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Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - Maxx hatchback

Our Opinion

We like
European pazzazz inside and out, retains fun-to-drive philosophy, clever fuel-saving add-ons, roomy interior
Room for improvement
Excessive road noise is a constant companion, petrol-only drivetrains, some drivetrain vibration

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Mazda logo17 Nov 2014

By BARRY PARK

Price and equipment

We’re driving the mid-range Maxx, a welcome step up from the base Neo that costs from $20,490 before on-roads for either the hatchback or sedan fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox, $160 more than the model it replaces.

The Maxx costs from $22,990 fitted with the six-speed manual, but ours is fitted with the $2000 optional six-speed auto as well as a $1500 safety pack that brings the list price of our test car up to $26,490.

By comparison, Holden’s locally made Cruze, struggling with cost blow-outs and a manufacturing cliff, starts from a sharp $19,490, but for about the same money as the Maxx, with its 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, you can get a Cruze fitted with a much more playful 1.6-litre turbocharged four-pot, which in bang for bucks terms is great value.

For the Mazda, though, the $2000 spend over the base-model Neo is well worth it. Most notably, an analogue multimedia display on the dash becomes a colour screen, the naff plastic hubcaps on the default 16-inch steel rims turn into alloys, a chromed BMW iDrive-style dial for controlling the multimedia system appears between the front seats, and the plastic steering wheel featuring cruise and audio controls becomes leather-wrapped.

The feature list is pretty rich. It’s only single-zone air-conditioning and you sit on cloth trim, but there’s keyless start (but no smart-key entry), paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, satellite navigation, a crisp six-speaker audio system (that doesn’t turn up loud enough for the right song), a Bluetooth phone connection with audio streaming and internet-sharing function, and a USB slot under the armrest between the front seats.

The $1500 spend on the optional safety kit adds blind spot sensors that flash up in the wing mirrors, a function that stops you reversing into passing traffic, and a dusk-sensing rear-view mirror.

Interior

Ooh la la. While the stylishly crenulated and crafted exterior screams Japan, the Mazda3’s interior has successfully crossed the divide to Euro chic.

Jumping in behind the reach-and-rake adjust steering wheel and setting into the supportive and well-sculpted driver’s seat reveals a level of comfort and an air of sophistication that would shame even a premium hatchback. The instrument cluster looks elegant and simple, framing the analogue speedo with a pair of digital readouts for the tacho and fuel gauge/trip computer.

The cabin’s look borders on sombre, with lots of dark plastic with a quality, soft-touch feel in most places where a hand falls. However, it is broken by fine, classy strips of chrome-look material, and a classy set of dials for the air-conditioning system. A black strip looks like an afterthought, but once you crank the engine it shows up a display indicating which of the five seats is buckled up – or not.

The addition of the colour screen high on the dash removes a lot of the button clutter of the previous model, although the steering wheel with its phone, cruise and audio controls has a high count. The screen’s height is good, as the driver’s eye does not need to travel too far away from the road to see the crisp, clear display of the sat-nav system. The big chrome-look dial to switch through all the car settings, sitting alongside the traditional handbrake, is easy to use with intuitive menu control.

A nicely shaped bin hidden beneath the sculpted armrest (it sweeps around to accommodate a pair of cup-holders) between the front seats hides 12-volt, USB and auxiliary input ports, while a shallow but big tray at the base of the centre stack is a handy stash point.

However, there’s nowhere intuitive to put the smart key that you have to get out of a pocket anyway to unlock the Mazda3. Use the handy centre tray for it, and at times it disappears under a shallow overhang as the dash folds around.

Take a corner a bit briskly, too, and mobile phones, wallets, purses, spare change, hair ties bits of paper and all the other stacked-up detritus that accompanies life spill out of the low-sided tray onto the floor.

Jump in the rear, and the Mazda3 defies its compact size with generous, comfortable rear pews with a surprising amount of headroom. While all three seats get adjustable headrests, there’s no air vents for second-row passengers.

They will take three adults at a pinch, but two is more comfortable.

Boot space is an important factor in this segment, and the high-lipped one on the tail end of the Mazda3 is nothing special. It’s enough for the schoolbags or weekly shop, helped by split-fold rear seats for longer items.

Engine and transmission

In a world of downsized, turbocharged engines and seven- or even eight-speed automatic gearboxes, Mazda sticks with a free-breathing 2.0-litre four-cylinder Skyactiv G engine mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox.

While this may sound ho-hum, there’s some clever technology behind it all.

Running the petrol engine at diesel engine-like high compression ratios produces a powerplant with what Mazda says is a combination of good fuel economy and decent city-friendly pulling power.

Good for 114kW of power high up in the rev range and 200Nm of torque about mid-way into the throttle, it’s an engine that needs a few revs on board before it hits its straps.

