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First Australian drive: New Mazda3 poised to kick goals

Coming soon: More refined than before, the new Mazda3 feels like a worthy Golf rival. Let's wait and see how it's priced...

Outselling Corolla not a priority, says Mazda, as we drive the new ‘3’ in Oz

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Mazda logo18 Oct 2013

MAZDA Australia says a return to the very top of the local sales charts is not an overt priority when it launches the all-new ‘3’ early next year, but says the classier new model does have the ammunition to overtake Toyota’s Corolla.

Locally, the outgoing ‘3’ has been particularly successful, claiming the title as the top-selling new car in 2011 and 2012, and number two this year behind the fleet-friendly and newer Toyota (it trails year-to-date with 30,781 sales to 32,039 for the Corolla).

All up, around 360,000 units have sold here across two generations and 10 years on the market, and as such, a new version of the Mazda3 is a more significant arrival on our shores than most. But it’s also the company’s top-seller globally.

Mazda’s answer to the challenge of how to keep that ball rolling was to give its small-car staple a new-found dose of maturity, with more grown-up styling in-line with its ‘Kodo’ design language and common SkyActiv modular underpinnings shared with larger, more expensive models such as the Mazda6 mid-size sedan and wagon, and the CX-5 compact SUV.

Australian pricing should remain similar to the outgoing model, starting somewhere around $21,000, though we’ll have to wait for the proper launch early next year to find out.

“Re-taking the number one position with All-New Mazda3 is not something we're particularly setting out to do,” Mazda Australia public relations general manager Steve Maciver said.

“While it's a nice title to claim, we'll be focusing our efforts on achieving our own sales targets and the market will ultimately decide if Mazda3 returns to the number-one spot.

“That said, we're confident all-new Mazda3 has the qualities to appeal to Australian buyers in greater numbers than ever before, and we believe it'll remain one of the country's best-sellers.”

We’ve only had a sample of a few early build cars with Australian suspension tune, but even after spending only a short time behind the wheel this week, it’s evident the company has an eye fixed just as firmly on pseudo-premium players such as the Volkswagen Golf as it does on mainstream workhorses such as Corolla and Holden’s Cruze.

Around 70,000 potential buyers have already expressed interest online, according to Mazda Australia managing director Martin Benders, meaning they have actively requested to be kept informed about developments.

They’ll be happy to know that Mazda has kicked serious goals, addressing the (relatively few) weak points on the previous-generation car, which remains a top-class contender even at the very end of its model life.

The cars we drove this week were a pair of evaluation ‘prototypes’, sporting a suspension tune geared to a number of world markets outside of the US, Asia and Europe, of which Australia is far-and-away the largest.

The setup on these cars is different to the left-hand-drive models we drove in Los Angeles a few months ago, in a fashion that Mazda hopes will appeal to dynamically minded Australians. ‘Zoom-zoom’ indeed.

Rather than risk these precious canaries down the mineshaft on public roads, Mazda put us behind the wheel at the Anglesea Proving Ground in Victoria, alongside a pair of equivalent previous-generation versions.

Now, you don’t get fodder for a full-fledged evaluation out of a few laps of a proving ground. But with a back-to-back comparison with the outgoing model, you can get a sense of which areas have received the most work.

The previous-generation 3 deserved its mantle as Australia’s favourite car, and even though it is long in the tooth, it still sits among the top echelon of the class for ride and handling.

But Mazda has zeroed in on the weakest areas while retaining strength where it already had plenty: noise, vibration and harshness is noticeably reduced thanks partially to a 31 per cent increase in body stiffness, the high-speed stability is a step ahead, and the steering is even better-sorted.

Most notable is the steering’s added weight on centre, with the variable, column-mounted electric system providing notably more resistance and less twitchiness at speed thanks to a reduced ratio.

The driver requires far fewer minute corrections mid-corner than before, and in this way the new ‘3’ feels a class larger than it is without making any sacrifices to agility.

It remains an eager steer, with razor-sharp turn-in and excellent balance, but Mazda has layered this with a veneer of added refinement.

Taken straight from the CX-5 is the base 114kW/200Nm SkyActiv 2.0-litre petrol engine. In the lighter and smaller body, the little unit comes alive, happy to spin out past 6000rpm when matched to a delightful six-speed manual gearbox as tested.

Indeed, we found it almost a match for the larger 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre unit matched to a six-speed automatic (mercifully featuring a proper left is down a ratio, right is up paddle shifter layout unlike the older push/pull system).

There’s no diesel or turbo petrol as in the outgoing car – Mazda has concentrated its resources on the mainstream – but both will more than likely be made available in time.

As mentioned, the ‘3’ may feel a class larger than before, but in reality it isn’t. Dimensions measure 4460mm long (same as before), 1795mm wide (up 40mm), 1455mm high (15mm lower) and front and rear overhangs are reduced by between 25mm and 35mm.

Cabin space is more-or-less the same, with 10mm less legroom but 11mm more headroom in the rear, 57mm more front shoulder room and 6mm less front headroom (the lowered roof being the reason).

But while it’s no roomier – indeed, it still falls short of the Pulsar and Cruze on this count – its new interior is a marked step up on the old car.

There are more soft-touch plastics and improved ergonomics.

As we found when we first sat behind the wheel in LA this year, the design takes a leaf from the original BMW 1 Series, but additionally there’s a hint of Alfa Romeo Giulietta elegance here and dash of latest Benz A-Class spirit there.

Highlights include stylish single-dial digital/analogue instrumentation, ‘floating’ central touchscreen with a clear and simple layout, and a welcome lack of the fussiness that cheapened the outgoing model.

There’s also a Mazda-first and mainstream small-car segment-leading head-up display screen (an odd pop-up glass piece sitting atop the instrument cowl) and a BMW iDrive-style controller, created especially to minimise distraction and maximise utility.

Storage includes front and rear cup-holders, generous door pockets and a large centre console. There is 308 litres of room in the hatch (less than many rivals), and a decent 408L in the boot of the sedan.

To conclude, until we experience the entire Mazda3 range on diverse local roads in early 2014, we cannot give final judgement on what manner of proposition the most eagerly awaited new car of next year will be.

What we can say is this: if you’re a private buyer looking at a psuedo-upmarket contender to the Volkswagen Golf, and a driver who values dynamism over class-leading space, the new ‘3’ is worth waiting for. It’s a pretty impressive effort.

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