A showdown between Australia's three most popular small cars, each tested in mid-range form, priced at about $31K on the road.
The Hyundai i30, Mazda 3 and Toyota Corolla are the top-selling passenger cars in Australia. With the latter pair entering new generations inside the last 12 months, it seems like a good time to put this trio to the test.
All three come in a wide range of configurations, but in this case we’ve selected what we consider to be the happy medium: the mid-grade i30 Elite, Mazda 3 G20 Evolve and Corolla SX petrol.
They aren’t base models, nor are they flagships, and only $900 separates the list prices of each.
Pricing and specs
The Corolla kicks off at $26,870 before on-road costs ($30,829 drive-away in Melbourne, state-specific), the Mazda 3 is $27,690 ($31,410 d/a), and the i30 costs just $100 more at $27,790 ($31,505 d/a).
As ever, you can negotiate your own price at the dealer or wait for national campaigns, these are merely indicative.
Each has a breadth of equipment that will surprise anyone who hasn’t driven a brand-new car in a while. All have seven airbags, rear-seat top-tethers and ISOFIX, five-star ANCAP crash ratings, autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that detects pedestrians too, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping aid, active cruise control and rear cross-traffic alert.
All additionally feature Bluetooth streaming and phone, button start, satellite-navigation, digital radio, a reversing camera and dual-zone climate control.
Each also has alloy wheels, albeit of different sizes (16-inch on the Corolla, 17-inch on the Hyundai, and 18-inch on the Mazda).
Differences? The Hyundai is the sole car here without LED-type headlights, but the only one with leather seat trim and a full-size spare wheel.
The Mazda has a unique head-up display and AEB that works in reverse, but lacks a proximity key fob that unlocks the car as you approach, and a wireless phone charging pad.
The Corolla has a system that reads road signs and keeps you updated on the speed limit, and an advanced driver-assist system called ‘lane trace assist’, but lacks Apple CarPlay/Android Auto until the end of the year, when it will be added as part of a running change.
Options-wise, the Hyundai gets a sunroof for $2000, a beige interior for $295, or metallic paint for $495. On the Mazda you get the Vision Pack (360-degree camera, front sensors, front cross-traffic alert, and a driver tiredness monitor) for $1500, or premium paint for $495. The only Corolla option is $500 premium paint.
It’s probably too close to call, though given the i30 is a little longer into its life cycle, I’d expect you’re more likely to get a dealer demo or campaign sale price with Hyundai than on the other pair.
The Hyundai’s interior is a little austere and there's no shortage of cheap-feeling plastics along the doors and transmission tunnel. But it does the basic things well: lots of seat and wheel adjustment, a big digital speedo, simple wheel buttons, a big centre console, well-placed cup holders and generous door bins.
The infotainment system works as a touchscreen, with a default home screen comprising a map view on the left and shortcuts to other sections on the right.
There’s really nothing all that inventive inside, but the standard leather seats lift the ambience, and everything feels ergonomic and well made.
The back seats aren’t necessarily more spacious than the class norm and the presence of rear vents isn’t unique (Mazda has them too); however, the big side windows make it easier to see out of than the other pair on test.
Two regular-sized adults will be more than comfortable and less claustrophobic than the more compromised Mazda and Toyota. The hard seat-backs are also easy to keep clean.
Impressively, the Hyundai also has by far the biggest boot on test, at 395L – nearly double the Corolla and 100L bigger than the Mazda – yet it’s also the only car here with a full-size (alloy) spare wheel under the cargo floor instead of a temporary speed-limited steel rim.
The Mazda’s interior feels a bit like that of a sporty coupe. You sit low with your legs stretched out ahead, the steering wheel is beautiful in the hand, and the vents and centre screen tilt towards you. Moreover, the standard head-up display projecting speed and navigation info onto the windscreen means your eyes need never leave the road.
The materials used are also first-rate, with a real sense of quality pervading the touchpoints and the switches. This makes the annoying lack of a proximity key all the more grating.
Cabin storage is better than before, with two cup holders along the transmission tunnel, and a larger centre console being examples.
