There's no doubting the appeal of machines with all the bells and whistles but sometimes you just have to be sensible. At the bottom of the Mazda 3 range, the Neo in manual guise - $20,490in sedan or (on test) hatchback form - we can be sensible and still smile.
The base model - estimated at launch to garner nearly half of all Mazda3 sales - sits on 16-inch steel wheels and has a temporary spare. There are cruise control, halogen headlights, variable intermittent wipers, aircon, boot light, Bluetooth phone and audio link, cruise control, four-speaker USB-equipped audio, cloth trim, steering wheel audio and phone controls and keyless ignition. A six-speed automatic adds $2000.
ENGINE / TRANMISSION
A lighter, stronger bodyshell, the six-speed auto and the 2.0-litre direct-injection petrol engine all wear the Skyactiv name synonymous in Mazda-land for clever, light and efficient systems. The engine has low internal friction, unique piston design, clever intake and exhaust plumbing and a high compression ratio, the result being decent fuel economy and impressive performance.
Peak power is 114kW and torque of 200Nm doesn't sound much but the flexibility is excellent
Peak power is 114kW and torque of 200Nm doesn't sound much but the flexibility is excellent - a third gear steep ascent from 30km/h was done without a murmur of complaint. Fuel use with the manual bolted to the engine is a claimed 5.8L/100km, while the six-speed auto claims 5.7L - time spent in the manual yielded a trip computer figure of 8.1L.
The new-look 3 takes Mazda's "Kodo" design theme a step further but not always in the right direction, according to some eyes (including existing 3 owners). It's not offensive per se but it is different. Regardless of the aesthetics, a subjective matter anyway, the new package has some merit.
Cabin space in the rear benefits from the extra 60mm in the wheelbase (it's now 2700mm) despite no alteration to the overall length, while the wheels are closer to the corners, it's 15mm lower in overall height and 40mm wider. Rear passengers can appreciate the improvement in legroom although headroom is tight for taller folk back there.
Bootspace hasn't always been the 3's forte and the new model hasn't made any ground - the hatch claims 308Lwhile the sedan gains 100L. Greater use of lightweight high-strength steel has improved body rigidity by about 30 per cent says Mazda, without adding much to the overall weight.
ANCAP gives it five stars (scoring 36.40 out of 37) and says 'the passenger compartment held its shape well in the offset test," testimony to the light and strong body. There are six airbags and standard electronic assistance. Rear sensors or reversing camera should be standard.
A $1500 safety pack option adds auto-dimming centre mirror, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert and Smart City Brake Support. The auto-braking set-up uses a sensor in the windscreen to monitor the road ahead (between 4 and 30km/h) to assess possible collisions - the vehicle brakes automatically to prevent or lessen the impact.
The 3 is the best bet among the entry-level small car crowd - even in auto guise it is a more involving drive - but backed by the manual gearbox with its clean and crisp gearshift action, the 2.0 is an enthusiastic drive, if not the most aurally pleasant.
On a winding back road in the hills its balance is above average. Ride comfort is sacrificed a little for the sake of body control and the mundane tyres will be the first to show you're pushing hard. The instruments and dashboard are well laid out, with some slightly convoluted menus in the centre display.
Only the plastic steering wheel brings down the interior's quality feel and the absence of rear vents remains a Mazda foible worth correcting. Road noise remains an issue for the 3 and, to some extent, the brand.