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Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - range

Our Opinion

We like
Better ride and still-sharp handling, cabin ergonomics, multimedia system, long equipment list, rear headroom, 2.5L engine, manual gearbox, improved running costs
Room for improvement
Still excess road and engine noise, smaller boot, no diesel option, no alloy wheels on Neo like before

Mazda logo30 Jan 2014

By MIKE COSTELLO

Mazda Australia freely admits its launch of the new 3 must be one of the most drawn-out in memory. But few cars are more important to the fortunes of their maker.

We’ve driven a US-market 3 in California and came away hugely impressed. We’ve also had a steer of a near-ready prototype at a proving ground in regional Victoria and again found big improvements in key areas.

But we’ve withheld full judgement until now, when we’ve driven the cars that Australians will actually buy. In short, the new model feels like a classier and sharper tool than before, and is clearly among the segment’s best. But it’s not without flaw.

The new-generation 3 kicks off from $20,490 plus on-road costs for the volume-selling Neo, an increase of $160 counterbalanced by the new platform, new drivetrains and roomier and more upmarket cabin with a lengthier features list.

Mazda offers a wider array of variants than it did with the outgoing BL-series model, with the carryover Neo joined by the better-equipped Maxx (from $22,990) and Touring ($25,490), essentially replacements for the $24,490 Maxx Sport.

These three variants are all powered by the same normally aspirated 2.0-litre direct-injection SkyActiv four-cylinder engine as the CX-5 SUV, punching out 114kW and 200Nm and sending power through either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels.

Mazda claims a combined-cycle fuel consumption figure of 5.7 litres per 100km for the optional auto version (or 5.8L/100km with the standard manual), which trumps most (at least non-turbo) rivals. Idle-stop is standard fare.

The new range also comprises an expanded range of more powerful and faster SP25s. In place of the old singular version priced at $31,490, there are now three offerings: the base SP25 ($25,890), mid-range SP25 GT ($30,590) and the SP25 Astina ($36,190).

These versions shed the 2.0-litre in favour of a punchier 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre SkyActiv unit that uses a claimed 6.0L/100km (auto).

Notably, the compression ratio is a sky-high 13.0:1. A high compression ratio on a petrol engine is Mazda’s answer to its continued lack of turbochargers, because in a similar vein it burns both cleaner and more efficiently (meaning it produces more power).

Pricing is identical for hatch and sedan body styles and the prices above are for versions fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox available at all specification levels. The more popular six-speed automatic transmission option adds $2000 to the price.

On the local launch in South Australia, we got behind the wheel of a 2.0-litre Maxx hatch with a manual gearbox and a 2.5-litre GT Astina with an automatic. A fair spectrum of drivetrain and specification variance.

Since its premiere a decade ago, the 3 has been one of the sharper-looking models in one of the market’s most fiercely fought segments. That, we suspect, has been one key to its unprecedented success.

The new range looks classy, with excellent proportions most evident on the sedan. The tail design is a touch generic, but it remains a package pleasing to the eye.

Inside, the cabin feels more spacious than before, even if rear legroom has been reduced by a few millimetres. The rear cushion is low and flat and the window-line is higher, meaning kids may feel a little hemmed-in, but headroom is above-average and shoulder room is generous. There are no rear vents, however.

From behind the wheel, the fascia is clean and classy, although the seatbelt warning chime recess and the glass head-up display (on upper-spec variants) look a touch naff to us. It’s impossible to fault the ergonomics, the chunky steering wheel and the clean and unfussed layout of the ventilation dials.

Excellent, too, is the dashtop screen on all variants from Maxx and above, controlled by a very upmarket rotary dial on the transmission tunnel. It’s clean, simple and a doddle to operate, and reminds one very much of an Audi.

The Bluetooth pairs up in seconds.

Standard equipment on the Neo includes 16-inch steel wheels (no more alloys), power mirrors and windows, push-button start, cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio, USB/aux connections, six airbags, 60:40 split-fold rear seats and rake/reach steering adjustment.