The infotainment system comprises a new interface that’s more intuitive and faster to load than the old iteration, and runs on a large 8.8-inch landscape screen with sharp maps and a crisper rear-view camera. It’s no longer a touchscreen, with the rotary dial and shortcut buttons along the driveshaft tunnel the sole controller. This is ideal over bumpy roads, but isn’t particularly intuitive with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
The back seats offer room for anyone 180cm or less, but the tiny side windows mean it’s hard to see out. And the boot’s 295L capacity belongs to a car a whole segment below. Yes, the Mazda 3 sedan has a far bigger boot, but still… Clearly, the Mazda 3 is a slave to its sexy design when it comes to usability.
Toyota has made a real effort to add some design nous to the Corolla. The seats are super supportive, the touchpoints are soft and geared towards the tactile (especially that steering wheel), and the switchgear feels nice in the hand. The driver instruments also have nice analogue gauges and a crisp digital screen.
The centre screen shows your maps with live updates, and the home menu can be configured to show various other widgets. However, the lack of phone mirroring (other than Toyota Link) for the time being is a little annoying. In fairness, the voice-control system works really well.
The back seats aren’t too bad with middle-of-the-road outward visibility and enough head or leg room for an average adult, though there aren’t rear vents. The i30, or something like a Honda Civic, is better for carrying rear occupants.
The real sticking point, though, is the boot. It’s only 217L, which is really more reminiscent of a Suzuki Swift than a car in this class. It’s shallow and narrow, with room for a few day bags (or in this case, a few of our photographer’s camera bags). If you’re never carrying more than some groceries it’s fine, but it’s only about half the capacity of a Golf or said i30…
Grading the interiors is contingent on your requirements. The Hyundai’s feels the least ‘premium’, but is easily the most practical. The Mazda’s is gorgeous, sporty and tech-laden (except for the lack of a Qi charging pad), but its packaging is limited, while the Corolla’s boot undoes an otherwise excellent effort that balances quality, tech and design nous far better than the previous model managed.
Under the bonnet
The common denominator among this trio is a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine – not a turbocharger in sight, meaning all three need revs to show their best.
The Mazda’s unit rocks a high compression ratio and punches out 114kW of power at 6000rpm and 200Nm of torque at 4000rpm. It’s the least powerful here, though the Mazda is also the lightest car by between 22kg and 44kg. It’s mated with a six-speed automatic, while the six-speed manual is a $1000 cheaper option.
As we’ve found before, it’s hardly the last word in punch, but is much more refined than in the old Mazda 3, and quite frankly offers ample rolling acceleration for most target buyers. The transmission is also beautifully calibrated, responding decisively to throttle and brake inputs.
If you simply must have more grunt, the 2.5-litre engine option with 139kW/252Nm and cool tech such as low-stress cylinder deactivation to conserve fuel is $2500 extra. Frankly, don’t bother at this pricepoint.
The Hyundai’s direct-injected 2.0-litre unit makes 120kW at 6200rpm and 203Nm at 4700rpm, and is likewise mated with a six-speed automatic. It’s a little raucous under heavy throttle, but for urban commuting and freeways jaunts it again proves totally sufficient.
It’s worth pointing out that there’s the option of the $1700 pricier i30 N Line with its punchier 1.6 turbo-petrol engine with 150kW of power, and seven-speed dual-clutch auto transmission, though for urban commuters this is less smooth. Hot heads might be urged to look in this direction, however.
The most interesting powertrain here is Toyota’s. Its engine makes 125kW of power and 200Nm of torque, outputs that are 21 per cent and 16 per cent respectively higher than the old model’s. But it’s the transmission that is the selling point – a CVT, but not as we know it.
There’s a 10-speed sequential shifting mode with paddles for manual override, but more interestingly it has a fixed launch gear, meaning it takes off like a conventional AT before shifting across to the pulley-driven CVT at higher engine speeds. It gives you sharper and less slurry take-offs, even up hills, making the car more decisive and engaging. It’s clever engineering that proves CVTs can be good to drive.
