There’s hope for Australian car buyers yet. In an era when a basic task like parking a car inside the lines at a carpark is apparently too technically difficult or just too tedious for many drivers, the Mazda 3 continues to be the first choice for new car owners.
So they must appreciate some element of the driving experience, which is where the Mazda excels. Four years after its launch the 3 continues to perform as well as the competition and has a quality feel few can rival. Mazda has helped by playing smart with the pricing as newer opposition arrive and giving the small-sized car a decent overhaul in 2011.
Pricing and specification for the sedan and hatch is identical, so it purely comes down to buyer preference on body style. Pricing starts at $20,330 for the Neo with a six-speed manual and jumps $4160 for the Maxx Sport with dual-zone climate control, auto wipers and headlamps, satnav, and larger wheels.
The five-speed auto adds $2000 and is a good match for the 2.0-litre engine. It is the mix of features, style and performance that puts the Mazda at the top of the pack. The base Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla are marginally cheaper than the Neo but can’t match the 3’s gusto off the line - and that’s the first thing prospective buyers notice on the test drive.
The fuel-efficient SkyActiv drivetrains will be standard across the model range when the Mazda3 is updated next year. For now, though, there’s only one model and for auto buyers, it is arguably the best value. At $27,990 the SP20 comes with an extra cog in the transmission and a punchier engine that still manages to use around 2 litres/100km less fuel than its cheaper siblings.
That sort of saving soon adds up. The gear inside isn’t the latest and greatest - the multi-function display is a monochrome unit housed in the top of the dash, rather than being a dedicated infotainment screen. It is one of the rare areas where the Mazda loses out but the basics - from a quick-to-cool aircon system to decent sound from the stereo - are still good. An update in late 2011 added Bluetooth with audio streaming across the range.
Carparks across the country are full of Mazda3s, as befits Australia’s top-selling car for the past two years, yet it still manages to stand out. The styling is still as good as anything in this class, with the chunky front and rear bumpers giving the car an aggressive stance without venturing into boy-racer territory.
The latest update added round fog lights and improved the aerodynamics by fitting extended lips on the outside edge of the spoiler to deflect wind around the front tyres. The interior updates included ditching the silver-finished console around the transmission for a black unit and improving the speedo/tacho legibility by using white numerals on a grey background. It mightn’t looks as trendy as red but it’s a sight easier to read.
Standard gear on the Mazda3 range is ABS brakes with brakeforce distribution, traction and stability control and six airbags. ANCAP rates the car as a five-star earner with a score of 33.33 out of 37. That’s impressive given the crash-testing authority docked it a point in both the side and pole-impact tests for a side curtain airbag that didn’t deploy properly for the rear-seat occupant - an issue Mazda quickly fixed.
The Mazda3 is light on its feet and light through the steering. That’s great for shopping and school runs yet doesn’t compromise the car’s ability to hustle along with the best of them. The feedback is precise when pitching it into a turn and the suspension’s taut settings translate into good grip and cornering dynamics.
The fronts seats are supportive, the instrument layout is intuitive and space in the rear is up to the task of lugging three adults for short trips. Cargo will also cope with the weekly shopping, though the sedan’s 430-litre area is 90 litres up on the hatch.