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Just two words could cause 90 per cent of readers otherwise interested in a huge-selling and extremely popular passenger car, such as the 2019 Mazda 3, to leave its review by the end of the first paragraph. They are: manual gearbox.
Wait! Come back…
Okay, that’s presumptuous mathematics based on the fact around only 10 per cent of Mazda 3s sold are stick-shifters. Even applied to the most popular mid-spec Evolve variant – 30 per cent of all sales – we’re talking just three per cent of the Mazda 3 pie. And that’s before you consider the estimated split of the hatchback (two-thirds) from, as tested here, the sedan (one-third). Were we Europeans, who love a three-pedal four-door, it’d be a different story, but here in Oz I’d probably be lucky to fill a dinner party table with the number of small manual sedan buyers.
For those of us still here – Hello? Anyone? – let’s move on.
Off the bat, opting for the six-speed manual saves a grand over a conventional torque converter automatic with the same forward ratio count. The Evolve sedan tested here starts from $29,490 list and fits the larger ‘G25’ 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder good for 139kW and 252Nm, though you can save a not unsubstantial $2800 by opting instead for the Evolve G20 fitting the lower-output 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre engine.
As reported elsewhere, even the most basic G20 Pure version is impressively loaded with kit, but even scaling up the fiscal ladder to our G25 Evolve – essentially the entry 2.5-litre version – value for money looks very solid indeed. The key gear to Evolve spec includes upgrading to 18-inch rims, proper climate control, leather touchpoints, 10-way electric driver’s seat adjustment (G25 only), and an auto-dimming mirror.
The Evolve does make do with cloth trim, but it’s a reasonable $4000 stretch up to the leather-trimmed GT and a further $2500 lift to the all-singing, all-dancing Astina, which adds a sunroof and added tech and safety addenda.
That said, all Mazda 3 variants fit seven airbags, AEB, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, forward-collision alert, radar-based active cruise control, a reversing camera and rear sensors. Incidentally, some of the Astina’s added surety – 360-degree camera, front sensors and front cross-traffic alert, et cetera – can be optioned on the Evolve in a $1500 Vision Technology pack.
Add $495 worth of Mazda’s signature heroic Soul Red paint and the sedan is exceedingly handsome. Arguably, it's a more congruent design than the stumpier, 200mm-shorter hatchback twin that doesn’t offer nearly as much boot space as the four-door’s very handy 444L. Is there another mainstream four-door anything like this price that looks anywhere near as expensive?
I’ve written it before and will write it again: sharp styling and sound design cost no extra to develop, and Mazda champions this ethos better than most. Without a premium sister brand to protect – as Japanese contemporaries Toyota and Nissan do – the Hiroshima concern is free to run as hard with aesthetics and functionality as it likes, and does so to impressive effect. Understand this and its across-the-ranges popularity is of little wonder.
Take the interior. We’ve heaped praise on the Mazda 3’s cleaner, more premium-look cabin at every opportunity to date, but it’s as impressive in thoughtful layout and intuitive usability as it is in neat, minimalist presentation of features framed within the joyfully curvaceous and slightly daring dash contours. Everything is clear and logical, and there’s nothing weird for weird’s sake.
The seats are good rather than spectacular, comfortable and supportive, if trimmed in hardy fabric. The slightly oversized, thin-rimmed wheel presents well and feels good, the console cupholders are thoughtfully located ahead of the gearstick, and the vastly improved infotainment system, albeit with a small-ish 8.8-inch non-touchscreen, is a magnitude better and simpler to use than the clunky old MZD Connect touchscreen format.
Once one of the stop-outs of smartphone mirroring, Mazda’s latest infotainment suite loads Apple and Android compatibility, proprietary sat-nav and digital radio for want-for-little functionality, but it’s the razor-sharp imagery and elegantly straightforward menu system via the console controller that impresses the most. Clear instrumentation, a handy head-up display, sound switchgear, and a pleasing mixture of soft surfaces and glossy highlights all contribute to class-leading ambience.
