The most aspirational Mazda 3 model yet is our current mainstream small-car benchmark. Now it faces its toughest test – against the most affordable version of the new BMW 1 Series.
Mazda’s openly stated ambition to take its brand upmarket has got off to a bumpy start.
While the Japanese company’s local arm predicted a sales drop for the first of its more premium-positioned models – the Mazda 3 that starts $4500 higher than before – it’s unlikely it was expecting them to halve in the space of a year. The related CX-30 small SUV introduced in early 2020 with one of the highest starting prices in its segment hasn’t made a blistering sales start, either.
Popularity isn't necessarily synchronous with quality, however, and the range-topping Mazda 3 G25 Astina last year defeated a raft of rivals to win CarAdvice’s small-car mega-test.
That was against comparably priced mainstream rivals, but here we’ve set up an intriguing – and arguably tougher – test for the top-dog Mazda 3. To find out whether the Japanese hatch can transcend the mainstream segment by challenging the entry-level version of the new, third-generation 1 Series.
While there’s a $5400 price gap between the Mazda 3 G25 Astina and BMW 118i, we’re keen to see if the Mazda can convince beyond simply a lower price tag and more features.
Pricing and specifications
The Mazda 3 range these days begins from $25,590, whereas it was previously just over $20,000. A $38,590 ask for the top-of-the-line G25 Astina is less controversial, even if the former XD Astina model’s price was pushed beyond that territory by its diesel engine (and last offered in 2016).
Even a base-model 3 is well equipped with driver-assistance technology, so it’s no surprise the Astina pushes out the active-safety boat even further.
It monitors for blind zones and (front/rear) cross traffic, alerts you if you accidentally wander out of lane markings, notifies you of the prevailing speed limit (on both the head-up display and instrument panel), and features parking sensors front and rear. Autonomous emergency braking is standard and works for reversing as well.
The front sensors and front cross-traffic alert functions form part of a Vision Technology pack that is standard on the Astina, but a $1500 option on every other Mazda 3. The package also adds a surround-view camera, more advanced (camera-based) fatigue monitoring, and an auto accelerate/brake function specific to rush-hour traffic.
There’s also adaptive cruise control, adaptive LED headlights, auto high-beam and tyre pressure monitoring, which cost an extra $1000 on the $42,990 BMW 118i as part of a Driver Assistance Package. (The BMW features regular LED headlights.)
The German hatchback otherwise matches its mainstream challenger for most active-safety features, including head-up display and speed limit info.
It’s less of a contest for convenience features. The Mazda 3 Astina comes with leather upholstery, electric adjustment for the front seats, keyless entry, a sunroof, 12-speaker Bose audio, paddleshift levers, and heating function for the front seats and steering wheel.
Electric front seats with heating (and lumbar support) plus keyless entry are part of a $2300 option pack for the BMW. This includes the ‘Digital Key’, which allows certain Samsung smartphones to open, close and start the car.
BMW Australia has made an M Sport Package standard on the 118i. Aside from some sportier exterior trim parts, it gives the car 18-inch M light-alloy wheels and a lowered M Sport suspension. A standard suspension is available as a no-cost option.
Technology and infotainment
The Mazda 3 can be overzealous occasionally with its warnings, beeping away when there’s seemingly no danger. Generally, though, you can appreciate the car’s desire to keep you aware of surrounding traffic – including no less than three visual blind-spot notifications if you have the ‘Driver Aid’ display selected on the instrument panel.
Adaptive cruise control is always a helpful feature on freeways, even if the system could be a touch quicker to re-engage once the vehicle ahead is out of the way. During another Mazda 3 test, we also discovered the system to be flawed in stop-start traffic.
The rear-view camera provides good image quality, though the surround-view camera’s stretched view isn’t ideal. While the 118i lacks a 360-degree camera, it provides around-car sensor guidance when parking.
Both vehicles come with their manufacturer’s latest infotainment systems.
Mazda Connect is a big step up over the former MZD system, with a larger, higher-quality screen and improved presentation. It also overcomes one of the frustrations of older Mazda infotainment systems – allowing you to pair a phone within a matter of seconds, whereas previously owners would often have to perform a Bluetooth re-scan at least once.
A rotary controller is retained (though with a new design) and is the only way of operating the infotainment system as touchscreen functionality hasn’t been carried over. Those keen to use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto may find this less intuitive.
That rotate-to-move-and-push-to-select dial – as well as the horizontally designed centre display – clearly take their inspiration from BMW’s iDrive, which continues to be one of the best infotainment systems in the business with its excellent menu-navigation set-up, smart graphics and clever split-screen capability (which Mazda’s display also provides).
The tactility and intuitiveness of both rotary controllers – each supported/surrounded by helpful shortcut buttons – is difficult to fault.
Those with Android smartphones need to wait for BMW to add smartphone integration sometime mid-year. Apple CarPlay is available, though, and unlike most cars can be connected wirelessly.