The $22,990 Maxx nets extras over and above the Neo including 16-inch alloy wheels, leather on the gear-shifter, handbrake and steering wheel, paddle-shifters for the auto, satellite navigation, a bigger six-speaker audio system, a reversing camera and an ‘MZD Connect’ system that allows access to internet radio (Pandora, Stitcher and Aha), and displays and reads text messages from paired phones, among other features.

In addition to these features, the $25,490 Touring adds dual-zone climate control, auto headlights, leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, illuminated vanity mirrors and a sunglasses holder. Mazda says this will be the likely choice of older buyers.

All three variants listed are also available with a $1500 Safety Pack that brings with it a Blind-Spot Monitor, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Smart City Brake Support autonomous braking, plus an auto-dimming rearview mirror.

The quicker entry SP25 costs $25,890 and for our money is the pick of the range on paper. It brings features similar to the Touring but swaps the leather seats for bigger 18-inch alloy wheels and a rear spoiler. The Safety Pack is again $1500.

The mid-range $30,590 SP25 GT adds LED daytime running lights and tail-lights, heated mirrors, an Active Driving Display (Mazda-speak for a head-up display), leather seats with power adjustment and driver’s heating and a nine-speaker, 231-Watt Bose sound system that is well above average for the class and price.

Also on this version, the Safety Pack is cut to $1300, while adding this package plus a sunroof (it’s all packaged together) adds $2900 to the list price.

The $36,190 SP25 Astina adds a sunroof as standard, plus radar-guided cruise control, a lane-departure warning and all the features in the Safety Pack.

Behind the wheel, the 3 retains the ‘chuckable’ dynamics of its predecessor.

Its new electric steering lacks a little feel but is razor-sharp and immediate on-centre. An eagerness to turn-in is matched by good body control. The 3 stands shoulder-to-shoulder with dynamic luminaries the Ford Focus and Golf.

The ride quality is also excellent, with the Maxx’s 16-inch wheels naturally providing a little more buffering than the Astina’s 18s. Mazda attains pliancy without any wallowing or rolling through bends.

Disappointing, though, is a continued problem with excess road noise. It was a weakness of the previous model, and despite an entirely new architecture and claimed additional insulation, it still irks on coarse roads. Stray off marble-smooth freeways and you’ll find the cabin ambience takes a turn for the worse.

Naturally, the 2.5L engine is the pick if you can stretch up. Being normally aspirated, it loves a good rev, and only stretches out past 3000rpm. But once you’re there it feels sufficiently warm.

The six-speed automatic transmission is calibrated to hold onto low gears under a heavy right foot to wring the most from the engine, and it also feels suitably perceptive around town. Being a torque-converter unit, it lacks the slow-speed niggles of rival dual-clutch units.

The 2.0L engine requires a little more effort. It’s certainly not slow, but lacks a little puff low in the rev range until you hit peak torque at around 4000rpm. But the manual gearbox we drove it with is delightful with its short throw and precise action.

Both engines are a little raspy, and at speeds on rural highways it’s a battle to see whether the engine noise or tyre roar permeates the cabin most. But in urban surrounds it’s harder to isolate any sort of meaningful problem.

We’d love to see a diesel option. The 129kW/400Nm turbo unit from the CX-5 and Mazda6 would be a spectacular addition.

All versions are larger than their predecessors, with both sedan and hatch body styles now 40mm wider (1795mm) and riding on a 60mm longer wheelbase (2700mm).

However, overall length is unchanged at 4460mm for the hatch and 4580mm for the sedan, while the roofline is now 15mm lower at 1455mm.

Mazda claims to have lowered the front and rear hip points to counteract the chopped roof, while moving the A-pillars 100mm rearward is said to improve visibility. This is appreciated in twisting roads with crests and blind corners.

Cargo volume is 308 litres for the hatch with the rear seats in place, or 408L for the sedan. Both of these measurements fall short of the old model, which wasn’t the most practical small car to begin with. The seats do split-fold to liberate extra space.

Road noise could stand to be reduced, boot space could be better and a diesel option would be ace, but on all other fronts Mazda has put forward an excellent case to regain the mantle of Australia’s favourite car.

The new 3 is as dynamically sharp as ever, rides better than before, has a comfortable and well-equipped cabin (right from the entry-level model) and now, with capped-price servicing, has more affordable running costs too.

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