Australians tend to buy hatchbacks and crossover SUVs, but there is still a market for the humble small sedan. Two of the most popular are the new (and more premium-than-before) Toyota Corolla and Mazda 3.
But they’re also two of the most resolved cars in their class. Increased prices on entry grades may dent sales, but it's easier to justify a premium when you're looking at the two flagship models.
Pricing and spec
We’ll address infotainment and active safety features separately, but other common features to both cars include: 18-inch wheels with a temporary spare; LED headlights and running lights; seven airbags; a sliding and tilting sunroof; powered and heated front seats; a proximity key fob; and rain-sensing wipers.
The Mazda’s seats are a combination of real and synthetic leather, whereas the Toyota's are synthetic entirely. The Mazda’s driver's seat also gets two memory presets. The Mazda also gets auto-folding side mirrors and rain-sensing wipers, which are strange omissions from the Toyota.
Among the various features exclusive to the Astina grade over the GT, which is actually closer in price to the Corolla, is a sunroof. So keep that in mind.
|Mazda 3 G25 Astina||Toyota Corolla ZR|
|Seat trim||Real & synthetic leather||Synthetic leather|
|Driver’s seat functions||Powered, heated, memory||Powered, heated|
|Air-conditioning||Dual-zone climate||Single-zone climate|
Tech and infotainment
The Mazda’s infotainment system displays on an 8.8-inch screen controlled not by touch, but by a rotary dial between the seats and some shortcut buttons. This system means your hand stays steady while driving, but phone-mirroring software is less intuitive to scroll through as it’s designed for a touch interface.
The system is very easy to use otherwise, though, and has a much more contemporary and mature look (think more greys and fewer reds) than the previous MZD Connect system. The satellite navigation maps look slick and up-to-date, and the 360-degree camera’s resolution is impressively crisp. Note: this camera is optional on the GT, which has a rear-view unit as standard.
The driver’s instruments feature a 7.0-inch centre screen controlled by steering wheel buttons that shows a digitised analogue speedo or your lane-assist functions in action. Above the binnacle is a head-up display (HUD) that projects onto the windscreen, and which shows your speed, the speed limit, and navigation.
A particular commendation is due for the Bose 12-speaker audio system (standard on the GT as well) that is absolutely brilliant, and largely free of distortion at higher volumes. I found it clearly more pleasant to listen to than systems in other small cars. Indeed, I thought it would be at home in a Lexus.
The Toyota’s interior features a more upright screen mounted closer to the driver, and controlled by touch and a selection of buttons and knobs for shortcuts. The home screen defaults to three tiles, with the largest devoted to the map and the other pair configurable. I generally viewed audio and phone data.
The sat-nav has SUNA live updates and the typical Toyota propensity to announce loudly the presence of school zones and speed cameras, but of course you can mute all these updates. We welcome Toyota’s adoption of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto alongside its clunkier Toyota App Link system.
One unique feature to the Corolla is a Qi wireless phone-charging pad mounted ahead of the gear shifter, but that doesn’t enable wireless CarPlay/Android access.
The driver’s instruments likewise bookend a 7.0-inch screen between an analogue tacho and fuel gauge, and this blue-lit screen can show your fuel use, speed, speed limit, and lane-assist activity. Like the Mazda, the Toyota also offers a great projecting HUD; a feature that in both cars keeps your eyes trained to the road ahead.
The Corolla ZR gets an uprated sound system made by partner JBL, with nine speakers including A-pillar tweeters. It’s good, but to my ears (I’m no sound engineer) not quite as crisp or bass-y as the Mazda’s.
|Mazda 3 G25 Astina||Toyota Corolla ZR|
|Wireless phone charger||No||Yes|
|Trip computer||7.0-inch TFT||7.0-inch TFT|
|Control mechanism||Rotary dial||Touchscreen|
|Camera view||360 degree||Reverse|
|Sound system||12 speakers, Bose||9 speakers, JBL|
The new Corolla's interior layout is far more contemporary than the old model's. The faux leather seats are plump with great bolstering and myriad adjustment, the steering wheel is wrapped in nice leather, and its well-placed buttons are damped.
In typical Toyota form, everything is ergonomic and dead simple to operate, and built solidly from hard-wearing materials that aren't as fancy and 'special' as the Mazda's, but should look unchanged in 10 years' time, even assuming hard use. That Mazda’s primo interior doesn’t feel like it’ll age as well unless cared for perfectly.
If there's a weak point in here, it's the storage options, which comprise a small centre console and glovebox, and smallish door bins. And while the sunroof may be a great feature, it does reduce head room to the point where the top of mine was brushing the roof constantly (I'm 194cm).
