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 th the most glaring omission is the la lack of driver safety aids. Both th the Japanese cars have the latest a automated emergency braking te 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.
TThe 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,