On the political hotbed that is a schoolyard playground, the popular kids can usually be divided into three categories: Those who have a reputation for being cool and everyone wants to be their friend, those who throw the best parties and those who carry the respect of their classmates and have more real friends than anyone.
The Toyota Corolla is most often at the top due to the loyalty of both private and fleet buyers, the i30 seems to rise to the top whenever it’s on sale for $19,990 drive away, but it’s the Mazda3 that more Australians personally choose to spend their own hard earned on month in, month out.
The third-generation Mazda3 arrived on our shores in February 2014, with the mew SkyActiv-platform based model replacing the hugely popular second generation that still used a lot of Ford components after the era of Blue Oval ownership ended in 2010.
The 3 line-up is divided into Neo, Maxx, Touring, SP25, SP25 GT, SP25 Astina and XD Astina trim levels, with all offering a choice between manual and auto transmissions for an extra $2000. Similarly, all bar the XD Astina are available with a choice of sedan and five-door hatch at equal prices, with the top-spec diesel sticking to the hatchback bodystyle.
The Mazda3 range competes well for value, but boasts a broader line-up than its competitors with list pricing that spans all the way from $20,490 - $41,290 without a fully-fledged performance model.
The range scored a minor update in February, 2015, which saw rear parking sensors become standard on all petrol models along with price reductions for most variants.
The entry-level Neo also stepped up from hubcaps and steel wheels to 16-inch alloys, but continues to miss out on the standard reversing camera that comes with all other 3 models. Maxx and Touring models also receive front fog lamps.
The 2.0-litre petrol base Neo (from $20,490) is the only model in the range to miss out on the excellent MZD Connect multimedia system with touchscreen, but it does come with push-button start and a rear spoiler on the hatch.
The Maxx (from $22,390) adds the MZD system with satnav and a reversing camera, a leather steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake, plus paddle shifters for the auto.
The more luxurious Touring (from $24,790) gets leather seat trim and driver’s lumbar adjustment, dual-zone climate control, overhead sunglasses storage, illuminated mirrors in the sunvisors, and auto headlights and wipers.
The sports-flavoured SP25 (from $25,190) is based on the Maxx trim level, but steps up to the bigger 2.5-litre petrol engine and 18 inch wheels and adds dual-zone climate control, proximity keys, auto headlights and wipers and a subtle bootlid spoiler for the sedan as well.
The SP25 GT (from $29,790) adds leather seat trim, power adjustable front seats with heaters, heads up display, overhead sunglasses storage, auto dimming rearview mirror, daytime running lights, Xenon headlights with active beams, LED taillights, heated rearview mirrors, illuminated mirrors in the sunvisors and nine-speaker Bose audio.
The SP25 Astina (from $35,040) brings all of the optional safety gear as standard, including AEB, active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, forward collision alert, auto high beams, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert. The Astina also adds an electric sunroof.
The diesel XD Astina (from $39,290) tops off the entire Mazda3 range with Alcantara inserts for the leather seats, a shadow chrome finish to the 18-inch alloys, red-outlined front grille, LED front foglamps, gloss black rear bumper insert, but misses out on the standard rear parking sensors found on all petrol models.
The XD Astina also scores the i-Eloop energy recovery system from the Mazda6, revised rear dampers and subtle augmentation of the exhaust note through the cabin speakers. All Mazda3s come with four cupholders and a bottle holder in each side door.
There are two ISOFIX child seat mounts across the range, and both hatch and sedan back seats split-fold 60/40.
With the back seat upright, the hatch has a useful 308 litres VDA of cargo space, while the longer-tailed sedan has a 408-litre VDA boot. All Mazda3s have a steel spacesaver spare wheel under the boot floor.
Engines and transmissions
The Neo, Maxx and Touring models are powered by a direct-injected 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, which can be paired with either a six-speed manual or six-speed torque converter automatic transmission.