Wireless smartphone charging is one surprising omission from the Mazda 3 and is standard on the 118i – where a phone slots in side-on rather than flat as with most inductive trays. Larger phones fit more awkwardly but still charge.
While acknowledging this website isn’t called AudioAdvice, my ears give the BMW’s untitled hi-fi system the edge for sound quality over the Mazda’s Bose. The BMW’s 10.25-inch display is also larger and includes alternative touchscreen operation, though overall these are two highly commendable infotainment systems.
For now, you won’t find a posher-looking cabin in the mainstream small-car segment than the Mazda 3’s interior. That applies throughout the range, though GT and Astina variants elevate the premium feel with their black leather seating.
Lashings of leatherette extend all around the cabin, including on the upper section of the centre console. Most places you prod give way pleasingly to finger pressure, though perceived quality extends beyond soft materials.
The windows (all one-touch) slide up and down with a Lexus-like gracefulness, and the tactility of (knurled) dials and buttons is a match for the switchgear in the BMW.
With additional neat touches such as the horizontal venting, the chrome strip that runs along the dash, and the way the infotainment display is integrated into the sculpted dash, it’s clear Mazda’s interior designers put plenty of thought into the 3.
BMW has similarly been trying to play catch-up with Audi with interior presentation. While previous 1 Series cabins were hardly low-rent affairs, the third-generation model is a clear lift in perceived quality and contemporary design.
There’s a sporty and techy aura to the 118i’s cabin. The sporty side comes from the chunky, heavily bolstered front seats (fabric and faux-leather combination) and thick-rimmed M Sport steering wheel. The technical feel comes from materials – such as the soft textured plastic used heavily on the dash or the blue fabric used on the doors and seats – though primarily the BMW’s pair of 10.25-inch digital displays.
I had less of an issue with the BMW’s variety of materials/surfacing than fellow tester Rob Margeit, while we were also split on the use of blue fabric on the doors. Our test car suggested the fabric is easy to mark, though.
BMW’s instrument panel certainly looks high-tech, even if it lacks the ability to customise the layout to the extent of the digital driver displays in the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class. And it’s debatable whether it looks classier than the ‘Black Panel’ approach BMW previously took – which fused classic and modern by incorporating digital displays within physical dials.
Mazda’s approach is more like the latter, with a central graphic display flanked by analogue dials and actual needles for the tachometer (left) and engine temp/fuel gauge (right).
Jump into the rear of the 118i and the packaging benefits of the 1 Series’s switch from a rear-drive platform (with longitudinally installed engines) to a front-wheel-drive platform (with transversely mounted engines) are obvious.
There’s good space for adults at last both in terms of leg room and head room. The bench is comfortable, too, though the 118i’s lack of rear ventilation and a centre armrest is disappointing. The large plastic sections stuck onto the BMW’s front seatbacks don’t look premium, either.
Knee room and head room are less generous in the back of the Mazda 3, though leg room is fine if front occupants aren’t taller than 5ft 10in. The Japanese hatch’s rising beltline reduces the view out, too, but rear passengers are treated to rear vents and an armrest.
The BMW completes its interior-space advantage with the biggest boot here. With a quoted capacity of 380L versus the Mazda’s 295L, there’s a taller aperture, a useful underfloor storage layer, and bag hooks. Both cars feature 60-40 split-fold rear seats that go flat for extra cargo space.
While the Mazda’s boot is far from hopeless, the BMW’s is better suited to any small families considering a hatchback. Neither comes with an auto tailgate standard, though electric operation is available as an option on the 118i.
The G25 Astina is an obvious candidate in the 3 range to receive Mazda’s new diesel-style Skyactiv-X petrol engine in late 2020, as the 2.0-litre supercharged four-cylinder that promises significantly better efficiency than the company’s standard 2.0-litre is going to carry a premium to help offset investment costs.
In the meantime, the flagship 3 features Mazda’s trusty 2.5-litre four-cylinder that produces 139kW and 252Nm and is linked with a six-speed automatic gearbox.
While some forced-induction performance wouldn’t go amiss at the Astina’s pricepoint, or for its aspirations, the naturally aspirated 2.5-litre is a good engine. It satisfies with its keen responses and doesn’t exhibit uncouth behaviour when pushed for more urgent acceleration. It’s complemented by the smooth and decisive auto.
There’s a sport toggle for more spirited driving, though on a good driver’s road it’s still best to use the paddle levers rather than rely on the auto to determine gearshift timings.
Three-cylinder engines were once the domain of cheap micro cars, but turbocharged versions have become more popular as part of the industry’s engine-downsizing strategy. BMW developed its first three-cylinder turbo a few years ago, which went on to feature in the 3 Series, the previous 118i, and even the i8 hybrid supercar. One also continues to power the base Mini Cooper that shares its platform with the new 1 Series.
BMW’s take on the three-pot format continues to be thoroughly more balanced and refined than those older-school engines, including a more sophisticated thrum to its soundtrack. Although the 118i’s 103kW/220Nm outputs look modest for a $43,000-plus hatchback – as does a 0–100km/h claim of 8.5 seconds – this is an enjoyably smooth and flexible engine.
