3 of the best

First drive of Aus­tralia’s new num­ber one

The Courier-Mail - Motoring - - Front Page - PAUL POTTINGER CARSGUIDE ED­I­TOR paul.pottinger@carsguide.com.au

IT’S long been Carsguide’s con­tention that if you go more than five min­utes in any size­able Aus­tralian town with­out see­ing a Mazda3, you’ve some­how ma­te­ri­alised in an al­ter­na­tive di­men­sion. It’s the only fea­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion be­cause in the real world “om­nipresent” just doesn’t do jus­tice to the Mazda3.

In­deed, we’ve sug­gested Keanu Reeve’s promis­ingly named Neo of the wretched Ma­trix tril­ogy should im­me­di­ately have sussed the ar­ti­fi­cial world of his con­scious­ness by the bizarre lack of this same-named and best-sell­ing Mazda3 vari­ant.

Now a car among the most com­monly seen on the road looks and feels among the most dated.

Such is the ad­vance em­bod­ied by the all-new (for once the term is apt) Mazda3 that, like those flicks, it de­serves a dif­fer­ent name. Mazda3.5? Mazda4? Mazda Reloaded?

VALUE

Point­less to pre­tend that pric­ing (see side­bar) is not pred­i­cated on Volk­swa­gen’s Golf. From en­try $20,490 Neo man­ual to top spec $38,190 SP25 Astina, it­er­ant for it­er­ant it’s clearly com­pat­i­ble to the Golf with a bit of give here and take there. For in­stance, the Maxx gets sat­nav, the equiv­a­lent Golf Com­fort­line has ad­justable damp­ing.

For an auto Mazda charges $2000 over the man­ual few will buy; VW asks $2500 for its DSG. Yet with the Golf priced at a his­toric low the 3 doesn’t as­sert its lead un­til the price tag ap­proaches $30K. Be­fore that point the most ob­vi­ous way in which th­ese fe­ro­cious ri­vals part ways is shape; the 3 is priced the same as ei­ther a sedan or hatch. And there are essen­tially two Mazda3 ranges, each de­fined by its en­gine.

The en­try Neo 2.0L rides on 16-inch steel wheels, is ad­e­quately equipped with such niceties as a start but­ton. We rec­om­mend the $1500 Safety Pack, which in­cludes blind spot mon­i­tor. That goes also for the Maxx 2.0L, which adds re­verse cam­era, al­loys, pad­dle shifters for the auto and sat­nav. The Tour­ing 2.0L is em­bel­lished with auto on-off head­lights, dual zone air­con and lights on the van­ity mir­rors.

Cum­ber­some moniker aside, the SP25 2.5L is the sweet spot of the new range start­ing barely above the Tour­ing, but adding a chunkier en­gine and 18-inch al­loys. Spend­ing up gains a yet more im­pos­ing han­dle (try say­ing “SP25 GT 2.5L” quickly 10 times and stay cool), plus leather up­hol­stery, LED lights and an op­tional $2900 Sun­roof Pack.

Then it’s a big step to SP25 Astina 2.5L. With radar cruise con­trol, stan­dard blind spot warn­ing and sun­roof, this is a le­git pres­tige com­pact.

Whole of life capped ser­vic­ing at 10,000km in­ter­vals makes the Mazda3 (by the com­pany’s reck­on­ing) the least ex­pen­sive small car to run with the ex­cep­tion of Hyundai’s i30.

TECH­NOL­OGY

Un­like its com­pa­tri­ots, Mazda didn’t em­u­late the ostrich dur­ing the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis with the con­se­quence that, in the main part, the oth­ers stuck with driv­e­trains that orig­i­nated not in the pre­vi­ous decade, but last cen­tury.

If what lies be­neath the hood of the Corolla, Civic, Im­preza and Lancer looked an­cient be­fore this week, the bunch of them are now Juras­sic. While Mazda’s di­rect in­jec­tion 2.0- and 2.5-litre petrol en­gines are in­dif­fer­ent in the big­ger Mazda6 and CX-5 to the ex­tent of mak­ing diesel the only op­tion, they might have been pur­pose built for the 3.

Us­ing lar­gish ca­pac­ity and Sky­Ac­tiv high com­pres­sion ra­tios, out­puts equal the Golf’s 1.4-litre turbo mi­nus the im­post of pre­mium un­leaded. Even so, we’d be apt to re­fill the 3 with 95 RON at least ev­ery so of­ten.

The 2.0-litre is good for 114kW/200Nm and 5.7L/100km via a six-speed auto. It’s not so much that the SP’s 2.5 packs more (138kW/250Nm), rather it’s the lin­ear man­ner in which it rolls out it to achieve 6.0L/100km.

