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.
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.
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.
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.
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.