But Mazda has created a beautiful interior for the new '3'; one that lives up to the brand’s self-appointed role as a borderline premium brand. The driving position is low like a coupe, a feeling enhanced by the lovely thin-rimmed steering wheel and the instrument binnacle framed by driver-facing vents.
The new model’s seats are much more supportive than before, and in Astina grade are trimmed with particularly soft leather finished in either cream or black.
Every surface is finished in leather-like padding or soft plastic, and every switch and button is particularly tactile – from the knurled ventilation buttons and infotainment controller, to the damped switches on the wheel and window, to more simple touches like the delightful indicator and windscreen stalks.
There's also more cabin storage, including a larger and felt-lined centre console and glovebox, a sunglasses cubby in the roof, and bigger door bins.
Both cars offer back seats that’ll fit two adults below 185cm or three kids (both have two ISOX anchors and three top tethers), and which split-fold. Only the Mazda offers rear-seat air vents. The big trade-up in the back seats, particularly in the Mazda, is the improved outboard visibility compared to the aggressively styled hatch derivative.
We’ve also criticised the hatch versions of both these cars for their poxy boot capacities – even with no spare tyre of any sort, the Corolla hatch only offers 333L, while the Mazda (with a temporary spare) has 295L. These figures in the sedans are improved to 470L and 444L respectively.
|Mazda 3 G25 Astina||Toyota Corolla ZR|
Strangely, the Corolla ZR sedan doesn’t come with a petrol-electric hybrid option, which is limited in this body style to lower-grade Ascent Sport and SX grades. Therefore, the sole engine option is a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol with direct and secondary port injection, and ‘intelligent’ variable valve timing.
This engine produces 125kW and 200Nm, and uses a claimed 6.0 litres of 91RON petrol per 100km. It’s mated to a CVT automatic sending outputs to the front wheels, but it’s a CVT with a difference.
This transmission has a fixed launch gear used to improve initial response. Once rolling, the transmission’s brain switches power to the CVT’s belt and pulley, which keep engine speeds more constant. Because the CVT’s launch gear handles the high loads coming at start-off, the subsequent size of the belt and pulley components could be reduced.
This smaller belt and pulley set-up means shifts can be made more quickly. While CVTs need not have noticeable gear shifts, the gearbox also has 10 ‘speeds’ coming from the synchronisation of increasing engine revs and vehicle speed, further controlled by paddle shifters. In other words, it’s a CVT that tries very hard not to feel like one.
Unlike ubiquitous small-displacement turbos mated to double-clutch transmissions (DCT), the Toyota engine offers zero lag and an instant response in urban driving, and becomes engaging higher in the rev band if you want to drive more assertively at safe speeds. And that CVT does a great job of not feeling like one indeed.
The Mazda’s engine has an unusually large displacement for this class of car, and like the Toyota’s is naturally aspirated. It’s a 2.5-litre petrol four with direct injection and a clever cylinder-deactivation system that helps save fuel by ‘downsizing’ the engine when it’s at low stress.
Mazda claims outputs of 139kW and 252Nm, which is a not insignificant 14kW/52Nm more than the Toyota. Given the weights are about the same, the Mazda’s power-to-weight ratio of 100.1kW per tonne is 10 per cent superior to the Toyota’s.
The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that is nothing flash, but does the job of unobtrusively shifting gears just fine. It also has a sports mode controlled by a rocker switch that programs more aggressive downshifts under braking, accompanied by a small rev counter flare. Unlike the Corolla, a manual is available.
The only real downside to the Mazda’s high-compression engine is its loudness on cold starts, which is quite unrefined until the revs settle down after about 10 seconds. Fuel use is a claimed 6.5L/100km and it runs on 91RON like the Toyota.
Those who want something new will have to wait for 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.
|Mazda 3 G25 Astina||Toyota Corolla ZR|
|Engine||2.5-litre petrol||2.0-litre petrol|
|Induction||Naturally aspirated||Naturally aspirated|
|Power||139kW @ 6000rpm||125kW @ 6600rpm|
|Torque||252Nm @ 4000rpm||200Nm @ 4400rpm|
|kW per tonne||100.1||90.3|
|Fuel economy||6.5L/100km 91RON||6.0L/100km 91RON|
On the Road
Mazda’s ethos has long been about offering responsive steering, good body control, sharp turn-in and a firm-but-not-harsh ride character. This new 3 delivers on all of these aspects really well thanks in part to a stiffer chassis than before, and a suspension tune that impressively minimises head toss.
A MacPherson strut suspension arrangement remains at the front, but the rear is now a cheaper torsion beam. To be frank, you'll only notice diminished roadholding at 10/10ths, with the rear never obviously skipping about or losing road contact on one side.