It’s capable of carrying the 118i along in a high gear with little more than 1200rpm on board. (You just have to get used to an engine that sometimes sounds like it’s labouring when it’s not the case.)
It’s willing to rev, too, though keen drivers will find the lack of paddles (or manual gearbox) frustrating. The absence isn’t helped by a seven-speed dual-clutch auto that feels lazier than it should in sporty driving, especially with Sport mode selected.
You can push-pull the stubby gear lever to change ratios, but it’s not an intuitive way to drive fast. The fake exhaust noise piped through the door speakers also polarises.
The auto is otherwise agreeable in everyday motoring. While prone to the occasional low-speed stumble, the dual-clutch auto is generally better behaved around town than Volkswagen’s DSG equivalent.
On the road
Here we have two manufacturers with a tradition for instilling their cars with dynamic verve. While this may not be a priority for most hatchback buyers, there are still plenty of owners who cherish a compact car with good handling.
The Mazda 3 continues the good work of its predecessors, embracing a winding road with its very tidy chassis – and steering that is not only precise, but also weights up naturally as you lean on the car’s front end through corners. There’s also a nicely modulated brake feel and encouragingly grippy tyres.
The 118i has good brakes, too, and isn’t bereft of agility, but it doesn’t encourage a fast pace as with the Mazda 3. While the BMW’s steering is sharper, its numbness makes cornering a vague process, and contributes to a general feeling of a hatch that feels less planted and less engaging than its mainstream rival.
There’s also some inconsistency to the steering’s weighting that you don’t get with other BMWs, such as the latest 3 Series. It’s more enjoyable to drive on a country road at a more relaxed tempo, though preferably with a surface that’s reasonably smooth.
The 118i’s M Sport suspension has a sharpness to it that can be experienced on the freeway, but is mostly felt around town where too many intrusions are allowed to penetrate the cabin. It reduces the BMW’s comfort factor and contrasts with the Mazda’s more compliant, if firmish, ride. Both cars wear 18-inch wheels.
Paradoxically, the sportier M235i’s busy suspension is also preferable to the cheaper 1 Series model’s ride. (A 118i with the regular, no-charge suspension isn't yet available for testing to allow us to assess whether this improves matters.)
Both cars provide excellent front seats and driving positions, with the Mazda’s electric adjustment making it quicker to find your optimum set-up. The BMW’s manual adjustments include a cushion extension, which can be helpful for maintaining under-thigh support for taller drivers.
The BMW also has the better all-round vision. The Mazda 3’s drooping rear roof line shrinks the view both through the rear window and over the shoulder – making the car’s blind spot and rear sensor alerts particularly important.
BMW is among the luxury car brands in Australia now under pressure to follow Mercedes-Benz’s lead after the German company raised its factory warranty in Australia from three to five years.
Mazda moved to the five-year coverage that is now the industry average in 2019.
BMW, however, deserves some credit for offering some of the most reasonable servicing costs in the industry, not just the luxury sector. The cost of maintaining the 118i with BMW over five years (up to 80,000km) starts from just $1465.
That’s more affordable than Mazda’s capped-price servicing charges over the same period, which total $1663 before you even take into account the Japanese brand’s shorter, 10,000km interval limits.
The 118i’s smaller engine is the most economical here, according to both official figures and trip computers.
The 118i varied between 6.2 litres per 100km (city to national park drive) and 8.3L/100km (post dynamic testing), which compared with 7.0L/100km and 9.5L/100km for the Mazda 3. They’re slightly wider margins than official figures, which are 5.9L/100km for the BMW and 6.6L/100km for the Mazda.
One big caveat, however: whereas the Mazda 3 can run on regular unleaded, the 118i asks for 95RON premium unleaded as a minimum.
Previous iterations of the 1 Series had compromised cabin space, but were fun to drive in BMW tradition. However, this flips around for the third-generation model.
It’s a less satisfying small car for those who appreciate great handling, though will be more tempting for buyers seeking a luxury hatchback with a genuinely roomy interior and a polished level of technology.
The 118i should be more comfortable, however, and its sharp ride questions BMW Australia’s decision to make an M Sport suspension standard (regardless of a no-cost-option standard suspension).
The Mazda 3 G25 Astina is not without its drawbacks. There are some limitations on rear vision, rear-seat space and boot capacity, while it may also be worth waiting for the Skyactiv-X engine to arrive later this year. But these only slightly diminish the overall appeal of the Japanese brand’s flagship hatchback.
It’s not only more consistently comfortable across a breadth of road surfaces than the 118i, but is capable of providing a more entertaining drive on those weekend escapes. Extra creature comforts aside, the Astina also provides a level of perceived interior quality that looks far from an outcast in the BMW’s presence.
No-one’s arguing here that the BMW 118i carries the greater badge cachet, but the Mazda 3 G25 Astina’s classier road manners give it more of the traits you expect from a luxury hatch.