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Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - SP25 Astina sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Plenty of big-car tech and interior appointments, muscular engine, great automatic transmission, fun to drive
Room for improvement
User-unfriendly multimedia system, excessive road noise on coarse-chip country roads

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Mazda logo10 Jan 2017

Price and equipment

THE July 2016 Mazda3 update brought subtle styling refresh, and a claimed $1500 worth of extra standard equipment across the range in return for price rises of between $200 and $500 depending on variant, while the SP25 Astina range-topper tested here dropped $1550 to $33,490 plus on-road costs for the manual and $35,490 for the automatic.

As with its recently revised showroom siblings, the Mazda3 has an expanded suite of ‘i-Activsense’ active safety technologies as standard.

Traffic sign recognition has been added to an updated and now full-colour head-up display and the inclusion of pedestrian detection with the autonomous emergency braking system that now operates at up to 60km/h and when reversing.

Its driver fatigue warning accurately picked up on our tiredness when driving back from the airport late at night following a busy interstate car launch. At this time our bleary eyes appreciated the night-splitting adaptive LED headlights.

The adaptive cruise control is still standard and among the best we have used, with the steering-grabbing lane-keeping assistance close to the quality of systems used on high-end German cars. The blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning systems are also much better than previous iterations and depicted with icons in the head-up display.

An electric park brake and automatic folding mirrors are new – we wished for an auto-hold feature on the former – and the MZD-Connect infotainment system sits more happily in the dashboard while gaining DAB+ digital reception as standard.

In addition to the new tech there is dual-zone climate control, leather upholstery, heated front seats with 10-way power adjustment on the driver’s side, reach and height adjustment for the leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, leather trim on the gearshift knob and hand brake lever and a 60/40 split-fold rear bench.

The 7.0-inch touchscreen is also navigated via the rotary controller, providing access to satellite navigation, the reversing camera, Internet radio apps such as Pandora and the usual array of Bluetooth, auxiliary input and USB connectivity options pumping audio through a Bose nine-speaker premium audio system.

Full LED dusk-sensing adaptive headlights are complimented by LED front foglights, LED daytime running lights and LED tail-lights along with rain-sensing wipers, heated power mirrors, auto-dimming interior rearview mirror, illuminated vanity mirrors, a sunroof and sunglasses storage.

Identfying the Astina externally are dark chrome 18-inch alloy wheels and, on the sedan bodystyle tested, a rear spoiler.

The optional Kuroi bodykit adds black visual highlights including side, front and rear skirting, spoilers and a unique alloy wheel design for $2950. For those not wanting to go for the full effect, Kuroi parts are available separately.

Our test car was finished in the new Machine Grey Metallic, which joins an enlarged choice of hues alongside Sonic Silver Metallic and Eternal Blue Mica.

Interior

At this end of the size spectrum, we tend to find top-spec variants are in many ways worse than the lower or mid-grade alternatives in the line-up. Some of the purity is lost while the added luxuries and technology are of insufficient quality, leading to a chintzy, naff, frustrating cockpit experience full of what feel like afterthoughts thrown together to appease the equipment-hungry Australian consumer.

Typically, European brands tend to do high-spec small cars better than their Eastern counterparts. Not so with Mazda. In this case, more is indeed more and the Mazda3 genuinely gets more expensive-feeling the more you spend.

We are pretty sure the uninitiated would mistake the SP25 Astina cabin for something German, by which we don’t mean Volkswagen. Perhaps if they got the brand’s country of origin right, Lexus. No kidding, one passenger we drove in a modern Mazda asked us if it was a product of Toyota’s luxury brand.

For the driver is an expensive-feeling steering wheel and excellent head-up display (HUD) with a great range of functionality illustrated in crisp colour graphics that, unlike some systems, can be viewed through polarised sunglasses.

It even includes one of the more accurate road sign recognition systems we have used.

Put it this way, the Mazda3 HUD is at least as good as those fitted to much, much more expensive cars and almost completely removes the need to look at the instruments, meaning the driver an keep their eyes on the road.

Tactile switchgear, satisfyingly balanced control weights and quality materials and finishes abound, with plush leather embarrassing most rivals and their cheap, tough-feeling hide. We also appreciated the extension of leather trim along the sides of the centre console as the armrest is a bit far back.

Initial comfort levels up front are high, the seat and steering column both providing plenty of adjustment. However, we got a little achy in the driver’s seat on hour-plus journeys.

