Australia's favourite small car continues to shine
Model tested: Mazda3 Neo hatch, five-speed automatic: $26,779 (NSW price) The Mazda3 is the most popular car for ordinary Aussie car buyers. Government and corporate fleets sales boost the figures for the likes of Commodore, Corolla and Camry, but when it comes to private buyers spending their own money, the Mazda3 is the car of choice. Last month 3419 examples were given new homes, making the Mazda3 the second-highest selling small car overall, behind the Toyota Corolla. With its extensive standard equipment list and quality drive experience, the base model Mazda3 is an attractive proposition. It really is one of the smartest buys in this segment.
The model tested here is the entry-level Mazda3 Neo hatch with automatic transmission. (Just so it’s clear from the beginning, the model tested is fitted with no optional extras – except the automatic transmission – so anything that you see or hear about in this review is all included in the standard package). It’s powered by a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine, producing peak outputs of 108kW and 182Nm. That means it is more powerful than the equivalent Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus or Hyundai i30. The flip side of more power is fuel consumption that is slightly higher than average. The Mazda3 Neo automatic has a rated fuel consumption of 8.2L/100km, and our test car hovered around the 8.1L/100km mark, verified by the car’s trip computer. To put that into perspective, here’s a list of what the competition offers: Toyota Corolla Acsent hatch (100kW/175Nm, 1.8-litre, four-speed auto) - 7.7L/100km Mitsubishi Lancer hatch (113kW/198Nm, 2.0-litre, CVT auto) - 8.3L/100km Ford Focus CL hatch (107kW/185Nm, 2.0-litre, four-speed auto) - 8.0L/100km Subaru Impreza R hatch (110kW/196Nm, 2.0-litre, four-speed auto) - 9.4L/100km Volkswagen Golf 90TSI (90kW/200Nm, turbo 1.4-litre, seven-speed DSG auto) - 6.2/100km Compared with the fuel consumption of major entry-level rivals, the Mazda3 Neo is slightly above average (average 7.9). What does this fuel consumption disparity mean in the real world? Our test car managed a cruising range of around 590km out of a tank (55 litres) of fuel, driving until the fuel light illuminated. This was achieved under a combination of driving conditions including dense stop/start traffic, freeway driving and mildly athletic mountain driving. Over the same terrain the Golf 90TSI would travel more like 780km on a full 55-litre tank. Driving the Mazda3 Neo, you can instantly tell it uses a very capable chassis, which is both rigid and tractable and extremely comfortable. Being the base model car however, the standard, lower spec 195/65 R15 tyres mounted on steel rims become slightly spongy, which is unpleasant around tight corners and roundabouts. It makes the car feel under-engineered. The more upmarket models, like the Maxx Sport and SP25, with their lower profile tyres and toughter suspensions, feel much more composed and agile. If handling prowess doesn’t particularly excite you, however, the Mazda3 Neo will probably feel just right. One aspect of this car that I hated was the foot rest. Many, if not most, contemporary cars are fitted with a well thought out left foot rest. The Mazda3 has a foot rest, but it’s simply a step covered in carpet. Although this is doubtless cheaper to produce, we’re doubtful it’s a particularly durable option. The carpet’s days are clearly numbered, with our test car showing some considerable wear with only 1500km on the clock. Now to the good parts: The Mazda3 Neo drives exactly how a normal, everyday car should drive. It offers very comfortable ride quality thanks to a well-tuned Macpherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension. The ride quality is especially excellent over speed bumps, but remains firm and stabilised in most corners. The electro-hydraulic, power-assisted steering is also direct, perfectly weighted and not touchy or sluggish. This all sums up to that great driving experience the Mazda3 is renowned for. Inside, the car is swathed in futuristic contours, fixtures and fittings. Among the most obvious are the two main gauges behind the steering wheel (speedo and rev counter), between which is a handy LCD gear selection display towards the top, and an odometer readout in a separate LCD display box at the bottom. The dashboard layout and adjustments are initially a bit confusing, but in time as an owner, you’d quickly become familiar with the ones you use regularly. In the middle of the centre fascia at the top sit two LCD boxes; the one on the left displays audio information while the one on the right houses the trip computer – the basic trip computer functions are, fuel consumption, distance to empty, ambient temperature etc. It's all a little bit scattered. The Madza3 Neo is comprehensively equipped in terms of in-car entertainment with plenty of technologies at the ready. There’s an auxiliary jack in the centre console for iPod/MP3 player connectivity, and a 12V power socket. Resting at the top of the centre storage box is a convenient removable shelf for your iPod/MP3 player as well. Seating five adults inside is easy and universally comfortable for everybody. The Mazda3 Neo is quite accommodating and all five seats are soft and mostly supportive. In terms of the rivals, the Mazda3 is at the larger end of the small-car interior-room scale. The boot is just as capable, offering 340 litres with the rear seats in the upright position. Compared with the main rivals, the Mazda3 hatch shapes up around average in terms of boot space (if carrying capacity is important to you, you really should look at the Lancer Sportback or the Focus hatch): Toyota Corolla hatch - 350 litres Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback (hatch) - 400 litres Ford Focus CL hatch - 385 litres Subaru Impreza R hatch - 301 litres Volkswagen Golf - 350 litres Of course if you need even more space, the rear seats do fold down - but not completely flat. When folded down there’s ample room for feeding large objects through to the cabin, with little lateral intrusion from the rear wheel arches. All round visibility inside rates around average. Towards the front the A-pillars are relatively thin and unobtrusive. However, the rear pillars are very thick, which compromises rear vision – a common hatchback design compromise. The rest of the Mazda3 Neo package includes an in-dash MP3/CD player, air-conditioning, cruise control and electric windows all round – standard. On the safety side, the car gets ABS brakes, six airbags and an electronic stability control program, and achieves an impressive five-star ANCAP safety rating. The Mazda3 Neo is a triumph of value and functionality offering excellent dynamics compromise, equipment and top-level safety. It’s easy to see why the vehicle is at the top of many private buyers’ short-lists.