Say you want to spend around $35,000 on a small sedan. You’re a member of a declining group, but one with two particularly outstanding choices: the new-generation Mazda 3 G25 Evolve and the Kia Cerato GT.
The former from Japan offers classical clean-sheet design with curves to burn, and a sophisticated high-technology interior that hits all the right notes. By contrast, the latter from Korea focuses on offering sporty looks and punchy performance to lure those after some driving thrills.
Determining which is best will no doubt depend on your preferences, though there are sufficient commonalities to throw this pair head-to-head.
Pricing and specs
There are six Mazda 3 specification levels. The G25 Evolve sits in the middle, above the G20 Touring but beneath the higher-specified G25 GT and G25 Astina. It wears a list price before on-road costs of $30,490, equating to a rough drive-away price depending on your location of $34,300.
The Kia Cerato GT sits atop its four-level line-up, and wears a list price of $31,990. However, Kia also offers national standard drive-away pricing of $32,990, so you can just ignore said list pricing from here on in.
Nether comes short of equipment, especially if you haven’t driven a brand-new car in a while. Common to both are LED headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels, a proximity key, electric auto-folding side mirrors, eight speakers, satellite-navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto software, digital radio, and dual-zone climate control.
Each also comes with a recent five-star ANCAP crash rating, and driver-assistance features such as autonomous emergency braking that senses cars, pedestrians and cyclists. Each also gets rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and active cruise control that matches the speed of the car ahead.
The Kia alone has front sensors, LED daytime running lights (the Mazda’s are halogen), leather seat trim with heating and ventilation for front occupants (Mazda has cloth) and two memory presets, along with a Qi-standard wireless phone charger. The Mazda alone offers a projecting head-up display on the windscreen.
Verdict: Kia edges the Mazda in this area thanks to its cheaper on-road price and longer list of exclusive features.
The Kia’s interior clearly advertises its sporting intent. The leather bucket seats have red piping, and red stitching is scattered all over the seats, doors and grippy steering wheel. Silver highlights adorn the pedals and fascia, and the rounded turbine-look vents remind one of the Stinger GT. The headlining is jet black.
The white-on-black analogue gauges are highly legible, and the digital screen between them shows a digital speedo. The wheel has nice silver rocker switches on each spoke controlling audio functions (left) and cruise control (right), while by your right knee are various shortcut buttons controlling the assistance systems.
The 8.0-inch touchscreen has a simple user interface defaulting to the home screen showing maps, radio and a shortcut to other sub-menus. The climate control’s black backing and red lighting look a little old hat. Buttons flanking the leather-topped gear shifter control the driving mode and seating temperature.
The back seats offer plenty of leg, head and knee room for two 180cm adults (the middle pew is best for kids) and decent bolstering. The front seat-backs are made of hard plastic to be easily cleaned. Amenities include a folding centre armrest with cupholders, a yellow halogen light, and separate air vents.
The boot is a sizeable 502L, and little pulleys flip the back seats down 60:40 to house longer items. Beneath the loading floor is a temporary space-saver spare wheel that should be fine for most buyers’ needs.
By contrast, the Mazda 3’s interior feels more ‘premium’. We’d cite the leather-like padding on the dash, doors and transmission tunnel, the thin-rimmed wheel, the beautifully damped switchgear, the electric parking brake, and the tactile knurled dials as reasons why. The materials and textures are on a higher plane, cloth seat trim aside.
From the driver’s seat, the Mazda feels like it’s trying to hug you. The seating position is low, the vents sitting next to the instrument binnacle wrap around, and the 8.8-inch tablet screen (with a cleaner interface, crisper widescreen navigation display and faster loading times than before) is driver-facing.
That head-up display with speed and navigation data is a lovely touch, too, because it means you rarely need to take your eyes off the road to seek information.
Because Mazda’s cabin designers moved said screen further away from the driver, it’s no longer controlled by touch, but rather exclusively via the BMW/Audi-style rotary dial along the transmission tunnel, aided by shortcut buttons. The fact Mazda has at last embraced Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is most welcome.
Unlike the Mazda 3 hatchback, this sedan has been designed with back-seat occupants in mind. So while the former has slim side windows and a huge C-pillar that look sexy from outside but reduce visibility from within, the sedan takes a more conventional approach. Occupant space is similar to the Kia, and there are vents and cupholders.
The boot’s 444L capacity falls 58L short of the Kia’s, but is 149L greater than the pokey Mazda 3 hatch’s. As with its rival, there is a space-saver spare tyre below the loading floor, and levers mounted in the boot to flip the back seats downwards 60:40.
Verdict: While the Cerato’s sporty interior is brimming with features, the Mazda’s feels a little more special, and is far more practical than the pokey hatch model. It’s just brilliant.
The Kia is fitted with a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine shared with the Hyundai i30 N-Line among numerous other cars, producing 150kW of peak power at 6000rpm and maximum torque of 265Nm between 1500 and 4500rpm. Power is sent to the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The Mazda by contrast has a larger displacement 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine sans turbocharger, which is fitted with a sophisticated cylinder-deactivation system to preserve fuel reserves under low-stress driving, and idle stop-start. It makes 139kW at 6000rpm and 252Nm at 4000rpm, is FWD, and uses a six-speed automatic with torque converter.
The Mazda comes available with a $1000 cheaper six-speed manual gearbox option, but the Kia is auto-only. Both cars tested here have paddle shifters mounted behind the wheel spokes controlling limited manual modes, and both have sports buttons that tell the transmission to hold lower gears for longer to boost response.