However, the sheen of luxury quickly deteriorates when driving on a coarse-chip country road, which we have no doubt is worsened by the SP25 Astina’s big 18-inch alloy wheels and persists despite Mazda’s efforts to improve cabin quietness. We found the sensory overload of tyre roar quickly became incredibly fatiguing, so if you do a lot of country miles the Mazda3 is not for you. This is not an exaggeration.

On the upside, we found noise levels pretty low in other use scenarios such as urban, suburban and motorway driving and the high-quality Bose audio system is excellent for clarity, atmosphere and stereo separation.

That is, if you can figure out how to use it, because the MZD Connect multimedia system is far from intuitive and took us three weeks of consecutive Mazda test cars to figure out properly. How about the jargon-tastic ‘root menu’ for accessing your iPhone playlists? The controls, a hybrid of Mercedes- and Audi-style rotary interfaces, look and feel brilliant but what shows up on the screen is poorly executed.

Once we were used to the clunky layout and oddly named menus, we found the system’s range of functionality to be impressive, save for the lack of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone connectivity. Mazda’s trip computer is also pretty basic and not the most logical in operation.

While we are on a whinge, the boot is really basic with little in the way of hooks or tie-downs, goose-neck hinges that eat into space and a flimsy, thin carpet floor.

Beneath the floor is a space-saver spare, which compared to the European rivals and their increasing preference for puncture repair kits that are not guaranteed to get you home but guaranteed to infuriate your tyre fitter into charging you extra for cleaning up the mess, Mazda’s solution is the lesser of two evils when a full-sizer is not offered.

At 407 litres, the Mazda3 sedan’s boot is more than 100L smaller than a Honda Civic or Nissan Pulsar, while the Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla also beat it, so we are far from class-leading in capacity here. We found the narrow opening and intrusive lip annoying when loading bulky objects. Thankfully the rear bench split-folds to liberate more space.

Although the Mazda3 hatch – which is the same price – has even less boot space under the parcel shelf at 308 litres, it at least has the flexibility of loading it up to the ceiling or becoming a small van with the rear seats folded. A saving grace for both hatch and sedan is generous interior storage with large gloveboxes, central bins and plenty of room around the cup-holders but the door bins were particularly stingy and only suitable for smallish drinks bottles. There’s also just one map pocket on the back of the passenger seat.

Realistically only a four-seater, a seemingly needless transmission tunnel (it’s front-wheel drive) renders the Mazda3’s humped rear-central position only suitable for the smallest or most unpopular member of the crew who does not mind head-butting the interior light on bumpy roads. Also, those in the back are subjected to lower quality of trim materials, such as hard plastic door trims, than front-row occupants.

In outboard positions, tall adults can sit in tandem with almost as much legroom as the bigger Mazda6 with acceptable headroom, too, but thigh support is a little lacking for the long of leg.

Fitting an Isofix child seat is pretty straightforward, with easily locatable connection tabs beneath the cushions and an accessible top tether on the parcel shelf. However, the rear legroom is misleading as rear-facing infant seats force the front seats to be positioned so far forward that only people of below-average height can sit there.

Being a sedan, the Mazda’s low ride height and sloping roofline also make loading infants into their rear-facing seats a bit tricky for the tall, helping strengthen the case for SUV ownership among those raising the next generation.

No car is perfect and if you limit Ikea visits, breeding and country roads, the Mazda3 still offers one of, if not the nicest cabins for the money.

Engine and transmission

While many small car rivals are pursuing downsized turbo-petrol engines, the Mazda3 SP25 Astina resolutely sticks to a big 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine. Bravo Mazda!It produces 138kW of power at 5700rpm and 250Nm of torque at 3250rpm, so it’s punchy, linear and responsive with no turbos to cause delayed or unpredictable power delivery and a muscular, relaxed feel without the sense of being over-engined. Stick the boot in and there is a wonderful hard-edged growl from under the bonnet, while it is refined and smooth at all other times.

Forget the variously tedious dual-clutch or dreary CVT units used by Mazda’s competitors, for we continue to be impressed by Hiroshima’s masterpiece of a six-speed torque-converter automatic, which delivers quick and slick shifts, intuitive ratio selection even without sport mode activated and plenty of driver satisfaction. It’s perfectly matched with the engine.

Our only gripe was the slightly slow-responding paddle-shifters, but so good is the transmission when left to its own devices that they are rarely required. If you’re that desperate to intervene, Mazda will even sell you this car with a manual. Good luck finding a buyer when the time comes to offload it, though.

