The pick of the bunch at about $28K shows why the segment has plenty of life
T here is a lot of hype around SUVs but hatchbacks are still our second most popular choice of car — and these are three of the best.
Toyota has just released a new version of the top-selling Corolla so it’s time to get reacquainted with the other class benchmarks, the Mazda3 and VW Golf.
To level the playing field we’ve chosen variants that line up closest to the Corolla’s new higher starting price of $27,900 drive-away. All three tested cost within $500 of each other.
Updated earlier this year, the range starts with the Neo Sport from $23,490 drive-away with auto. For Corolla money you can go two grades above that to the Touring as tested, from $27,490 drive-away.
Alone in this trio it has leather seats, sensor key with push button start, dual zone airconditioning, auto power-folding side mirrors and paddle-shifters on the steering wheel.
It lacks smartphone mirroring but a Mazda accessory app will be available later this year.
The seven-inch infotainment display is smaller than the eight-inch touchscreens in the other two but has built-in navigation and digital radio, both optional on the Corolla and Golf.
In addition to a rear camera and sensors, standard safety kit includes blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert and, unique in this trio, front and rear autonomous emergency braking.
It lacks radar cruise control and lanekeeping assistance hardware (standard on the Corolla, but the tech that’s supposed to read between the lines is so hit and miss its advantage is limited).
The Mazda’s cabin is starting to look dated despite the addition of chrome highlights.
The instrument cluster is comparatively small and there’s no digital speed display.
However, it comes with two USB ports to accompany a 12V power outlet and 3.5mm auxiliary socket. The others have one of each.
There is a sliding cover for the centre console and the audio control dials and buttons nearby are easier to use than similar arrangements in luxury cars.
Rear seat space is snug, with just a fraction of room between occupants’ knees and the pew in front — it’s only marginally better than the Corolla but there is room for toes under the front seats. Boot space is smaller than average but not as tiny as the Toyota’s cargo hold.
On the road the Mazda3 really shines, with smooth, precise and light steering plus good roadholding — and suspension that doesn’t jar over bumps.
However, the tyres are noisier than its peers on coarse-chip surfaces, a Mazda trait.
The engine has the least zip but makes good use of available power, especially in the intuitive sport mode or when using the paddleshifters to exercise the six-speed auto.
Sales of small cars are down but the resurgent Golf, updated this time last year, is keeping newer rivals on their toes. The next model is due in 2020.
The line-up kicks off with the 110TSI Trendline, from $27,990 drive-away with auto.
Standard fare, not matched by the other two, includes front and rear sensors, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, high-resolution eight-inch touchscreen, rear air vents and rear door pockets (the other two have only drink holders).
It may not be the most modern looking interior these days but it oozes quality, from the glasslike high-resolution eight-inch touchscreen to the leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear lever and large carpeted storage pockets in each door.
On the dash and doors there are soft-touch materials and flashes of faux-metal trim, and there’s padding on each door’s elbow rests.
It’s the shortest car here bumper-to-bumper yet it has the roomiest cabin and by far the biggest cargo hold. Rear passengers have a few centimetres of extra knee room.
The large window area means outward vision is good. Seven airbags and autonomous emergency braking are standard but radar cruise control (with stop-start in traffic), blind zone warning and rear cross traffic alert are part of a $1500 option pack.
Still the benchmark when it comes to ride and handling, the Golf soaks up bumps and thumps with aplomb. The steering is direct without being too sharp.
Its Continental tyres are quieter than the Mazda and Toyota rubber by some margin.
Overall, the Golf is a more relaxed drive, possibly due in part to the engine not being overworked.