The top XD Astina hatch continues as the only Mazda3 available with the 129kW/420Nm 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel engine, along with its choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions.
XD Astina is unsurprisingly the fuel consumption king.
All come with a switchable stop/start system and the petrol models impressively accept Regular Unleaded petrol, where some rivals insist on Premium fuel.
Fuel consumption ranges from 5.7L/100km combined (auto sedan) for the 2.0-litre petrol, with the manual transmission and hatch bodystyle each shifting this figure upwards by 0.1L/100km.
The 2.5-litre petrol still manages 6.0L/100km combined (auto sedan), with the hatch adding 0.1L/100km and the manual officially consumes 6.5L/100km with either bodystyle.
The 2.2-litre XD Astina is unsurprisingly the fuel consumption king, carrying a 5.2L/100km official combined figure in the auto, and reverses the trend with the petrols by using 0.2L/100km less when paired with the manual.
The current Mazda3’s stunning Kodo looks balance overall form with practicality well. Rear headroom and boot space may be slightly down on the second-generation, but there’s still plenty of room on the back seat for two average height adults, and cargo space is about average for its class.
The impressive looks continue through to the interior, with even the base Neo getting sculpted forms for the dash and door trims that are a cut above its competition for looks.
The seats are comfortable and supportive on all variants, and the perforated leather on the Touring and SP25 GT upwards breathes much better on hot days than conventional leather seats.
Selected colours come with a choice between black and off-white leather on the upper models, and while the white may look luxurious, the black is far more resistant to scuffs and long-term damage.
The MZD Connect multimedia system standard on all Mazda3s from the Maxx upwards is one of the most user-friendly in the industry, with a choice of click-wheel or touchscreen controls, and the latter is deactivated when the car is in motion.
If it’s easy performance you’re after, the XD Astina’s turbodiesel has it in spades.
On the road, the 2.0-litre engine is the smoother and quieter of the two petrols, with enough performance to carry four adults on long journeys comfortably.
Both petrols do make a bit of a racket at higher revs, and while the 2.5-litre’s extra urge is pronounced, the 2.0 is ultimately the sweeter of the two.
Neither petrol engine is able to match the low down urge of a smaller capacity turbo, but are still quite tractable regardless.
If it’s easy performance you’re after, the XD Astina’s turbodiesel has it in spades. While it may be a smidge slower accelerating to 100 than the 2.5 petrol, it’s generally quicker under rolling acceleration, with the responsive twin-turbo set-up seemingly ready to fire at all times.
Regardless of engine, the auto transmission has clearly been tuned for fuel-efficiency over performance, with a tendency to hold taller gears unless the throttle is given a good stab to induce kickdown.
The 3 is yet to score the switchable Sport mode fitted to the Mazda2 and 6 to give drivers the choice between auto efficiency and performance, but the paddle shifters fitted to all autos from the Maxx upwards give the driver the option of overriding the gear choices.
On the other hand, the six-speed manual is a peach of a transmission, with a short throw and clearly defined gates. If you’re tossing up between the two, make sure you drive both options first.
All 3s deliver on the ‘Zoom-Zoom’ expectation of above average handling dynamics, with independent rear suspension and good resistance to bodyroll and controllability at the limit.
The steering isn’t quite MX-5-special, but is consistent in its feel with the same thick-rimmed, small-diameter steering wheel as the rest of the Mazda passenger car line-up.
The 2.0-litre models’ smaller 16-inch wheels and resulting taller sidewalls make for a more supple ride than the 2.5 and diesel’s 18-inchers, but both tend to make more road noise than the likes of a VW Golf.
All petrol Mazda3s carry a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, with dual front and side airbags plus curtain airbags covering front and rear. The diesel models are identically specced, but are yet to be individually crash tested.
Every 3 with the exception of the fully-specced Astinas can be optioned with a factory-fitted Safety Pack, which adds blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and AEB. On the Neo and Maxx the Safety Pack also adds an auto-dimming rear view mirror which is standard further up the range.