Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - Neo 4-dr sedan
Efficient drivetrain, decent value (though the Maxx even more so), fun handling, cabin ergonomics, sharp styling
Room for improvement
Poor rear vision, grey uniformity of Neo’s interior, low-grip on standard tyres, tyre noise
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26 May 2014
Price and equipment
Here it is, the new Mazda3 in base Neo guise from $20,490 plus on-road costs, before adding the $2000 extra for the automatic.
That’s exactly the same money required for the hatch – even though the sedan scores 100 litres of extra cargo capacity with the seats in place.
Our test car included no-cost metallic paint as well as a $1500 Safety Pack that ushers in a Blind-Spot monitor, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Smart City Brake Support autonomous braking technology and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
That’s on top of a fairly par-for-the-course kit listing that includes six airbags, air-conditioning, remote central locking with keyless push-button start, power mirrors and windows, cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio, USB/Aux connections, 60:40 split-fold rear seats and rake/reach steering adjustment and 16-inch steel wheels.
The latter is in lieu of the alloys on the previous run-out Neo.
For that you need another $2000 to move into the Maxx, which also scores a reverse camera, leather trimmings (but still cloth seats), paddle shifters, satellite navigation, and improved audio with internet radio access and phone-text messages readout.
Nothing’s carried over from before – but has Mazda forgotten a thing or two?Larger, longer and wider as well as lighter than its BL predecessor, the BM-series four-door body is almost as big as a Mazda6’s of a decade ago.
Consequently, getting in and out is easy, though the sloping rear roofline again fouls entry for taller folk – just like in the old model.
Once inside, the sense of space is immediately obvious for occupants up front, with wide (if flat after a long stint) seats, plenty of width and sufficient room for taller legs and heads.
Simplicity is the name of the game for this generation, with the imposingly fussy dash of the previous car replaced by a lower cowl reminiscent of the original BK.
It’s a welcome change, for forward vision is improved and everything is clearly marked and easy to reach.
The overall look is sporty and very ‘now’ the design is similar to those found in the latest Mercedes A-Class, Audi A3 and Volvo V40 thanks to a tablet-like device that straddles the area just above the air vents.
Other pluses include an excellent driving position, attractive little steering wheel with thoughtful spoke-mounted controls, a prominent and very well placed (and colourful) speedo flanked by a handy trip computer, superb ventilation and a plethora of storage options.
There was no problem pairing the improved and integrated Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming system, and its quality of service matched the high standard set by the rest of the cabin.
Being a Neo, the lack of brightwork means there’s an unremitting greyness to the presentation and trim, but there is nothing wrong with the way the dash looks and feels, particularly at this price point.
However, it appears Mazda has prioritised style over substance in a couple of key areas.
Firstly, rear vision is terrible due to the upsweep rear window line. Not so bad in models with a camera or sensors as standard, in the Neo reversing is tougher.
Secondly, compared to the previous Mazda3, the glovebox and centre console seem smaller and the door pockets are too small.
Last, but not least, what has happened to the tachometer? With each successive model change the 3’s overall instrumentation cluster has devolved, from the early attractive three-barrel analogue arrangement to a tiny digitised rev arc that appears to be an ugly afterthought. It’s too twee for this class of car.
Rear-seat accommodation is fine in that there’s ample room, but the shallow windows and dearth of contrasting trim exacerbate the overriding greyness.
And there is no escaping the amount of road noise that still permeates the interior. We’re sick of pointing this out in Mazdas. Just 10 metres down the road of a Ford Focus – never mind the world-beating VW Golf – will expose the droning.
Thankfully the vast boot fares better, with the sedan’s (at 408L) being nearly 25 per cent more voluminous than the hatch’s cargo area.
Note that a pair of very old-fashioned rear-seat backrest releases feature.
They look just like the pair found in the first Mazda 626 from 1979.
Engine and transmission
Here’s where the Mazda3 has really moved on from its predecessor.
Weighing about 70kg less, and with class-leading aerodynamics, the sedan has all the ingredients to really sock it to the competition.
After a surprisingly noisy – almost diesel-like – start-up (via a push button), the engine settles into a sporty idle.
