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Choosing used over new

You could start with the Mazda3, Australia's most popular fully imported car.

Indeed, the sedan or hatch that have thrust Mazda to Number four on the sales ladder have at times been our most successful privately-owned cars, period. If that sounds a bit tall for a (not so very) smallish car, consider that the brand doesn't sell a single unit to commercial fleets or rental companies, the sort of knockdown dealing that keeps Holden and Ford above Mazda but destroys resale values.

Toyota can claim its perennial Corolla, the most recent generation of which was released earlier this year, does more business than the Mazda, but many base-model strippers wind up with 'for rent' signs on their windshields.

Even in a market where used-car values have never been less reliable, the Mazda3's desirability, exclusivity and driveability seem to be keeping it slightly above the skids.

For the past few months, though, the Mazda's mantle hasn't seemed so secure. The reasons are two reinvented cars; the new-generation Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer.

Both offer exceptional value and top-rate safety packages even in their base models, though the $21,000 entry-level Lancer is subject to a slight and quite fair option hike to get the class-leading package of seven airbags.

You need to get into the top Mazda3 iterations, the more expensive Maxx Sport and topline SP23, to get comparable packages and even then DSC remains a $1000 option.

Ford has had to cut the guts out of its lower-spec Focus price, reducing it to $19,990. The Mazda3 is in some essential respects the same car, but Mazdas have traditionally held their own over comparable Blue Ovals.

A new SP23 is priced from almost $30,000, up towards the class-leading Volkswagen Golf FSI dollars. A used SP23, which comes with the full kit and some warranty extant, is an attractive package, not least because it, too, is starting to feel the pre-loved car price wobbles.

This weekend, several Sydney dealers will offer MY05 SP23s with 12 months' manufacturer warranty remaining and upwards of 35,000km on the clock from $25,50.

That's still steep, but don't be put off, especially as Subaru and Mitsubishi will sell you a highly competitive all-new car for much the same money. Feel free to mention this.

While lesser 3s use the 2.0-litre petrol four, the range leader shares the bigger Mazda6's 2.3-litre four-potter, though detuned slightly to 115kW. It is still the drivers' choice in this segment, an aspect enhanced last year when it received an extra ratio each for the previously five-speed manual and four-speed auto.

The manual would be our transmission choice, though at least the auto's tip shift mode, unlike most, holds a gear until you decide differently. The pre-facelift models make do with the old transmission and noticeably more raucous level of NVH.

There's nothing else to complain of though with 17-inch alloys, six-speaker stereo with six-stacker, ABS with EBD, fully adjustable steering wheel, six airbags, body kit and leather trim.

If the Mazda3 is facing fresh challenges, it is as markedly superior to its longer-term rivals used as it was new. You have to go up to the $36,000 XR5 to find a Focus that moves quicker than the 2.0-litre norm. Even then, side airbags aren't to be had.

Honda offers a petrol-electric hybrid version of its Thai-built Civic sedan, though at a considerable premium over the underdone and drab conventional four-pot models. The Corolla is new, but it has also gained weight over the last model, while persisting with the old engine.

Economy suffers and Toyota's neglect in not offering stability control even as an option makes it look further off the pace. Sure, the Corolla will probably remain Australia's best-selling car in this class but overall, the Mazda3 looks the best bet. It's just that now used-car buyers are holding some cards.


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