Mazda3 v VW Golf: Small-car bout of the year — in two weight divisions
THE duel for dominance in the compact car segment is strictly a dual affair.
Volkswagen set the bar high with last year’s seventhgeneration Golf, combining a brilliant chassis, ergonomic efficiency and responsive turbo engines.
Mazda’s riposte is the new 3, a car with the road handling and interior comforts to make some European brands blush.
There are two factions in the respective camps, the modest tribe having smaller engines and fewer standard features.
The Golf range starts at $21,490 for the 90TSI with a six‒speed manual. For those aspiring to own the reigning Carsguide Car of the Year, the Golf 90TSI Comfortline, the price rises by $3500. A sevenspeed dual-clutch automatic adds $2500 to both models. So our COTY is $27,490.
The addition of alloy wheels, front and rear parking sensors, reversing camera, rain-sensing wipers, auto headlamps, dualzone airconditioning and drawers under the front seats make the Comfortline a comforting proposition. The faster, and better equipped 103TSI Highline starts from $31,990 and comes with the DSG transmission as standard . It adds 17-inch alloy wheels and satnav.
Mazda3’s line-up starts with the 2.0-litre powered Neo and Maxx. Prices are $20,490 and $22,990 respectively. A sixspeed auto in place of the sixspeed manual adds $2000.
The Neo misses out on the reversing camera and satnav found in the Maxx. Both ride on 16-inchers, though the Maxx’s are alloys.
Choosing the higher-output SP25 line-up with a six-speed auto costs from $27,890 to $38,190. The logical rival to the Highline is the SP25 GT at $32,590. All SP25s have 18-inch alloys, auto headlamps and wipers and dual-zone airconditioning.
Mainstream models with luxury touches are the hallmark of this pair.
The Volkswagen brings a 5.8-inch proximity sensing infotainment screen. Sensors detect a user’s finger as it nears the screen and switch the information from “display” mode to “operating” mode with smartphone-style swipe and zoom functionality. Fatigue-detection, cruise control and a tyre pressure monitor standard across the range.
Mazda3 buyers must spend up bigger to pick up the aircraft-inspired flip-up plastic visor that displays a head-up readout of speed and satnav status. A $1500 “Safety Pack” adds blind‒spot assistance, rear-cross traffic alert and city-speed (4km/ h‒ 30km/h) braking assist.
VW’s take on extra tech comes in the form of a “Driver Assistance Pack” with adaptive cruise control, emergency city braking and automatic parking for $1300.
VW spent seven generations honing the Golf’s planed-down design. This Spartan focus on practicality has produced a clinically efficient car with all the warmth of an operating theatre. It is a tool progressively refined to extend the boundaries of space and handline.
The wheelbase epitomise this approach. The wheels are virtually at each corner of the car to maximise interior volume and on-road dynamics.
A 380L boot puts it 72L up on the Mazda for cargo carrying. Rear head and leg space is similar in both hatches.
The Mazda3 is all curves and contours, from the shield-shaped grille to the hunched roof line and extruded rear lights. It is a more emotive look than the Golf and certainly — for now at least — turns more heads.
The interior of both cars approaches prestige levels of quality. The VW infotainment system is simple to pair with and the controls are tactile. Mazda’s soft-touch plastics and attention to detail are first-rate and the satnav on the upper models is detailed in info and resolution.
ANCAP rates the Mazda3 a marginally safer car than the Golf, if only by virtue of having seat belt reminders for the front and rear outboard seats. The VW doesn’t and is docked a point for it. Hovever, its overall score of 35.92/37 is still up there with the Mazda’s 36.4.
The Golf has seven airbags,
the Mazda3 six. Both use high‒tensile steels and the latest ABS software to maximise passive and active safety.
It is a guilty pleasure to drive the Golf Comfortline. Cars this cheap shouldn’t handle this well.
The VW is decisive in traffic and dynamic on the back roads. It belies its mass-produced status by feeling hand-built. The 1.4-litre engine develops 90kW/200Nm against the Mazda’s 114kW/200Nm. The Golf is slightly lighter though and capitalises on this with the extra cog in the auto transmission ensuring acceleration is “always on” once under way.
The naturally aspirated 2.0‒litre engine in the Mazda loves to rev but can get thrashy at the top of the dial. That, and tyre rumble on coarse-chip roads, means it can’t compete with the Golf on noise suppression and refinement.
The Mazda’s Maxx’s interior is a glossier, more welcoming experience and the German- style rotary dial controller for the infotainment is a classy touch.
I’d still — just — take the Golf. As an entry level compact hatch it matches the Mazda in features and the turbo engine hauls it around city environs without effort. The Mazda is as capable, but requires more input to be as sporty.
Move up into the $30K tier and the Mazda has just as small an edge.
At this point buyers expect some return on their investment and both these cars deliver. The SP25’s 2.5-litre engine is good for 138kW/ 250Nm against 103kW/250Nm in the Golf Highline.
In GT guise the Mazda3 picks up adaptive headlamps and the head-up display. It still takes more effort to keep the 3 on song — the Golf’s peak torque comes in from 1500rpm against 3250rpm in the Mazda — but the reward is a ride that’s every bit as quick as the Golf and the extra 24kW over the base engine means it is also happier to cruise at low revs.
What little the Mazda cedes to the VW on chassis rigidity is made up for with a slightly firmer ride and more direct steering. And the 3 carries just as much interior refinement along with an exterior style — at least until the model reaches plague proportions on our roads in coming years — that is intangible but invaluable when walking to your car.
It’s a one-all draw.
There’s a whisker in it, but the Golf earns the points in the lower-spec Comfortline trim; Mazda takes the points with the SP25.
The value of the VW in next‒to-basic-spec is too good to ignore — it is a sensationally equipped and built vehicle.
Mazda earns the honours in the pricier variant with a vehicle that has the looks, legs and luxury touches to delight buyers.