The ride quality is really quite good, with more damping from the tyres and rejigged springs/shocks keeping things controlled over corrugations. More rigid suspension mounts also smooth upward wheel movement. The steering is direct, and the old model's kickback over mid-corner hits has been reduced, if not removed altogether.
Mazda has also tweaked 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.
Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels are much lower than Mazdas of yore, too. There are rubberised nodes in the body, specific fabric fibres in the headlining, more insulation, better engine mounts… Mazda showed me a list of 49 different techniques used to cut out noise and vibrations. It’s almost Volkswagen Golf quiet.
When the new Corolla launched, we expected the handling to be far better than its dreary predecessor, thanks to its adoption of Toyota’s new TNGA architecture that cuts weight and adds stiffness.
The great news is that this Corolla isn’t just smoother and more comfortable over smooth and choppy surfaces alike than its predecessor, but also far more engaging if you feel like driving more aggressively. The presence of trailing wishbone independent rear suspension is a giveaway that Toyota tried really hard.
Over twisty roads, the Corolla sedan offers handling of a higher grade than might be expected, coupled with quite direct steering. It’s certainly a more dynamically assured experience than a typical fleet or Uber driver might command, and is even better at controlling road hits felt through the wheel than the Mazda is.
As a colleague of mine said, if you absolutely value ride quality, the ZR’s 18-inch wheels aren’t the best fit. “There’s nothing unpalatable about the ride, but it shows more of the rough edges of the road surface. Lesser variants run 16-inch alloys on petrol models, making the road manners much more comfy in the process,” he correctly said.
Ultimately, I think the Mazda is a smidgen sharper and quieter, and better at keeping head toss and unnatural body movement minimised, but both of these cars ride and handle better than they really need to. And that’s a great thing.
Of course, ‘on the road’ doesn’t only refer to the way a car rides and handles. Both cars tested here come with a lot of the latest driver-assisting active safety technologies.
Both of these cars get autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and forward-collision alert systems that are able to detect other cars, pedestrians and cycles. They aren’t foolproof, but are designed to instantaneously brake the car should the driver fail to heed the warnings. Toyota’s systems work in drive, Mazda's in both drive and reverse.
They also get lane-departure alerts and lane-departure warning systems that steer the car away from a road line. The Toyota’s is additionally able to keep the car centred in the lane using clever sensor inputs. Both also have blind-spot monitoring lights in the side mirrors, radar-guided active cruise control that mimics the speed of the car ahead on highways, traffic-sign recognition cameras and readouts, and auto-dipping high-beam lights.
Mazda also gives you a driver drowsiness monitor that chimes if you’re showing signs of erratic behaviour at the wheel, and both front and rear cross-traffic alerts that tell you when potentially hidden perpendicular traffic is coming at you (such as at a T-junction or pulling out of a parking bay). The frontal system even displays an arrow in the HUD showing you which direction the approaching vehicle is coming from.
Keep in mind that the driver monitor and front cross-traffic alert systems (alongside the 360 camera and front parking sensors) are actually optional on the Mazda 3 G25 GT, which is a better price comparison to the Corolla ZR, but are standard on the G25 Astina.
|Mazda 3 G25 Astina||Toyota Corolla ZR|
|AEB forward||Cars, peds, cyclists||Cars, peds, cyclists|
|Radar active cruise control||Yes||Yes|
|Traffic sign recognition||Yes||Yes|
|Active high-beam lights||Yes||Yes|
|Cross-traffic alerts||Front and rear||No|
Both Mazda and Toyota offer five-year factory warranties with no distance cap, and roadside assistance.
The Mazda's service intervals are 12 months or 10,000km (whichever comes first). The first five visits are presently advertised as: $315, $359, $315, $359, and $315, plus $160 every 40,000km for a new air filter and brake fluid.
The Toyota's servicing intervals are a more generous 12 months or 15,000km, and also cheaper. The first five visits each cost $180.
If there's one thing this test shows, it's that both the Corolla and Mazda 3 are now mass-market vehicles featuring the very latest infotainment and safety tech, with more spirited driving dynamics and premium levels of quality.
The Mazda 3 G25 Astina's price premium is a bit of an issue in this test, but of course there's the GT grade that's $3500 cheaper (and loses adaptive headlights, a sunroof, the 360-degree camera, front cross-traffic alert, and front parking sensors).
I won't say the Mazda is necessarily a better car, but it is better at offering a premium experience than the more overtly sporty Toyota. Its luxury-car cabin and audio system, extra safety tech, and noise suppression see to that.
The Corolla offers more car for the money, and as mentioned earlier is cheaper to run. It's also every bit as dynamically sharp, if a smidgen less refined. If there were a ZR hybrid it'd be even better again. I'd personally edge towards the Mazda, but objectively would recommend the Toyota. Just.