The first car. Those years of waiting, months of learning to drive in your parent's car, days of excitement all over as the keys to your new prized possession are placed in your (not-so) trusty hands for the first time, signifying the start of a life of car ownership.
Okay... who am I kidding? For most kids, the passion of getting their first car is just like any other mildly exciting day. Some might scroll the classifieds for an hour or so once a week for a few months, looking for that few thousand-dollar beater that is just right for them – or what their parents think might be just right, anyway. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
However, as a lifelong car nut, this is something that just wasn’t going to happen with me.
After spending months searching online, I’d saved a range of vehicles, including the Skoda Octavia RS, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Hyundai i30 SR, but ultimately – as flamboyant as these cars may be – the dependability and subtlety of the Mazda 3 stood out to me in the end, with my eyes initially peeled on top-spec versions of the face-lifted previous-generation BN range.
In the end, I picked up my first car in late February: a used 2019 Mazda 3 G20 Touring hatch with 24,000 kilometres on the odometer. A car that, to quote my parents, “is too nice for a first car.” Do I care? Maybe. Only because I will miss out on telling any stories in the future that we’ve all heard before: how this car broke down and how that car was modified.
Having a peculiar interest in the Mazda brand – despite deeming myself as an ‘impartial’ car lover – meant the current-generation 3 was the perfect car for me, especially since I’d spent considerable time in our now-departed CX-9 over the past few years (of which I’ve reviewed twice – here and here).
Priced from $29,990 when new, the G20 Touring continues to fill the middle-ground of the 7-strong model range with a decent level of standard equipment, slotting between the G20 Evolve and G25 Evolve models while also offering some features offered in the more-powerful but $4.5k-pricier G25 GT grade. Whilst I would have loved to get a model powered by the 2.5-litre engine, this car was the only one available locally that was decently priced with a relatively hassle-free purchase experience.
Standard kit is expansive, with highlights including an 8.8-inch widescreen infotainment display, head-up display, leather seats, keyless entry and start, rear parking sensors, a powered driver's seat and LED headlights with halogen DRLs – though these were quickly swapped to LED globes (a somewhat easy process) within 24 hours of ownership.
It is disappointing for any recent car to be fitted with ancient and cheap-looking halogen lights in the age of efficient and low-cost LED globes, let alone the always-visible DRLs that are standard across the majority of Mazda’s local range (including the $70,000 CX-9 GT SP).
The Mazda 3 also rides on 18-inch alloy wheels and features a full suite of safety and driver assistance features, such as seven airbags, autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control. However, my car is not optioned with the factory-fit Vision Technology package, which adds front parking sensors, a driver monitoring camera, traffic-jam assist, front-cross traffic alert and a 360-degree camera system. Whilst this is a shame, the standard array of active safety technology is more than sufficient – especially for a $30,000 car.
Although most active safety features work well, the lane-keep assist system is a bit frustrating – strangely, it seems Mazda has downgraded the system from that found in older models (such as the CX-9), with it now offering less than adequate lane-centring, unreliable reading of road lanes, removal of indication in the head-up display and frequent beeping.
Particular attention must go to the excellent traffic sign recognition system which works in tandem with the windshield camera and satellite navigation to provide a mostly accurate speed limit indication – this is very handy in an age of rapidly changing speed limits and hefty speeding fines.
Moving inside, while the black-on-black style of the interior leaves little to the imagination – with the nice two-tone materials found in the almost-identical CX-30 annoyingly not carried over – the high-quality materials and large screens stand out, supplementing the modernness of the 3’s cabin.
Being the first model derived from Mazda’s updated design philosophy, the 3 continues to debut many interior elements for the brand that help to elevate the ambience to bring it among the top of the class, rivalling – if not surpassing – the all-new Mk8 Volkswagen Golf. To me, it feels just as well built as more expensive Mazda models, with the interior praised for being on a similar level to brands such as Lexus, rather than other small cars. This is something I can certainly agree with.