The official combined-cycle fuel consumption figure is 6.0 litres per 100 kilometres, but our week of mainly suburban driving during an early summer heatwave resulted in real-life fuel consumption of 8.4 L/100km.

Ride and handling

Don’t let the Mazda3’s reputation as a bit of a corner-carver put you off, for even on the 18-inch wheels we partially blame for the road noise problem, it rides with an impressive supple composure on all surfaces, so credit to Mazda engineers for their suspension tweaks on this facelifted model.

After several days enjoying the Mazda3’s well-weighted and quite satisfyingly meaty steering round town, the wheel felt rather light in our hands as speeds rose for our dynamic test.

But the precision, directness and sharpness of the Mazda’s steering is excellent, making this an easy and engaging car to drive quickly and confidently on bendy roads. Efforts to make its steering action smoother have worked, but the VW Golf still outshines this car for sheer buttery slickness.

Overall the Mazda3 is a predictable but satisfying and enjoyable to drive briskly. It is perhaps a bit too competent at legal speeds and a bit numb in terms of steering feel to truly get the adrenaline pumping, but the dynamics are good enough to make this one of the segment’s most enjoyable cars to punt about.

If anything, Mazda’s suspension revisions to improve lateral grip have reduced its fun factor, with the hard-to-notice G-Vectoring Control technology potentially taking the keen driver out of the equation even more. But it’s a safer car for the non-enthusiast masses as a result.

Surprisingly, front-end grip was not all that strong in slower, tighter bends but it is balanced out by a lively and entertainingly adjustable rear. It’s worth pointing out that there was occasional steering kick-back on rutted corners, but the Mazda3 is in its element on fast, flowing roads and is generally not upset by mid-corner undulations.

The strong drivetrain and solid dynamics mean that no matter how or where you drive it, the Mazda3 effortlessly rewards the person behind the wheel with a combination of ease of use and enjoyment.

Safety and servicing

Crash-test authority ANCAP awarded the facelifted 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 in forward and reverse, rear cross-traffic alert, traction and stability control, hill start assist and anti-lock brakes.

Mazda supplies a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty but no standard roadside assistance. Servicing intervals are 12 months or 10,000kmAt the time of writing, capped-price servicing ranged in price from $302 to $330 plus a range of extra-cost items including replacement of brake fluid at 40,000km or two years ($64), cabin filter at 40,000km ($67), air filter at 60,000km ($61), engine coolant at 200,000km or 10 years ($209), fuel filter at 150,000km ($281), spark plugs at 120,000km ($261) or the use of premium engine oil ($16).

Verdict

If you want a luxurious, lavishly equipped and technology packed car that is small enough to park easily we can recommend you take a serious look at the Mazda3 SP25 Astina.

For around $35,000 plus on-roads it’s in the same price ballpark as a base-spec Audi A3 but in many ways is as good as, if not better than, versions of that car costing $5000-$10,000 more. Badge snobbery notwithstanding, of course.

The road noise problem on coarse chip country roads would knock it off our shopping list if we had to regularly drive in this environment, but it was absolutely fine for urban, suburban and motorway driving.

Practicality also needs to be taken into account with the small boot another potential deal-breaker.

Otherwise, the Mazda3 has that deeply engineered feel of a premium product and the technology to match – if not exceed – some far more expensive cars while being a genuine pleasure to drive.

Rivals

Volkswagen Golf 110 TSI Highline ($33,340 plus on-road costs)We’re comparing a sedan here against a hatch, but the Jetta is an aged also-ran. This Mazda3 update has given VW’s reigning small car class-leader much to worry about, but the upcoming Golf 7.5 promises to again redefine the small car segment. Price difference against Mazda leaves change for some nice options, too.

Ford Focus Titanium EcoBoost ($32,690 plus on-road costs)Like the Mazda, Ford’s small car offering expertly blends comfort with corner-carving ability while having a lot to offer in terms of standard kit and sweet drivetrain. Its practicality is aided by a new-found trickle-down cool factor courtesy of the fire-breathing RS. But it’s still a bit blue collar compared with the classy Mazda3, and that’s reflected in the price.

Honda Civic sedan VTi-LX ($33,590 plus on-road costs)Sweet spot of the Civic range is probably not at the top end, but it’s a marvellous car with practicality to seriously shame the Mazda3 and a handy dose of driver pleasure on offer, too. Consider seriously because Honda is back on form in a big way.

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