Small end of town

SUVs are flavour of the month but the hum­ble hatch is a bet­ter buy. We look at three of the best.

Herald Sun - Cars Guide - - COVER STORY - RICHARD BLACK­BURN CARSGUIDE EDI­TOR richard.black­burn@news.com.au

THE reign of the hum­ble hatch­back is com­ing to a close.

It has been Aus­tralia’s favourite choice of wheels since top­pling the tra­di­tional big Aussie sedan five years ago.

But buy­ers are flock­ing to small SUVs and one-tonne utes and next year, SUVs are ex­pected to over­take con­ven­tional cars as the kings of the road.

That’s a shame be­cause hatch­backs are bet­ter value, bet­ter to drive and just as prac­ti­cal as sim­i­larly priced SUVs. Take the Mazda3, which costs the same as the com­pany’s CX-3 baby SUV but has more power and holds more lug­gage.

The hatch mar­ket has been spiced up in re­cent months with the re­turn of Holden’s pop­u­lar As­tra name­plate and an all-new Subaru Im­preza. In re­sponse Mazda has tweaked its 3 and added safety tech­nol­ogy.

HOLDEN AS­TRA

There’s a lot rid­ing on the new As­tra. The ad­ver­tis­ing pitch is pre­mium Euro and hi-tech and the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence lives up to that claim.

The As­tra has a punchy 1.4cylin­der turbo un­der the bon­net, while the sus­pen­sion has been tuned to pro­vide a sporty, en­gag­ing drive. The steer­ing is well-weighted and re­sponds ac­cu­rately to driver in­puts, while the driv­e­line is su­pe­rior to these Ja­panese ri­vals.

On sec­ond-rate sur­faces, the ride isn’t as for­giv­ing as the other two but it’s a rea­son­able trade-off for the driv­ing dy­nam­ics.

That’s where the good news ends. The R is the cheap­est As­tra in the range, yet it costs the same money as more up­mar­ket ver­sions of the Im­preza and Mazda3.

Its en­try-level sta­tus shows in the cabin, both in the qual­ity of ma­te­ri­als used and the amount of equip­ment you get for the money.

The Mazda and Subaru have push-but­ton start but the As­tra needs a key. The Ja­panese ri­vals have leather-wrapped steer­ing wheels and gear shifters, the As­tra’s is a cheaper rub­ber job.

Same story in the rear seats, where the As­tra doesn’t get a rear arm­rest with cuphold­ers nor any bot­tle hold­ers in the doors. There are no fog lights, ei­ther.

The list goes on but prob­a­bly the most glar­ing omis­sion is the lack of driver safety aids. Both the Ja­panese cars have the lat­est au­to­mated emer­gency brak­ing tech­nol­ogy but it’s not avail­able on the As­tra un­til April and will add $1000 when it ar­rives.

Off­set­ting that is the fact that the Holden is sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper to ser­vice than the Im­preza and Mazda.

MAZDA3 MAXX

The lat­est Mazda3 is roughly half­way through its lifes­pan and it is age­ing re­mark­ably well. The en­gine can’t match the As­tra for low-down grunt but it revs sweetly.

Har­ness­ing the avail­able power well is a six-speed auto. In sport mode, it will pick a lower gear un­der brakes for more urge out of the cor­ner.

It’s not quite as sporty as the As­tra but it is still an en­ter­tain­ing drive on a wind­ing coun­try road, with ac­cu­rate steer­ing and good bal­ance through cor­ners.

In­side, it’s well put to­gether and the seat fab­rics and sur­face fin­ishes feel a step up from the As­tra, although the in­stru­ment read­outs are be­gin­ning to look a lit­tle dated. The qual­ity feel drops away in the rear seats too,

where there is no pad­ding on the door arm­rests and the ma­te­ri­als feel cheaper.

As with the As­tra, it has a man­ual hand­brake. The Im­preza’s is elec­tri­cally op­er­ated.

The rear seats have de­cent legroom but the Im­preza and As­tra have more gen­er­ous head­room and big­ger boots. On the tech­nol­ogy front, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It lacks the Ap­ple CarPlay and An­droid Auto of the As­tra and Im­preza but its sat­nav is built-in, which is more re­li­able in re­mote ar­eas. Mazda also re­cently strength­ened the car’s safety pack­age. On top of the stan­dard au­to­mated emer­gency brak­ing, which works in re­verse as well, the Maxx has blind spot mon­i­tor­ing and rear cross traf­fic alert.

SUBARU IM­PREZA 2.0I-L

Don’t be fooled by the evo­lu­tion­ary look, this Im­preza de­buts an en­tirely new plat­form for the brand. The em­pha­sis is clearly on re­fine­ment, as the car was the qui­etest of these three on the open road. The sus­pen­sion pro­vides a great bal­ance be­tween com­fort and cor­ner­ing prow­ess. Around town it ri­vals some lux­ury makes for soak­ing up road im­per­fec­tions while on the open road the softer sus­pen­sion is off­set by loads of grip from the all-wheel-drive, which came to the fore on our rain-soaked test route.

The en­gine isn’t the step for­ward you’d ex­pect from a new model, though, and lacks the punch of the As­tra. Lack­ing the sporty feel of the Mazda, the con­tin­u­ously vari­able trans­mis­sion also can be a bit jerky in low-speed traf­fic — there are pad­dle-shifters be­hind the steer­ing wheel for those who want to change gears man­u­ally. Crit­i­cised for the de­clin­ing qual­ity of its in­te­ri­ors post the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, Subaru has thrown the

kitchen sink at the Im­preza. From the mo­ment the door shuts with a re­as­sur­ing thunk, the Im­preza im­presses with its qual­ity fin­ishes and gad­get­laden cabin. The at­ten­tion to de­tail stretches to the rear seats, which get soft leather pad­ding on the arm­rests and faux car­bon-fi­bre on the door in­serts. The cen­tre screen is the big­gest of these three and sup­ple­mented by a sec­ond screen above it that can be con­fig­ured to dis­play ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion. There’s also a colour read­out be­tween the speedo and tacho.

While its ri­vals here have sim­ple hot and cold di­als for the aircon, you can set the Im­preza’s tem­per­a­ture by de­grees in the dig­i­tal read­out. The re­vers­ing cam­era read­out is crys­tal clear, while the As­tra’s lacks res­o­lu­tion.

Then there are the ac­tive cruise con­trol, lane de­par­ture warn­ing and ad­vanced auto brak­ing fea­ture that can de­tect pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists and slam on the brakes to avoid an ac­ci­dent.

VER­DICT

The As­tra, an en­gag­ing car to drive with a great en­gine, is over­priced and un­der­done in the cabin against this qual­ity of op­po­si­tion.

It’s much harder to sep­a­rate the other two — the Mazda is sportier but the Im­preza gets the fi­nal nod thanks to its qui­eter and more lux­u­ri­ous cabin, more stan­dard fea­tures and classlead­ing safety tech­nol­ogy.

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