The Kia’s engine has a more muscular feel and greater levels of low-down pulling power thanks to the shape of its torque graph, and is a smidgen punchier off the mark given the two cars weigh almost the same (the Mazda is 6kg heavier). Its DCT ’box is also great at rapid-fire shifting when you’re up and about.
On the downside, no DCT is as smooth or decisive in stop-start driving as a ‘regular’ automatic (especially if you have an aggressive ‘point and shoot’ style), and if you engage the car’s sports mode, the artificially enhanced engine note sent into the cabin becomes raucous and… Polarising. It’s very ‘boy racer’.
The Mazda’s super-high-compression aspirated engine remains unusually loud on start-up/idle until it’s warm. Past this point, though, it’s quieter and less thrashy than before, with Mazda going to great lengths to reduce noise, vibration and harshness intrusion thanks to more rubber nodes in the body and sound-numbing insulation.
While a six-speed automatic transmission seems to lack a ratio by some standards, it’s actually really well mapped out. The shifts come at the right time, are done in quick time, and in sports mode it even aggressively downshifts and rev matches. Plus, in stop-start driving it just gets on with things smoothly.
For those who aren’t satisfied at the idea of Mazda’s largely carried-over engine family, a more efficient new option called SkyActiv-X arrives late this year with novel spark-guided compression ignition technology, though it’ll wear a premium.
In terms of fuel use, both are able to use 91RON petrol. ADR claims show the Kia uses 6.8 litres per 100km on the combined cycle compared to 6.5L/100km for the Mazda. Naturally, these are elastic figures that will go higher with aggressive driving, though there was rarely much difference between this pair across their time together.
Verdict: The Kia’s engine pulls harder and sends a raspy note into the cabin, whereas the Mazda requires higher revs to get the best from it, but is smoother. I’d be inclined to give the edge to the Kia, though I prefer the Mazda’s transmission type and commend the availability of a manual option.
Kia’s trump card is its team of Australian engineers who are given suspension parameters and parts (springs, dampers, bushes and bars) to choose from to be tweaked for local roads and tastes.
The team has gone for a fairly firm spring rate with good damper control, though compared to the Mazda or even something like a Ford Focus ST-Line or Hyundai i30 N-Line, its ride character is stiff. If softness, comfort and NVH suppression are priorities, it’s not the best.
Dynamically it’s excellent, with well-sorted electric-assisted steering resistance that becomes heavier in sports mode, and plentiful road grip thanks to high-quality Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres.
Mazda prides itself on offering a sporty driving experience, and the 3 remains quite capable. The steering is well weighted and kickback is gone, while there’s also a rejigged G-Vectoring system that moderates engine torque to the front wheels based on steering inputs, effectively transferring the car’s weight.
The front suspension comprises MacPherson struts, while at the rear the company has reverted to a cheaper and easier-to-package torsion/twist beam, (unlike the Kia) with a slight trade-off in roadholding at the limits. Ride comfort is excellent, with a focus on isolating you from sharp road surfaces and reducing head-toss.
My passenger took highly legible notes while I drove aggressively through some corners, which is uncommon – either an indictment on my driving prowess or his writing skills! Finally, quietude: the Mazda’s 60dB in-cabin noise read at 100km/h was 3dB lower than the Kia’s figure.
Importantly on both, the driver-assistance tech mentioned above works well, with the lane assist turning the wheel in each car should you edge over a clearly painted road line, the active cruise control responding to gaps promptly, and the blind-spot monitoring taking some stress out of merging (don’t stop your head checks…).
Verdict: On paper, the Mazda’s torsion beam rear and lack of local tuning make it seem inferior, but it’s more comfortable and a little quieter, while still agile. Overall, it takes the edge for this reviewer.
Kia’s warranty is without peer in the class at seven years with no distance limit, and covered by roadside assistance for that period so long as you use a Kia dealer for servicing. Service intervals are annual or 10,000km, with the first five visits currently capped at $282, $476, $346, $630 and $317. That’s a not-cheap $2051.
Mazda’s warranty is the de rigueur five-year/unlimited-kilometre policy, with roadside assist now part of the package. Service intervals are likewise a measly 12 months/10,000km, with the first five visits capped at $299, $342, $299, $342 and $249. You’ll also need to have the brake fluid replaced twice over the five-year period ($134), a new air filter at 40,000km ($90), so add this $224 to the tally. It comes to $1805 total.
Verdict: The longer warranty gives Kia a slight edge, but there’s not a heap in it really.
Based on drive-away pricing, the Kia’s list of extra features (leather seats with heating/cooling and memory, Qi charger and front sensors) makes it slightly better value than the Mazda, and its engine offers a smidgen more punch. But the Mazda’s interior feels more special and it’s more comfortable to drive, though the margin is small.
The advice this writer would give? If you prefer a sporty look and feel, and turbo punch, get the Kia. If you want a miniature luxury car with greater comfort and chic design, then the Mazda is your pick. If push came to shove, I’d be driving the Mazda home, though I’m not about to split them based on that alone.
|Kia Cerato GT||Mazda 3 G25 Evolve|
|Engine||1.6 turbo petrol||2.5 aspirated petrol|
|Power||150kW @ 6000rpm||139kW @ 6000rpm|
|Torque||265Nm @ 1500–4500rpm||252Nm @ 4000rpm|
|Fuel use||6.8L/100km 91RON||6.5L/100km 91RON|
|Front suspension||MacPherson strut||MacPherson strut|
|Rear suspension||Multi-link||Torsion beam|
|Kia Cerato GT||Mazda 3 G25 Evolve|
|Parking sensors||Front and rear||Rear|
|Active cruise control||Yes||Yes|
|Mirrors||Electric auto-folding||Electric auto-folding|
|Screen||8.0-inch touch||8.8-inch rotary control|