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Owner Review

2012 Mazda 3 Neo review

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In late 2020 I bought a 2012 Mazda 3 sedan in a private sale. The purchase was made to replace our mid-spec 2008 Honda Civic VTI-L, which had 235,000 kilometres on the clock and will be used for my 170 kilometre round trip commute up the Pacific Highway to and from work each day. Put simply we wanted a younger car with fewer clicks on the clock. It has been a very noticeable step up, although to the Civic’s defence, it was a very good car in its own right.

This review is based on two months of ownership and 3,500 kilometres of travel.

Our 2012 Mazda 3 is the base model “Neo” sedan and had 122,500km on the odometer at time of purchase. There’s a lot to like about it, especially the level of safety features that includes head, front and side airbags, antilock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, dynamic stability and traction control systems. These features are sellers in themselves. The level of standard equipment is also impressive and includes cruise control, front and rear power windows, variable intermittent windscreen wipers, a nifty (but basic) onboard computer to monitor fuel economy, distance to empty, maintenance schedule, tyre rotation and speed alarms. There are two large instrument binnacles that house the speedometer and tachometer separately, while there is a small electronic display between the two that also shows the fuel gauge, odometer and two separate trip metres. Interestingly there is no gauge for the engine temperature.

The car also has cruise, stereo and audio controls on the steering wheel, a reach and rake steering wheel and fold down rear seat that can access the largish 430-litre boot to carry long items like a whipper snipper, so that is a big smiley face from me on that point. It comes with a USB port to charge your mobile phone on the run, but strangely no Bluetooth, which is a glaring omission on a 2012 vehicle, even if it is the bottom spec variety. You can run your GPS/Dashcam off the cigarette lighter in the storage console between the two front seats and there’s a port to plug your MP3 player in too, or if you are a bit old school, there’s also a single in-dash CD player, with the normal stereo adjustments.

The stereo itself is quite excellent, with great sound coming from the good quality speakers. There is no distortion when the volume is cranked up. This definitely appeals to someone like me, who loves his music to help overcome the tedious one hour commute home from work, while on road trips to watch the footy or when heading up to see family at Yamba NSW. So all in all, that’s a lot of fruit for a base model car and it has impressed me.

Our car is the 6-speed manual variety. To date the engine has started straight away every time and is smooth and quiet in operation. The performance from the perky 2.0-litre engine is, dare I say it, somewhat sporty, which can bring a smile to one's face. It does like being revved and is at its best when you’re running through the gears. The changes are slick and precise, which adds to the enjoyment of changing gears for yourself and makes the overall drive more engaging and fun.

Another thing is in comparison to my old 5-speed manual Civic, I’ve found myself having to change up and down more regularly. I imagine this may have something to do with the extra cog and the way the engine and transmission are aligned. This is more an observation than a criticism. I only really use 6th gear on the highway or above 80km/h. The Mazda 3 has been a noticeable step up from the Civic, which felt a bit underpowered. While the 2.0-litre motor is no sports car in terms of outright power and torque, there certainly is no issue with it cruising on the highway at 110km/h. Besides if I wanted a performance car, I would have bought a Subaru WRX.

The headlights are both bad and good. Low beam is inadequate, especially when travelling on the freeway at 110km/h or when it’s raining, yet the high beam is very bright, providing good forward vision. So I guess Mazda gets both a frown and a smile on this one.

On the road the car is what you would expect from a car in this vehicle category. It will happily cruise on the freeway at 110km/h on a shade under 3000rpm, as it will driving from home to the local shops to buy a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk or picking up the kiddo from his friend's place. The steering is light, responsive and provides adequate feedback from what’s happening on the road. The suspension travel is generally okay, although big bumps can unsettle the ride. You definitely know when this happens by the loud “thump”, and the car jolting about. Unfortunately you do have to drive fairly conservatively around Taree, as the conditions of its local roads are the worst of any place in Australia I’ve driven.

From reviews I have read from both motoring journalists and actual Mazda owners, one major bug bear is the level of road noise that infiltrates into the cabin of this company’s vehicles. My one is no different. It is an incredibly noisy place to be, especially when driving across coarse bitumen roads at freeway speeds. It does become a little tiresome and tedious when you driving the 170km I do each day and is the one really disappointing aspect of what is otherwise a really good car. I currently have the Goodyear Tyres from when I bought it, so I’m not sure if that is a contributing factor or not. I’ll soon find out as I am about to replace the front ones with some Toyo Nanoenergy ones. Cranking up the stereo volume does help with this issue.

There also have been a lot of negative comments in regards to the car's fuel economy. I have not found that to be the case at all. In fact it has been quite the opposite. I have averaged around an excellent 6.5 litres per 100km, although that may be a little misleading because 90% of my driving has been cruising at 110km/h on the Pacific Highway. It would be interesting what the fuel economy would be if I spent more time poking about town. I am getting around 650km out of the 45-litre tank and it costs around $55 to refuel.

The interior of the car is a bit of a disappointment. There is a lot of cheap and dark black plastic, including the steering wheel, which make it a tad dreary and sombre place to be. There are no rear air vents for back seat passengers and only one storage pocket on the back of the front passenger seat. While only very minor, it does simply take away from the overall appeal and is just another example of running with a cheap and nasty cost-cutting charter. Having just one rear pocket really doesn’t quite make much sense to me and comes across as doing something a bit half-arsed. That said, on a positive note, there are a few cubby holes to store one's knick-knacks, like house keys, wallet and mobile phone. The centre console bin even has a little tray you can put a pen on.

Between the front seats there are two cup holders in which to sit a cappuccino while on the run and both the sun shades have a mirror on the back of them so the girls can put the lippy on, or for you to see to give your hair a quick brush. There are large door pockets that can accommodate several water bottles, so that is an added bonus. While the front seat bucket seats are comfortable, you do sit low in them, which can restrict vision for the vertically challenged like me. The steep sloping bonnet and wide A and C-pillars add to this problem. The rear seats are a bit limited for both hip and leg room and are definitely for just two adults if you’re travelling more than an hour or so away. It’s not really an issue if you are like me and don’t carry rear seat passengers very often, but if you will be using them a lot, it is something you will need to consider.

While I am generally very happy with the car and consider it a good purchase with excellent features for a base model, it’s not all kisses, hugs and high fives. There are aspects about its design that could have been better thought out and done better. One thing I absolutely hate is the space saver spare tyre. They are nothing short of a mean-spirited, cost-cutting exercise by car manufacturers and Mazda are no different. It was an aspect of the Mazda 3 that was very close to being a deal breaker for me. Had we been considering it for my family’s main car, it would have been. Given they are speed limited to 80km/h, they are dangerous and should be made illegal. Okay, rant over.

At the end the day the positives of the 2012 Mazda 3 Neo sedan far outweighed the negatives. Firstly the large amount of proactive safety features are a huge selling point. Then there’s the excellent reliability of the brand to consider. It had a massive influence on me deciding to look at this car in the first place. It has many practical features, excellent highway fuel economy, spirited performance and lots of space for a small car, which are all big, big winning ticks. Throw in all the excellent features for a base model, buying at the price I paid was a bit of a no brainer and I haven’t regretted buying whatsoever.

On the negative side of the ledger, you will need to decide if the intrusive road noise, lack of Bluetooth, drab interior and space saver tyre is a deal breaker for you. For me it wasn’t, which is why I am a happy owner.

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