Spending more than $40,000 drive-away on a new Mazda 3 once meant you were jumping into an MPS hot-hatch variant. Since 2014, that kind of money has instead got you into an Astina-badged flagship model aiming to showcase the Japanese small car at its most sophisticated.
Aside from the exclusive diesel power offered in the XD Astina, the extra sophistication then chiefly concerned the model’s extra safety technology over models below it.
The $38,240 Mazda 3 G25 Astina automatic released as the head of the fourth-generation small-car range in 2019 follows a similar approach with additional, range-exclusive driver aids. However, it also arrived in a context of the carmaker aiming to push its brand into that mainstream-meets-luxury zone where Volkswagen sits.
It starts with a statement of intent by the 3’s exterior design. The hatchback body style has sacrificed some traditional five-door practicality for a more emotive shape – a curving roof that plummets into distinctively wide rear pillars. It's a combination that doesn’t bode well for rear head room or rear vision.
The Astina is the only Mazda 3 available with a sunroof and adaptive LED headlights, while inside it’s the only model to feature burgundy leather seats and trim (or white leather for the Astina sedan).
And it’s the only variant standard with a Vision Technology driver-assistance pack (optional for other 3s). This pack includes a surround-view camera, front sensors, front cross-traffic detection, camera-based fatigue monitoring (which checks your eyes for signs of tiredness), and an auto accelerate/brake function specific to rush-hour traffic.
From the rest of the impressively specified 3 range, the Astina already has features such as adaptive cruise control, speed-limit notification, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring, and lane-departure warning.
In terms of a small car designed to prevent you from getting into any scrapes – major or minor – it’s hard to think of a safer hatch than the 3 Astina. Just in case, though, it also crashes well, high-scoring in occupant protection on its way to a five-star ANCAP rating.
Slide into the driver’s seat and it’s immediately clear that Mazda’s not just talking a good marketing game.
Aside from noticing seat comfort that finds the sweet spot between too soft and too firm, the 3 Astina’s interior looks and feels richer than your average small car. You could even say it 'out-Golfs' Volkswagen’s long-time standard-setter – though the eighth-generation Golf will be here later in 2020 with the intention of wresting back the best-cabin crown.
There’s an abundance of soft, squidgy plastics beyond the usual key interior touchpoints, a smart-looking piano-black for the centre console, a thin strip of chrome underlines the ventilation louvres, and the knurled climate dials are indicative of generally excellent tactility all around.
The use of burgundy leather extends to panels on the dash and doors, and there’s a Lexus-like smoothness to the way the (one-touch) windows glide up and down.
The slanted infotainment display protrudes between the stylish, twin-layered upper dash and features Mazda’s new and much improved Connect system. Apart from the improved display size that’s now 8.8 inches rather than 7.0 inches, the graphics look sharper and more contemporary – and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration is standard.
Touchscreen capability is out (and not missed) to make menu operation solely by the centre console’s rotary controller, which allows the driver or front passenger to cycle through and select functions with smooth clicks or joystick-style movements. A separate, mini dial can control volume, act as a toggle for music tracks/radio stations, and turn audio on or off. There are also shortcut buttons for Home/Entertainment/Navigation/Return.
The wide format of the display means you don’t see much of the road ahead on the nav-map, though the controller can be used to zoom out (and zoom back in).
Storage hasn’t been ignored. Up front, door pockets are long, wide and capable of accommodating large drink bottles, the glovebox is larger than the small-car norm, and the dual cupholders now re-positioned ahead of the gear lever make room for a front armrest that can slide back and lift up to reveal a medium-sized cubby (with divider and USB port).
But is that rear seat as compromised as the 3’s design suggests? It is if you’re 5ft 10in or taller, as you’ll be friendlier than you’d like with the headlining and front seatbacks. Shorter passengers will have a reduced view out owing to the small rear windows. Most adults will otherwise appreciate good leg room that’s helped by the scalloping of the front seatbacks.
The outboard seats match the front seats for comfort and rear passengers are treated to their own ventilation. There’s also a wide, pull-down centre armrest incorporating cupholders. Or drink bottles can be placed in the usefully sized door pockets or single seatback pouch.
Or perhaps rear space is largely irrelevant, as Mazda suggests. It says the majority of 3 owners drive solo or with only one other passenger.
All owners would definitely value good boot space, though, and they won’t get it with the Mazda 3 hatch. Shrinking 13L to 295L for this generation, the 3’s luggage capacity is well below average (most rivals are closer to 400L). It can fit a couple of large suitcases, though any small family considering a Mazda 3 should check their pram will fit (our family’s Mountain Buggy Swift only just squeezes in).
The ‘G25’ part of this car’s badge signifies a 2.5-litre four-cylinder under the bonnet (shared with the G25 Evolve and G25 GT). With 139kW and 252Nm, the engine brings an extra 25kW and 52Nm over the 2.0-litre petrol featured in the lower half of the model range.
While not a sporty engine by any means, it imbues the 3 with decent performance while, perhaps more importantly for the hatch’s premium aspirations, it’s smooth and quiet. It also gels well with the six-speed auto.
A Sport mode is available, though it does little to improve throttle response in regular driving, but will prompt the gearbox to downshift more urgently under heavier braking or a lift of the throttle in more spirited driving.
And during the latter, the Mazda 3 continues the model’s reputation for fine handling. That's despite a switch from a more sophisticated multi-link suspension to a cheaper (but easier to package) torsion bar set-up that you could say contradicts the 3’s more upmarket positioning.
The hatch turns into corners keenly, feels balanced through them, and roadholding is aided by strong grip from the 18-inch tyres (Bridgestone Turanzas on our test car). Good brakes, too.
Supremely smooth and highly accurate steering cements the 3 as a car to be appreciated by those who love driving, and even those who just see a car as an A-to-B appliance. And we didn’t experience any of the kickback that could afflict the previous model’s steering.
The firm country-road ride could be a bit more relaxing, though a Mazda 3 has never seemed so quiet on coarser surfaces – confirming a successful mission by the company’s engineers to curb road noise.
Around town, the suspension feels less stiff and mostly comfortable. Potholes and larger bumps, however, cause the front end to spasm – noticeably wobbling the windscreen-projected head-up display info.
Those thick C-pillars can make reversing a tentative affair, while the rear window also reduces rear vision. The surround-view monitor (with a clear, high-resolution image) and sensors can help to an extent, but the 3 is low down the class order for all-round visibility.
A couple of blots, then, on an otherwise impressive driving copybook.
Mazda 3 servicing costs are higher than those of key rivals such as the Hyundai i30 and Toyota Corolla, with visits costing between $309 and $359 as part of the company’s capped-price servicing program.
Mileage intervals are also short at 10,000km, so annual maintenance costs increase for any owners driving closer to the annual motoring average of 15,000km.
Our testing yielded an average fuel consumption of 10.1L/100km, though this included dynamic driving. The trip computer’s ‘ongoing’ average suggests consumption for most owners will sit somewhere in the mid to high 8.0s, which is still above the official 6.6L/100km figure.
The Mazda 3’s push into pricier territory – including a $24,990 base model that now starts $4500 higher than before – has harmed sales of the small car, as the company predicted.
There’s no doubt, however, that the latest-generation Mazda 3 successfully takes the brand upwards – never more so than in this pseudo-luxury G25 Astina specification. We just hope it doesn’t remain the flagship, because there’s a foundation here for a great hot hatch, and a belated return of the MPS performance badge.