The infotainment system runs on an 8.8-inch widescreen display, powered by the latest Mazda Connect interface. This second-generation unit is a million times better than the old MZD Connect system in execution, with an easy-to-use UX, nicer graphics and better implementation of smartphone mirroring. Apple CarPlay, in particular, looks excellent with a full-screen implementation and effortless switching between the two systems.
While the lack of a touchscreen may annoy some, using the rotary dial is something that is easy to get used to, working mostly fine when using both CarPlay and the Mazda system – although some elements within CarPlay can be a bit clunky to use, especially music applications. On music, some audiophiles may lament the added oomph of the 12-speaker Bose stereo system available on upper 3 grades, however, the standard 8-speaker Mazda-branded speakers are still excellent with great clarity, though the lack of a subwoofer is noticeable with bassy songs.
It is disappointing that Mazda has failed to implement wireless CarPlay into their newer system thus far, instead opting to only provide it to a few updated models that still feature the old MZD Connect system, such as the MX-5 and CX-5 (in other markets).
Under the bonnet of the Mazda 3 is a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine, producing 114kW of power and 200Nm of torque, sent to the front wheels via a six-speed torque converter automatic transmission. While these figures may seem yawn-inducing - after all, a N/A FWD hatch is hardly the epitome of driving enjoyment - the 3 is more than adequate and feels quite right for a first car. Not too slow, but not too fast either.
With the 3 being affordable to maintain thanks to an average fuel economy of around 7.5 litres per 100 kilometres, it manages to find a perfect balance between sportiness and economy. Despite this, a lower-capacity turbocharged or hybrid competitor is a better option for those looking for a more economical option.
Being quite used to my parents' turbocharged CX-9 meant the lag on acceleration was an initial caveat to get used to – despite this, the 3 feels only slightly slower than the CX-9 once it gets going (mostly due to the lack of the added heft from a large SUV).
On the road, the 3 feels poised with decent steering response and an eagerness to be dynamically pushed around. In addition, this accurate steering allows the 3 to handle corners with ease and strong balance, allowing you to have a level of fun that is not typically expected from this segment. While NVH levels have been a bugbear of Mazda vehicles in the past, the 3 is well insulated with the odd grunt from the engine penetrating into the cabin – this is something that doesn’t bother me, but it could be a grievance to some, especially since the naturally aspirated engine can become pretty vocal.
Improvements for future models? Firstly, as mentioned, it is time for Mazda to scrap halogen DRLs from their local line up – including on the non-Astina 3 range. They exude a sense of cheapness for the people who see them driving past, which is not acceptable for a brand pioneering itself on being ‘semi-premium'. It would also be nice to see front parking sensors make their way into the G20 Touring – especially since they’re standard on the equivalent CX-30 grade – plus heated seats to complement the cosy leather pews.
Though not likely, Mazda should develop turbocharged versions of their 1.5 and 2.0-litre engines with SkyActiv-X technology to replace their current N/A mills – this would help to circumvent the initial lethargy of the engines upon acceleration and significantly improve fuel efficiency. For a brand resting its laurels on internal-combustion technology, Mazda’s continued reliance on larger-capacity naturally aspirated engines and slow-paced rollout of its (self) lauded SkyActiv-X technology is a real concern, especially with the inevitable emergence of stricter environmental standards around the world.
Styling-wise, less reliance on piano black surfaces is a demand of many owners, including myself, with deep scratches on my car diluting the sublime look of the interior. On the outside, a standard-fit larger spoiler – such as the one available with the optional Kuroi Sports Pack – would be a great addition to the hatch to help draw attention away from the large C-pillar. Also, I'm hoping we’ll see Mazda bestow the blacked-out ‘SP’ treatment to the smaller 3 and CX-30 with their forthcoming updates. Perhaps a 2.5-litre turbo Astina SP RS, as well. Food for thought, Mazda...
While the added pep from the 2.5-litre engine would have been nice, the Mazda 3 G20 Touring is shaping up to be an awesome first car for me, with the luxurious interior, exceptional technology and great dynamics being standout features of my car. It certainly looks and feels much nicer than some of the other cars I contemplated and is a great option to consider for both used and new-car buyers alike. Perhaps the G25 Evolve with the Vision Technology package is the sweet spot of the 3 range, though.