Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - Neo hatchback
Improved value without losing that base-model purity, cushy ride on little 16-inch wheels, engaging to drive, able motorway cruiser
Room for improvement
Rivals have better cabin and boot space, infotainment unit is welcome but still dated and lacks Apple/Android mirroring
Better-value Neo Sport base model highlights how well the popular Mazda3 has aged
5 Sep 2018
AS THE hot-selling Mazda3 small car range enters its final year on sale before an all-new replacement arrives, its maker has decided to keep demand on the boil by throwing in some extra standard equipment on the three most affordable variants.
We spent a couple of weeks with the base Neo hatch variant, which now has the word Sport appended to its name by way of highlighting the fact it is a bit better specified than before.
Adding a 7.0-inch multimedia system with DAB+ digital radio reception, reversing camera and more speakers to the audio system has certainly lifted the cheapest Mazda3.
For many people, this is now all the small car they’d ever need.
Mazda has lavished numerous updates and running changes on its popular small hatch and sedan contender since the third-generation model arrived in Australia at the beginning of 2014.
Since then it has remained a staple of the nation’s top-sellers and unlike many of its chart-topping companions and competitors, this is the car Aussie individuals and families put their hands in their own pockets for because Mazda is not a big player in the fleet business.
To keep things that way while the fourth-generation Mazda3 is finalised, the current model was given a boost in February this year with a generous equipment upgrade while prices went driveaway across the range.
As mentioned in the Overview section, the entry-level Neo now bears the Sport suffix in recognition that Mazda has added its 7.0-inch MZD Connect infotainment system replete with rotary controller, DAB+ digital radio, a reversing camera and two extra speakers – bringing the total to six.
With a six-speed manual transmission the Neo Sport can be had for a frankly tempting $21,490 driveaway (previously the manual Neo was $20,490 plus on-road costs). We drove the six-speed auto that commands an extra $2000.
In addition to the new driveaway pricing, the standard fitment of a reversing camera alone represents a saving of $650 over the dealer-fit solution previously offered on the Neo.
Other than this and the media system upgrade, the Mazda3 Neo Sport continues with manual single-zone air-conditioning, cruise control, rear parking sensors, 16-inch alloy wheels, reach and height adjustment for the urethane multi-function steering wheel, USB, Bluetooth and auxiliary inputs, remote central locking with push-button start, black cloth trim, a 60/40 split-fold rear bench, electric windows, power door mirror adjustment and halogen headlights.
Autonomous emergency braking for speeds up to 60km/h is also standard, as is Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control that is claimed to improve cornering traction.
Because we drove an automatic hatch, it came with a drive mode selector and and a rear spoiler as well.
Of the eight paint colours on offer only Soul Red Crystal and Machine Grey attract a $300 price premium, with Sonic Silver, Eternal Blue, Titanium Flash, Jet Black, Deep Crystal Blue and our car’s rather fetching Snowflake White Pearl all standard.
There’s no sat-nav and the plastic steering wheel is a base-variant giveaway, but rarely did we want for additional gadgetry during our time with the car. If anything, and we were to be picky, it was the media system’s inability to overcome the lack of navigation system with smartphone mirroring.
Mazda one of just a handful of brands that genuinely improves what you get with each step up the trim level ladder rather than loading up and weighing down a cheap car with poorly implemented and poorly executed ‘premium’ features.
This is because it builds on solid foundations with what is an excellent and upmarket-feeling entry-level cabin. And now, with the multimedia screen proudly protruding from the dash where once a bare-bones audio head unit once sat, the base Mazda3 finally feels complete.
Operable using a rotary controller or as a touchscreen, the multimedia unit is the same as any other Mazda bar the BT-50 ute. The graphics and fonts are dated, the initially perplexing interface gets easier to use with familiarity and there’s a frustrating lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring with which to overcome the lack of standard sat-nav and the odd way of accessing music via Bluetooth streaming or USB input.
When operating the multimedia system we were intrigued to find there was no switch blank for sat-nav. Curiously giving it a prod, we were presented with a digital compass display with latitude, longitude and altitude readings plus a helpful message advising us to visit a Mazda dealer should we wish to purchase a software upgrade that would enable the navigation system.
So the GPS hardware is present and Mazda has used the opportunity to execute a brilliant in-car up-sell! Another curiosity, is the single-zone manual air-conditioning: The fan speed control has seven settings whereas most make do with four.
Most people, unless they’d driven a more up-spec Mazda3 variant as well, would never know this was the cheapy.
A urethane steering wheel bereft of metallic trim was the main giveaway of this car being a price leader, along with seat fabric that could have been borrowed from a rookie real estate agent’s suit. But the same tactile, quality plastics and satisfying switchgear familiar from more expensive Mazdas were present and correct and the company has certainly not skimped on overall fit and finish. And the now six-speaker stereo sounds pretty good too.
The rest of the cabin is familiar Mazda3, with a great driving position plus a decent amount of storage capacity and charging device charging sockets for those up front. Rear passengers get just one map pocket and bottle-holsters in the doors, while the boot area is also pretty rudimentary in that it lacks bag hooks or a false floor.
Passenger space in the rear is cramped, too, suitable only for children who have graduated from booster seats or smaller adults. Although fitting child seats was pretty easy due to the presence of Isofix anchorages and sensibly located top tethers, the Mazda3 tested our toddler’s tolerance and she made it abundantly clear from her thickly padded throne that when adults had their front seats positioned comfortably that her level of legroom was anything but.
