches nicely.
This reviewer prefers the three-box model compared to the hatchback, though I wish Mazda would make LED daytime-running lights standard across the range – all versions bar the top-spec Astina get cheap-looking halogens instead.
I'm also a big fan of the sedan's new exposed tailpipes, which add an element of sportiness to the design. Previously, only the hatchback got these, while the sedan's were hidden behind the rear bumper.
Hopping inside is where the magic starts, though. I'm sure it's been said over and over again, but the cabin of the new Mazda 3, regardless of variant, is just on another level compared to the competition. The design and execution are right up there with premium brands, in some cases surpassing them. It's modern, it's attractive, and the tactility of the materials is just lovely.
Everything on the top and middle tiers of the dashboard and doors is soft-touch, as is the leatherette trim that lines the centre tunnel so you aren't knocking your knees on hard plastic. Rear-seat passengers get the same luxurious trimmings as those in the front, too, which is something that more and more manufacturers aren't doing. More on the second row in a bit, though.
If there's one (small) complaint about the cabin finish, it's that the headliner is still the cheaper-feeling moulded variety rather than the textile ones you see on some rival cars. It's a nitpicky thing to call out, though it does detract from that premium ambience, if only slightly.
Mazda has employed a fairly minimalist approach to physical switchgear on the dashboard, too, with just a single strip of tabs and dials located there to toggle the climate-control functions.
Gone is the touchscreen functionality of MZD systems past, with a new rotary controller the sole method of accessing the various functions of the 8.8-inch display. It's fairly simple to use, and the high-set screen is in your line of sight so you aren't really looking away from the road to use the infotainment unit.
Apple CarPlay worked seamlessly on test – we didn't try Android Auto, but we imagine the functionality would be just as smooth – while the native software is quick, attractive, and a step up from previous iterations.
We also liked the standard eight-speaker sound system, which delivered crisp and clear sound even as the volume rose, though the flagship 12-speaker Bose system in GT and Astina variants is better again.
Front-seat occupants are treated to armchair-like seats that are finished in a nice cloth and offer plenty of support from pretty much every direction, without being so skinny that it doesn't cater for all body types. Mazda raved about the work it's done to make seats that maintain the natural S curve of the human spine, and it certainly seems to work.
Moving to the back, previous gripes with the Mazda 3 remain. Space for taller occupants is still behind class leaders, so if you're planning on transporting teenagers or adults in the back often, you may have to look elsewhere.
Knee room is probably a key area for improvement, even with the scalloped seat back. With a taller driver (like six-foot-one-ish me) up front, even average-sized passengers I carted around during my time with the Mazda complained about the tight accommodation, and I got a few knees to the back.
However, there are now rear air vents, which is a welcome addition, though there are no USB or 12V charging outlets for those needing some extra juice in their phone or tablet.
There's also a fold-down rear armrest with cup holders, and ISOFIX mounts on both the outboard seats to keep the kiddies secure. Small rear door bins and a single map pocket behind the front passenger seat round out the second-row features.
Under the bootlid is a decent 444L luggage area, which is a handy 149L more than the hatch. Mazda doesn't quote a volume with the rear seats folded, though you can pop down the rear bench 60:40 using levers in the boot so you don't have to do it from the cabin.
The area itself is nicely deep and square, though there's quite a high load lip, which is worth noting if you're going to be lugging heavier items in and out. Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare wheel.
So, how does it drive?
To answer simply, it's rather good. Despite utilising a carryover powertrain from launch (the trick new SkyActiv-X compression ignition motor is due later this year), the new 3 keeps the traits we loved from its predecessor while addressing some key complaints, namely refinement.
Under the bonnet of G25 models is the 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four used in previous SP25 variants, making 139kW (at 6000rpm) and 252Nm (at 4000rpm) in the new car.
You're probably not going to notice the additional 1kW and 2Nm gained over the previous model, though the 2.5-litre motor will offer plenty of punch for most people, while delivering its power in a smooth and linear fashion thanks to its natural aspiration.
Sure, it may not have the effortless low-down torque of some turbocharged rivals, though the lack of a snail in the engine bay certainly isn't reason to write the new 3 off. Far from it.
We will note the motor can be a little loud on cold start, and can be a little vocal under load. In saying that, there's much better noise suppression in the new model from just about every aspect, so the engine's whiny sound at the top end isn't as pronounced.
The six-speed automatic in our tester is tried and tested, offering snappy and intuitive shifts regardless of the driving style. We did occasionally catch it out in too high a gear when we wanted to make a quick stab at the throttle, but it certainly wasn't a recurring issue.
Speaking of sound insulation, the new Mazda 3 is significantly quieter on the move than before, particularly in terms of tyre roar – a key complaint that dogged the previous-gen car for its entire lifespan. It isn't the absolute best-in-class, though, as colleague Mike Costello found out in our recent small-car mega test that the now seven-year-old Volkswagen Golf matched the Mazda with 60dB at 100km/h.
As for the ride and handling, the Mazda 3 retains its 'zoom zoom' fun-to-drive factor with direct steering and nimble dynamics, though we noticed the new car takes a more comfortable and luxurious approach compared to the sharper tillers of the Ford Focus and Honda Civic.
The Mazda strikes a really good balance between sportiness and comfort, too, ironing out the various lumps and bumps of Melbourne's inner-city streets with maturity and finesse, while also exhibiting limited body roll in the bends, despite the Evolve and up wearing 18-inch wheels wrapped in low-profile rubber. Not bad, given Mazda doesn't have a local suspension tuning program like Hyundai and Kia.
Fuel consumption isn't bad, either. We recorded 8.1L/100km through the car's trip computer, over 347km of mixed driving conditions. Mazda's official claim is 6.0L/100km on the combined cycle, though.
Using that figure as a guide, you can expect a real-world driving range of around 600km per fill of the 3's 51L tank, with the 2.5-litre engine happy sipping on cheaper 91RON fuel.
In terms of ownership, the Mazda 3 is covered by the company's five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty with capped-price servicing.
From April 1, 2019, all new Mazda vehicles come with five years of premium roadside assistance, which covers you for flat batteries, locked-in keys, flat tyres, or accident support, 24/7. Get the terms and conditions here.
As for servicing, maintenance is required every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever comes first, with the first five visits coming in at $299, $342, $299, $342, and $299 respectively – making for a total of $1581 over the first 50,000km or 60 months.
It's pretty par for the course in the small-car segment, though well off the Toyota Corolla's dirt-cheap $175 a pop services for the first five years with longer 15,000km intervals. Additional costs for the Mazda also include the cabin air filter ($90 every 40,000km) and the brake fluid ($67 every 40,000km or 24 months).
The new Mazda 3 certainly takes a right old shot for top spot in the small-car class, and the G25 Evolve specification could well be the value pick of the bunch.
In sedan form, the new 3 addresses the limited boot of the hatchback while also offering a more palatable form factor for the masses, without any price premium.
However, the tight rear-seat accommodation remains a complaint, which should be taken into consideration if you'll be using your new small car for carting adult-sized passengers around on a regular basis.
Minor complaints aside, the Mazda 3 is a properly premium looking and feeling small car for mainstream money, challenging Audi and Lexus in terms of cabin fit and finish, while also being packed full of convenience and safety features to give the Koreans something to worry about.