The other engine option is even more interesting. It’s a refined petrol-electric hybrid that uses almost no fuel (okay, 4.2L/100km), meaning it’ll pay back the $1500 impost it commands pretty rapidly. But we digress…
On the subject of fuel, the Corolla petrol’s claim is 6.0L/100km, against the Mazda’s 6.2L/100km and the Hyundai’s 7.4L/100km. This figure varies greatly depending on driving style, though we did find the Hyundai generally used 10–15 per cent more fuel than the others.
Commendably, all three run on 91RON fuel.
Based on the fact that all three cars here have punchier and/or more frugal engine options, it’s clear they’re not aimed at people after the latest in powertrain engineering.
Based on what we’re testing, the Corolla’s unit impressed most.
On the road
The Hyundai i30’s Australian engineers have tuned the suspension locally to great effect; something we’ve seen across its whole range of passenger and SUV product.
The ride quality over potholes and corrugations is simply excellent, and the body control/handling against cornering loads ditto.
To unstick the basic rear torsion beam suspension takes some serious pedalling. The only slight gremlins are the slightly too resistant steering weight and the fairly average (loud, low-grip) tyres.
The Mazda 3 offers the sportiest driving position, but also the worst outward vision. The biggest areas of improvement over the old model are the reduced wheel kickback over mid-corner ruts and the noise insulation, which is vastly better.
The ride quality is good, with few inputs entering the cabin despite the low-profile tyres. The body movements are pronounced, but echo what you feel when walking, so car sickness is reduced.
The steering feel is excellent, while the technology called G Vectoring Control Plus automatically trims power when you’re turning in, transferring weight over the nose and helping reduce understeer. It’s subtle but does work.
The Toyota Corolla’s lower, wider and stiffer architecture makes it altogether happier negotiating corners than its predecessors, which it does with the sort of vigour you’d expect of a Volkswagen Golf – generally with the same smooth, quiet and well-damped Germanic quality.
This Corolla is genuinely good to throw around. It even loses the old torsion beam rear suspension in favour of a multi-link set-up (that no doubt doesn’t help the packaging, alas), and has various settings for its electric-assisted steering system, and throttle.
The Mazda 3 is probably the most engaging and quiet here, just – though that outward vision does impinge.
We should also note the active safety features. All three will happily nudge you back between road lines and keep you centred if you stray, all warn you of impending obstacles, all automatically brake for you if you don’t see a car or pedestrian, and all have little lights in the side mirrors to tell you about blind spots (very much needed in the Mazda with its colossal C-pillar).
The fact is, driver-assistance tech is now properly mainstream, as these three cars prove.
All three cars come with five-year warranties with no distance limit, and roadside assistance. Once upon a time, Hyundai was an outlier, but no more.
The Corolla is cheapest to service, with intervals of 12 months and 15,000km, and the first four visits all capped at just $175 a pop. Absolute bargain.
The i30’s intervals are the same, with the first three visits capped at $259 and the fourth at $359.
The Mazda’s intervals are just 10,000km (or 12 months), with the first four visits capped at $294, $330, $294 and $338.
On one hand, the Hyundai i30 trails this newer pair, but on the other hand there’s a solid case to mount that at this lower pricepoint (remember, the last small-car comparison test we did was focused more on driving dynamics and driver tech/luxury) practicality matters.
The Hyundai’s back seats are roomier and its boot vastly bigger, and that’s important.
The Toyota Corolla is such an improvement on its predecessor, though I’d be hard-pressed not to recommend the hybrid. It’s great to drive, beautifully designed inside and out, loaded up with safety features, and incredibly cheap to run.
The Mazda 3 is a design winner, with the loveliest interior on any car at this pricepoint bar none, and fewer driving behavioural issues than before, though outward vision is a problem.
If you want to minimise running costs most of all, get the vastly improved Corolla. If you want the most eye-catching and classy inside, the Mazda is for you. If you regularly use the boot and back seats, then the Hyundai wins.
It’s horses for courses here. Personally, I would take the Mazda. There, I said it.
Active cruise control
Rear traffic alert
Qi charge pad