There’s no diesel engine option like before, and Mazda will tell you it’s not needed as the petrol engine is almost as frugal as an oil burner. The only place you do miss the diesel’s lazy low-down torque is on the freeway.

The engine runs at very high compression for a petrol powerplant. The downside to this is a lack of smoothness at low revs, with noticeable vibration. In this sense, Mazda has lost its edge.

The six-speed automatic comes with a pair of paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. The gearbox is smooth and intelligent when left to its own devices, holding on hills to take advantage of the petrol engine’s broad torque band.

Jump on the brakes heading downhill and the transmission will drop a gear, making the most of the engine’s high compression to bleed off speed. Pull up at a set of lights, and the Skyactiv G shuts itself down to save fuel, rattling into life as soon as the driver starts to lift a foot off the brake pedal. A fuel economy monitor setting on the multimedia screen shows you how much accumulated time you’ve saved fuel via the idle-stop system.

On paper, the 2.0-litre powerplant paired with the auto is good for 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres, just 0.1L/100km shy of the usually much more fuel-efficient six-speed manual gearbox. Our week behind the wheel with mixed driving resulted in a commendable 6.4L/100km figure.

Ride and handling

Mazda applies the same “Zoom Zoom” tag to its new-generation 3, and the label does fit. Crisp steering, taut but comfortable suspension, linear brakes and the added benefit of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters turn the daily commuter into a wannabe sports car.

Pitch the new Mazda3 into a corner, and the hatchback feels like a commuter car boasting a bit of a sporting pedigree, with decently controlled body roll helped by steering that doesn’t feel as anaesthetic as other electrically assisted units. The Mazda3 soaks up all but the roughest lumps and bumps without fuss.

A letdown, though, are the Toyo NanoEnergy tyres fitted to our test car. In the chase for fuel economy, Mazda has opted for low rolling resistance rubber to help eke out those significant fuel savings over the old Mazda3.

The tyres find the limit of their grip fairly easily, dissolving into easily controlled and predictable understeer on their limit.

However, they also tend to bring one of the bugbears of the previous-generation Mazda3 – excessive road roar. At highways speeds over coarse-chip roads, the amount of noise entering the 3’s cabin raises to a dull roar, meaning a conversation with a back-seat passenger is almost at shouting level.

The lack of refinement is the one big blight on the whole package.

Safety and servicing

The all-new Mazda3 earns the maximum ANCAP five-star score.

It uses something called Smart City Brake Support. A forward-looking laser beam senses how close the Mazda3 is to the car in front, and will automatically jump on the brakes and cut engine power if it senses a crash is likely. Like all technology, though, the driver is the one completely in control of the car.

Mazda offers variable servicing on the new Mazda3, meaning you adjust service intervals according to how much you drive it. Do 13,000km for example, and the service interval falls to nine months.

Mazda has joined the rush to offer capped price servicing, which extends to the Mazda3 range. For the Maxx’s 2.0-litre engine, expect to pay a low of $290 and a high of $316.

Mazda’s warranty is for three years and unlimited kilometres, with the option to extend it to four years for an extra cost.

Roadside assistance costs extra.

Verdict

Mazda’s all-new 3 is a big change over the old one, and in the main an improvement. It loses a little bit of the “Zoom Zoom” fun of the old one in return for significant, and much-needed fuel savings, and hasn’t really fixed one of the main bugbears of the previous model in terms of cabin comfort, which it needs to address.

If noise quality and dynamics are key factors in your purchase decision, you’re probably better off shopping at Volkswagen and considering a more expensive Golf.

Around town, though, the Mazda3 might just redeem itself. It’s a seriously impressive offering.

Rivals

Volkswagen Golf (From $23,990 before on-roads).

Now with capped-price servicing, which helps ownership cause. Conservative styling, but outstanding refinement makes it a class-leader.

Holden Cruze SRi (From $22,490 before on-roads).

Jam-packed with gear, most of it mobile phone-mimicking technology. However, Aussie-built Cruze handles softer and can’t compete for interior quality. Also lacks the clever fuel-saving technology for its engine.

Toyota Corolla Ascent (From $22,240 before on-roads).

Vanilla engine and continuously variable transmission in a sharpish-looking body, plays it very safe. Is Australia’s reigning top-selling car.

Specs

MAKE/MODEL: Mazda3 Maxx
ENGINE: 2.0-litre four-cylinder with idle-stop
LAYOUT: Front engined, front drive
POWER: 114kW@6000rpm
TORQUE: 200Nm@2000rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h: N/A
TOP SPEED: N/A
FUEL: 5.8L/100km
EMISSIONS: 136g/km CO2
WEIGHT: 1265kg
SUSPENSION: MacPherson (f)/multi-link (r)
STEERING: Electrically assisted rack and pinion
BRAKES: Vented disc (f)/solid disc (r)
PRICE: From $22,900 before on-roads

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