The new Mazda3 SP25 Astina Sedan sits on the top shelf of the Mazda3 range, incorporating everything from leather trim and adaptive LED headlights to a power sunroof and radar cruise control. Plus loads of extra active safety tech. Richard Berry road tests this generously equipped four door to see if the drive matches the spec.

Car journos are constantly being bailed up by people with their automobile problems or seeking advice about what to buy. It's a bit like being a doctor who can't go to a party without other guests hassling them about their aches and pains, the difference being that in an emergency nobody has ever shouted: "Is there a motoring journalist in the house?!"

MORE: Read the full Mazda 3 2016 review

The car queries are absolutely welcome. The only time it gets frustrating is when people don't take the advice and go and buy what they'll soon discover is the wrong car for them. Especially if you recommend a car like the Mazda3. It is (along with a couple of other vehicles in the small segment) a car that's almost impossible to go wrong with.

Somebody's taking the advice, though. The Mazda3 is up there with its rivals the Toyota Corolla and Hyundai's i30 as the biggest selling cars in Australia.

We tested the top-of-the-range Mazda3 SP25 Astina Sedan. The sedan, okay? As in, not the hatch – and its direct rivals are the Toyota Corolla sedan and the Hyundai Elantra (there's no i30 sedan).

The competition between Toyota, Hyundai and Mazda is only going to be good for you as they jostle to offer better value and out-do each other with features. A classic example of this is Mazda updating its Mazda3 in July.

So, is the update of the Mazda3 SP25 Astina Sedan just a cosmetic change or has something far more important been done? What do you get with this top-of-the-range variant that you can't on the already decked out lower grades? And just how does this new Mazda3 read street signs?

Design

If you can spot the changes to the Mazda3's styling you have the eyes of a hawk, or an eagle or a zebra – apparently they are pretty good at seeing things. The grille has changed and the Mazda badge it houses has been moved down more towards the centre. New halogen and LED headlights are also part of the design tweaks at the front, as are the restyled LED foglights.

Interior feel is premium, supported by an extremely high standard of fit and finish.

The hatch is by far the more popular body style, but that's because when most Australians think small car they instantly think hatchback, so there'd be a lot who wouldn't consider the sedan or may not even know it exists. But the sedan looks stunning and is without a doubt better looking that the Corolla sedan. The i30 doesn't come as a sedan but its Elantra sibling is a sedan and also looks beautiful.

Talking of which, the Mazda3 Sedan's dimensions are almost identical to the Elantra's. At 5480mm end-to-end the Mazda3 is only 10mm shorter than the Elantra, 5mm narrower at 1795mm, 5mm shorter at 1450mm tall but has the same 2700mm wheelbase.

The Mazda3's minor design refresh carries over into the cabin with changes to the dashboard and door trims. Interior feel is premium, supported by an extremely high standard of fit and finish.

Practicality

The Mazda3 hatch and sedan offer identical interior space, including the same 909mm of rear legroom, which sounds enormous, but isn't. I can't sit behind my driving position without my knees hard up against the driver's seat back – I am 191cm though. Headroom is tight in the back seat of the Mazda3 and it's reduced even more by the Astina's standard sunroof.

The sedan's boot capacity is 100 litres more than the hatch's at 408 litres. Sure you can fit more in the Mazda3 sedan's boot, but when you combine a tailgate that opens wide and rear seats which fold flat the hatch is the better cargo carrier if you don't have people to move, too. In comparison the Elantra's boot is 458 litres.

The Mazda3 Astina Sedan has two cup holders up front and two more in the rear fold-down centre armrest, while there are big bottle holders in the doors up front and smaller bottle holders in the back doors.

Price and features

The Mazda3 SP25 Astina with an automatic transmission costs $35,490, making it the most expensive Mazda3 in a range starting at $20,490. You might also be interested to know the hatch and the sedan share the same price right through the line-up. Each grade offers the choice of manual or auto, the latter adding $2000 to the stick shifter's price tag.