Now, the 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre is more of a revver than a slogger, so be prepared to flex that right foot. But make no mistake: with an exceptionally slick and responsive torque-converter six-speed automatic by your side, acceleration is smooth, swift and strong.
Goaded on by a snarly exhaust tune, there’s a joy to be had exploring the SkyActiv-G’s upper-rev ranges, especially how effortlessly each of the speedo’s rising increments are dispatched. The Neo is an impressively rapid car.
Better still, fuel consumption is just outstanding – we averaged an indicated 7.2 litres per 100km – with what might just be the best idle-stop system we’ve encountered at this price level.
Capable on running on regular 91 RON unleaded fuel, the Mazda3’s efficiency is simply fantastic.
Ride and handling
Though both the hatch and sedan are 70kg lighter than their predecessors, the latter enjoys a slight front to rear weight balance edge – 60:40 versus 61:39.
It doesn’t matter either way, for the Neo is an enjoyable and involving handler.
While a bit more steering feel would be appreciated, the helm remains a well-weighted and responsive affair, offering crisp turn-in capabilities and a very neutral balance at the speeds the sedan is likely to be operated within.
Yet even when tootling about town, the driver is rewarded with a tight turning circle and a supple ride quality – the upshot of the 16-inch tall-walled tyres fitted to the Neo.
Clearly Mazda has worked hard to make the 3’s all-new SkyActiv chassis as integrated, controllable and agile as possible, backed up by secure and solid braking performance.
On the flipside, the lack of grip from the standard low-resistance economy tyres can be an issue on wet or slippery surfaces, since their harder compounds do not have the roadholding levels as softer rubber.
Maybe that’s also why so much road noise is transmitted inside?
Safety and servicing
Like all Mazdas, the latest 3 scores a five-star ANCAP crash-test rating.
Our car was fitted with the optional driver-assist technology package of blind-spot/land-departure warning and low-speed crash-mitigation braking, which provided handy visual and audio alerts on the open road.
Meanwhile fixed scheduled maintenance service pricing for the life of the Mazda3 is listed on the website, offering variable intervals according to how the car is used.
Outlined in 10,000km increments, the official base cost varies between $290 and $316 right up to the 16th/160,000km level.
The warranty period is for three years/unlimited kilometres.
The Mazda3 Neo sedan automatic is just about the most complete and enjoyable small-car package available at its price point, winning us over with its combination of dynamic excellence, efficient and stirring performance, handsome styling and spacious packaging.
But we’d demand the thickest sound-deadening carpeting from the accessories department because there is still too much road noise intrusion – a typical Mazda bugbear.
And if you can find another $2000 then step up to the Maxx sedan because its standard reverse camera, larger central screen (with sat-nav included) and better wheel and tyre package are worth the small price and ride quality penalty.
However, even if you cannot, rest assured that this is the most complete small car sedan money can buy on the market today – as well as one of the aesthetically more pleasing to boot!Rivals
Ford LW II Focus Ambiente Powershift sedan auto (from $22,590 plus on-roads).
Quieter, with better dynamics and a more practical (if fussier) interior, the base Focus is a sweet all-rounder that only suffers when loading its 92kW/159Nm 1.6 with a full occupant consignment.
Kia YD Cerato S sedan auto (from $21,990 plus on-roads).
Handsome styling, an especially spacious and practical cabin, long warranty and smooth and efficient drivetrain help make the one-time dud a value buy – especially in base S guise. Not as dynamically sharp as the 3.
Honda Civic VTi sedan (from $20,490 plus on-roads).
Well-made, with excellent reliability and resale value, the base Civic sedan offers smooth and effortless motoring, though servicing is also every six months, while cabin presentation isn’t too flash either.
Make and model: Mazda BM Mazda3 Neo automatic
Engine type: 2.0litre four-cylinder petrol
Power:114kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 200Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
0-100km: 9.5s approx.
Fuel consumption: 5.7L/100km
CO2 rating: 136g/km
Dimensions: L/W/H/WB 4580/1795/1455/2700mm
Suspension: MacPherson struts/multi-link rear
Steering: Electric rack-and-pinion
Price: From $22,490
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