A typ­i­cally Mazda man­ual — sport­ingly short of throw — isn’t re­ally in the hunt any­more next to the six-speed auto which confounds tra­di­tion by be­ing leaner run­ning than the car with a clutch pedal. Even with­out the hardly nec­es­sary pad­dle shifters of the exxier ver­sions, the 3’s tra­di­tional but so­phis­ti­cated torque con­verter auto edges the twin clutch boxes of the Golf and Ford Fo­cus while leav­ing for dead those with con­tin­u­ously vari­able trans­mis­sions. It’s class lead­ing.

So too is the HMI (Hu­man Ma­chine In­ter­face) with MZD Con­nect sys­tem, in­ter­act­ing with a smart­phone for net ac­cess and comms. It’ll read aloud your email, tweets and Face­book feeds as you drive. It works so en­tirely in­tu­itively that we’d no need to consult ei­ther the man­ual or a teenager.

Maps are reg­u­larly up­dated for free.

DE­SIGN

Al­most al­ways a Mazda strength, it’s the look that has made the 3 un­avoid­able on the street. While the out­go­ing sedan is stylised to the point of awk­ward­ness, we’ve made a num­ber of bets that the new one will out­sell the hatch.

Vis­ual ac­cents de­rived from the CX-5 and Mazda6 are more ef­fec­tive on their com­pact sib­ling which, nev­er­the­less, is sub­stan­tial enough that the ab­sence of a hatch­back in the 6 line-up is al­most made good. You’ll have a pleas­ant headache choos­ing.

If that’s sub­jec­tive, it can’t be ar­gued that — up­front at least — the 3’s cabin sets a new bench­mark. For a hap­pier mar­riage of form and func­tion you need to en­ter a Lexus IS. In­stru­ments and con­trols are neatly di­vided into two zones: those nec­es­sary for driv­ing and those for in­fo­tain­ment. Both ar­eas are mod­els of clar­ity which, in up­per spec mod­els, is bet­ter yet with a driver’s head up dis­play. Even those with­out have an ide­ally po­si­tioned screen atop the cen­tre dash with both touch­screen and in­stru­ment con­trol.

So it’s dis­ap­point­ing that this at­ten­tion to de­tail doesn’t ex­tend to the back where the oth­er­wise com­fort­ably seated pas­sen­gers have no air vents.

This was not pleas­ant in Mel­bourne’s hellish Jan­uary tem­per­a­tures but, as we’re as­sured cli­mate change is a myth, such phe­nom­ena are no doubt atyp­i­cal . . .

As sight­lines be­come ever more shrouded, driv­ers will ap­pre­ci­ate that the A-pil­lars are set back and the wing mir­rors re­moved to the doors. Side win­dows are al­most un­clut­tered.

To­day’s cover car is re­splen­dent in Kuroi Sports Pack, re­plete with black al­loys and mir­rors.

SAFETY

In a month where yet more tod­dlers have been killed or se­ri­ously in­jured in re­vers­ing ac­ci­dents, we very much like that a re­vers­ing cam­era is stan­dard from the Maxx. Next thing is for the gov­ern­ment to make them com­pul­sory.

The new 3 has re­ceived the max­i­mum five stars from the Euro­pean crash test­ing agency. The op­tional Safety Pack is rea­son­ably priced and fur­ther worth it for surety.

DRIV­ING

Two of us run out of hellishly hot Mel­bourne into the hills aboard a Maxx auto and an SP25 man­ual. Im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent is the re­fine­ment that’s en­tirely ab­sent from the out­go­ing car.

The near si­lence of the 2.0L is al­most omi­nous. The grun­tier 2.5 pro­vides a nicely rorty re­port at revs but oth­er­wise matches the lesser mill for re­fine­ment. Again it’s dif­fi­cult not to see the en­try SP as the pick of the range. Though its 18s con­fer a more alert ride, it’s ev­ery bit as com­pli­ant as we’d hope from last year’s prov­ing ground test of pre-pro­duc­tion cars. When we bring them to­gether it will be some task to split th­ese and the equiv­a­lent Golfs.

If the Maxx re­mains con­sid­er­ably above ad­e­quate when the go­ing moves be­yond the sub­urbs into he hills, the SP is a prop­erly warm hatch (or, in this case, sedan). Es­chew­ing a turbo need not mean be­ing left be­hind ei­ther on econ­omy or per­for­mance.

In­evitably you’ll see the new 3 praised faintly as hav­ing “ma­tured” over the pointy, darty de­vice that’s been largely un­changed in a decade. So much the bet­ter. With a slightly longer wheel­base and a new elec­tric steer­ing sys­tem 2.0- and 2.5L ver­sions are both su­pe­rior steer­ers and tour­ers.

Not for the first time we’re in­clined to de­fine a Mazda as a front-drive BMW 3 Se­ries, one that can be driven lazily and re­ward­ingly in the way that was once syn­ony­mous with the Ger­man car­maker.

VERDICT

The Mazda3 joins the Golf at the com­pact car class pin­na­cle. Both are be­yond the crowded field. You’ll see the new 3 ev­ery­where and that’s a good thing.

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