Rear space isn’t bad: treated as a four-adult prospect, head and shoulder room are decent, while knee and toe room are merely acceptable. Row two gets air vents only for rear passengers and no provision for powering devices, and suffers a little with a short door aperture that can make it tricky to climb in and out.
The sedan’s 444L boot space comprehensively outsizes the twin hatchback’s make-do 295L with quite useable square proportions, though the low-hanging body bracing under the parcel shelf does restrict load-through somewhat with the 60:40-split-fold rear seatback stowed. A space-saver spare is fitted under the floor.
Of the many and varied reasons why you might be a ‘10-percenter’ opting for the manual, driving engagement (and therefore enjoyment) is a key part of the attraction. But those hoping for a certifiably sporty experience from the G25 should probably temper your expectations a little.
It’s a good powertrain. There’s inherent quality to the drivetrain: decent, flat-stagger pedal placement; a pleasingly moderate clutch weight; a short-ish throw in the gearstick that's firmly gated, moderately centre-sprung and light in action, if a touch notchy and slightly hesitant when rushed. Not overly lightweight and flaccid, nor unnecessarily clunky in ‘sporty’ misdirection, it strikes a ‘just right’ sort of middle ground.
The 2.5-litre petrol four, too, is a gem of an engine sampled via the direct clarity of a clutch plate. It’s keenly tractable and pulls faithfully off idle, with ample in-gear flexibility and response. There’s ample mid-range shove despite the high (4000rpm) peak torque threshold and it runs eagerly to redline. Performance-wise, it’s quite satisfying.
Where it starts to become a bit of a chore is in the low-speed, around-town driving stuff once you’re forced to constantly row through the gears. The clutch has a vague bite point, and while there’s some zing in the engine note with some revs on board, the 2.5-litre's quiet nature when driven leisurely demands concentration behind the wheel to maintain a rhythm of up- and downshifts to keep the engine nice and responsive.
Thus, in the peak-hour grind, you spend more time eyeballing the tacho than need be.
Fuel consumption is far from stellar. Officially, at 6.2L combined, the manual G25 is 0.3L/100km thriftier than the auto version. But driven in a manner that maintains useable around-town response over overtaking pep on the open road, and consumption is likely to hover around the nine-litre mark. It does, however, happily drink 91RON fuel.
Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to the concept that the conventional manual is the ‘driver’s choice’ that they only seem to gel, in these times, in what are unapologetically ‘driver’s cars,’ of which the Mazda 3 clearly isn’t. An auto just feels to suit the luxo-tinged, small-sized Japanese sedan format much more sensibly the way the vast majority of owners are likely to drive them.
That’s not to suggest the Mazda lacks quality in the driving experience. Far from it. This is a properly nice car to drive, with a polished ride and handling balance from its strut and torsion beam suspension. Dynamics are sweet, light and clear from behind the wheel, and there’s a genuine sense of surefooted connection with the road. Even on large 18-inch wheels, the damping irons out the small bumps and settles quickly and confidently over speed humps, though it will thump over expansion joints in the road.
Quiet, refined, polished – there’s a certain upmarket dignity to this new Mazda 3 that gives many rival segment dwellers cause for concern. But it’s not a package without foibles, or at least quirks. The magnification of the wing mirrors is, initially at least, somewhat alarming, making traffic either side of the car seem much closer than it actually is. Meanwhile, the auto high-beam function has a tendency to activate in dimly lit tunnels, annoyingly flashing the traffic travelling up ahead and forcing you at times to turn the system off.
Indeed, at the time of writing, the Mazda 3 has been the subject of a raft of factory recalls – four in two months – so perhaps the otherwise impressive new small-car breed is plagued by some early life-cycle gremlins.
A good thing, then, that it’s covered by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with five years of complimentary roadside assistance. Capped-price servicing intervals are 12 months or 10,000km, whichever comes first, averaging out to a reasonable basic outlay of $316.20 per year for the first five years.
If you simply must have ‘a stick’, you can, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the engineering as fitted. But while it’s commendable that its maker offers a choice of manual transmission across the ‘3’ range, it’s debatable as to whether the gearbox format brings anything meaningful to Mazda’s impressive small-sedan experience or merely detracts from it.