Mazdas, particularly smaller ones, have long copped plenty of criticism for being noisy. Not this Neo Sport. We put it down to having the Mazda3 range’s smallest-diameter wheels. Driving on the same coarse-chip country lanes that caused an exhausting cacophony of road noise in a high-grade SP25 Astina was no trouble at all in this variant.
Engine and transmission
Even with the lesser 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine (a 2.5L unit is available further up the range), the Neo Sport feels perfectly peppy for the majority of driving situations from suburban errand-running to motorway slogs.
It accelerates smartly off the line and has a pleasant point-and-squirt character owing to its instant responsiveness to pedal inputs. It’ll rev out, sounding rather hairdryer-ish in the process, but that’s preferable to the thrashy, gravelly notes exhibited by many competitors.
Mazda’s six-speed torque converter automatic is a gem in this application, too, always providing assertive drive, crisp shifts and rarely caught in wrong gear at the wrong time. It fits the Mazda3’s intuitive nature well, a flex of the ankle being all that’s needed to elicit a swift kick-down response precisely when required.
The manual gate is logically set up so that up-shifts are activated by pulling back on the lever and downshifts by pushing forward, with a small but detectable delay between the driver’s instruction being given and carried out.
It all just works.
After our fortnight of mixed driving, the Neo Sport had averaged fuel use of 6.9 litres per 100km and it’ll happily run on 91 RON Premium Unleaded. For comparison, the official combined cycle fuel consumption figure is 5.8L/100km.
Ride and handling
The Mazda3 is one of those cars that instantly feels right, honed even. We connected with this Neo Sport example before we’d even left the pickup location car park.
Even though our test example was an automatic, it was such an involving first drive that the way we described it to the first person who asked was: “It felt like driving a manual.”
Perhaps, being a base model small car, it’s because the Neo Sport also has a wonderful sense of purity about it. We’re not lugging around a load of standard equipment so it feels sharp, nimble, lively and fun. You know, like small cars used to back when they were actually small.
Unlike small cars used to be, we found the Neo Sport to be a great motorway companion with a big-car maturity about its relaxed character and sense of stability in this environment.
Running on little 16-inch wheels – which are alloy and still look pretty good – there is a level of quietness and comfort in this Mazda3 that you just don’t get in more expensive variants. It’s beautifully supple but not at the expense of engagement.
Some fast, twisty roads really enabled the Neo Sport to shine as a driver’s car. The day of our dynamic test was a wet one, but the Toyo tyres found plenty of grip and the little Mazda was enjoyably predictable, balanced and controllable in these conditions. It also coped well with ridged, rippled, lumpy and patchy corner surfaces.
As with all its major controls, the Neo Sport’s brake pedal felt great and worked brilliantly. We were able to haul the car up confidently in the wet, with emergency brake tests revealing a little squirm that we put down to the soaking road surface.
Safety and servicing
Crash-test authority ANCAP awarded the Mazda3 a full five stars, with 15.40 out of 16 for the frontal offset test, a perfect 16 in the side test and a maximum 2 out of 2 in the pole test. Whiplash protection was deemed ‘good’ and pedestrian protection ‘acceptable’ for a respectable 36.40 out of a possible 37 points overall.
Standard across the range are six airbags, autonomous emergency braking up to 60km/h, traction and stability control, a hill holder and anti-lock brakes.
Mazda supplies a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty but no standard roadside assistance. Servicing intervals are 12 months or 10,000km
At the time of writing, capped-price servicing ranged in price from $303 to $331 for the first 160,000km plus a range of extra-cost items including replacement of brake fluid at 40,000km or two years ($65), cabin filter at 40,000km ($69), air filter at 60,000km ($63), engine coolant at 200,000km or 10 years ($210), fuel filter at 150,000km ($290) and spark plugs at 120,000km ($270).
No wonder Mazda3s fly out of showroom doors. Few cars feel so natural and right on first steer. Our first kilometre after picking the car up was packed with enjoyment and you don’t have to be a car enthusiast to enjoy driving one of these.
Usually, as cars reveal their quirks and annoyances, the initial sheen wears off, but we didn’t exactly hand back the keys with enthusiasm after two weeks with the Neo Sport.
Mazda is particularly good at making its smaller cars feel more expensive the more you spend, but with the new higher specification level of the Neo Sport, we’d be more than happy to live with the base variant. It provides far, far more than basic transport on a budget.
It’s hard to look past the Neo Sport’s sharp driveaway pricing and standard safety kit too, but we can wholeheartedly recommend a Hyundai i30 or Subaru Impreza if the Mazda3 cabin feels too cramped.
Hyundai i30 Active from $23,390 plus on-road costs
Brilliantly spacious, excellent infotainment, a punchy drivetrain and a well-resolved feel and strong five-year warranty offering make it really hard to overlook the excellent i30. The safety conscious could opt for the lower-spec Go and add the SmartSense suite of crash-avoidance and driver assistance tech.
Subaru Imprea 2.0i from $22,600 plus on-road costs
Such a likeable car and decent value, too. The cabin is huge, but at the expense of boot space and you need to spend $2000 more to get autonomous emergency braking – although it comes packaged with Subaru’s impressive EyeSight collision avoidance tech.
Honda Civic VTi from $22,390 plus on-road costs
If you want an impossibly large boot from your small-segment hatch, the Civic is your car. It’s also pleasant to drive, has a reasonably high standard equipment and a general sense of quality and robustness about it.
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