That $35,490 list price is a lot of money for a Mazda3 and it's pricier than rivals such as the Toyota Corolla ZR Sedan, Hyundai Elantra SR Turbo and Honda Civic RS Sedan. But the amount of features that come with this spec beats the quantity of standard kit in a $54,900 BMW 318i.

The driving experience is so good, and better in some ways, than a prestige car worth three times the price.

For your money the SP25 Astina is like a hamburger with the lot – it's not all necessary but it's tasty. Standard equipment includes a seven-inch screen, reversing camera, sat nav, active cruise control, head-up display, paddle shifters, digital radio, Bose nine-speaker stereo,  leather upholstered seats and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, auto wipers and headlights, proximity locking, power adjustable front seats, plus LED headlights and fog lights.

It is an impressive list; and we haven't even included the advanced safety tech that comes standard, too – see the safety section below.

Engine and transmission

There are two petrol engines in the Mazda3 line-up and the SP25 Astina gets the more powerful one; a 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder which delivers 24kW more power and 50Nm more torque than the 2.0-litre found in the Neo, Maxx and Touring grades.

There's a choice of a six-speed manual or smooth shifting six-speed automatic (as fitted to our test car).

Fuel consumption

Mazda says the SP25 Astina should go through an average of 6.1L/100km of fuel under combined (urban and extra urban) driving conditions. After a stack of thirsty city driving I recorded 11.1L/100km.

Driving

I know people currently driving European cars that won't consider a Mazda because it's a Japanese brand. That mindset drives me nuts, especially when the driving experience is so good, and better in some ways, than their prestige car worth three times the price.

The Mazda3's seating position is one of the best you'll find out there. The seats are designed with a low hip point, with legs outstretched but held by a supportive seat base while your upper body is gripped by lateral bolsters to stop you swimming about in the corners. Older people shouldn't be concerned by the low hip point – it's not so radical that you'll get stuck, just enough to make you feel like you're sitting 'in' the car and not ‘on top' of it.

All touch points for the driver feel great, from the steering wheel and armrests to the areas where your knee comes in contact with the door and centre console.

Their grip is tenacious and they look good.

This latest version of the Mazda3 comes with what Mazda calls G-Vectoring, which is designed to minimise sudden movements caused by the driver changing the car's direction. It's done by the vehicle adjusting the engine's torque to balance out the force of braking and cornering.

It's fairly complicated engineering, but all I know is for a small car that costs less than $40,000 the dynamics are outstanding and better than many premium cars costing far more.

The ride is excellent. The revised suspension cushions flawlessly but firmly enough for great handling, too. The standard Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 215/45 R18 tyres are lower profile than the rubber fitted to entry-spec cars, and they do 'feel' the road's bumps and cracks more, but their grip is tenacious and they look good.

The accurate and well weighted electric power steering is another highlight.

Can you feel the extra 24kW and 50Nm the 2.5-litre engine brings? Absolutely. The extra grunt is great for galloping up hills and overtaking with confidence.

Good brakes, that responsive engine, and a smooth six speed transmission top off what is probably the best driving experience you'll get for the money in this segment.

Nothing is perfect though. The reversing camera doesn't give a clear picture in low light, the active cruise control cuts out at speeds below 20km/h and there are no front parking sensors.

Safety

The Mazda3 SP25 Astina already had a five-star ANCAP rating. The update in 2016 added more safety technology including Auto Emergency Braking (AEB) across the range and those grades from the Maxx up were given reversing AEB, blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert.

Also new to the Astina grade is adaptive LED headlights and lane keeping assistance.

Another new safety tech addition is traffic sign recognition. A forward-facing camera can recognise and read speed limit signs, then display the limit in the driver's head-up display. It's useful in cities where the limit is constantly changing and in the country where it can be a long time between speed signs and easy to miss one and not know how fast you should be going.

For child seats there are three top tether anchor points and two ISOFIX mounts across the back seat.

Ownership

The Mazda3 SP25 Astina is covered by Mazda's three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is recommended every 12 months or 10,000km and capped at $302 per service for the first five years.