Mark Smyth got his hands on the new Mazda3 and continues to be impressed – just not with the automatic gearbox.
It is no surprise that many people looking at a family hatch or small sedan look no further than the Volkswagen Golf. I have heard many even refer to the segment simply as the “Golf segment”. Interestingly, while models such as the Golf, Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class are leaders when it comes to refinement and quality, they all come at a price and are not often the best when it comes to standard equipment.
A few years ago the Korean manufacturers upset the apple cart by equipping their cars with standard features such as a USB port, multifunction steering wheel and smartphone integration. They might seem like small things but they had people flocking to Kia and Hyundai dealerships. Volkswagen and Audi only recently started including USB ports in their cars, years after supposedly lesser rivals.
Mazda is another manufacturer that has been packing its vehicles with kit since it began its new era as a standalone company, unshackled from its parent company, Ford.
It went back to the drawing board and redeveloped its cars with a focus on the driver, as well as a focus on providing a high level of specification. It revisited the internal combustion engine, recognising that it is generally not that efficient and engineered ways to get more power and better consumption from its engines. It changed the suspension and chassis on its vehicles to provide the driver with more feedback without compromising on comfort.
There are those who criticise the company for its lack of turbocharged engines in an era of downsizing, but most of its critics live in Joburg, where the altitude does affect the engine outputs. The reality though is that we are a small part of a global market and Mazda is catering for the majority of its worldwide customers, not simply those in little old Gauteng. That is not to say that turbocharging is not on the cards; I have no doubt that the company’s engineers are busy working on future solutions.
This brings me to the new Mazda3 which has just been given an update. We got our hands on the flagship Astina Plus, which features the same 2.0l normally aspirated engine as this year’s World Car of the Year, the superb Mazda MX-5. Interestingly, it features more power and torque than the MX-5 with 121kW and 210Nm, but the torque peak is not as high as in the roadster.
None of that power matters though in a car which has an automatic gearbox that can only be described as dreadful. This is partly because in trying to make it more of a driver’s car, the peak power only comes in at 6,000r/min. It whines like someone who has been waiting more than two minutes in the checkout queue at Woolies and if you are foolish enough to put it into sport mode then it screams like a disgruntled toddler. If, however, you are a little old lady and you just want to pootle about town then it is probably perfect. For the rest of us, fortunately there is a manual gearbox derivative and we know from our experience with some other Mazda models that going manual can be the better option.
It cruises nicely on the highway though, mainly because the revs are low and it doesn’t have to change gear often, which would necessitate using the remote audio buttons on the multifunction steering wheel to increase the volume dramatically.
This brings me to all the good stuff it does have and the list is rather long. First, we had the hatchback on test which scores well in the looks department. We might not choose grey, but then we also had a drab grey Ford Focus RS on test in the same week, so perhaps grey is in.
Inside you get loads of premium black leather, mated to dark brown leather door trims and a sporty multifunction steering wheel. You get a decent amount of boot space too and the legroom in the rear is also good, although not class leading.
This brings me to the tech. There is a head-up display. Unfortunately it is beamed onto a piece of perspex that rises from the instrument cowl rather than onto the windscreen, but it still sits in your field of vision and the graphics are some of the sharpest. It also works with the blind spot monitoring displaying a warning of an advancing car in both the display and in the wing mirror. The display icon changes colour as the other car gets more into your blind spot and unless you have switched off the head-up display, it is virtually impossible not to be aware of it flashing at you.
Should you still try to change lanes then the car is not as stupid as you. Where once lane-keeping assistance was only available in upper models, today it is in vehicles like the Mazda3. Veer towards the lane markings without indicating or when there is another vehicle and it will vibrate the steering wheel before pulling the car back into the lane.
This is not the only area where it takes control. It is also fitted with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), a prerequisite this days for maximum marks from safety organisations such as EuroNCAP. Should you not hit the brakes quick enough then the car will do it for you. It can be a little overcautious at times, but we guess the engineers have programmed in a better safe than sorry approach.
You also get a full infotainment system which can stream everything you need from multiple sources as well as a clear and logically laid out screen mounted atop the dashboard.
You are going to pay R407 900 for all this style, luxury and kit, but it is not so long ago that you were paying substantially more to get these characteristics in a much larger executive model. And it is not much more than an equivalent Golf but with a much longer standard specification list.
The Golf will always be the Golf, and the Audi A3 deserves to be regarded as one of the best of the segment, but the Mazda3 is right up there in almost all aspects and in some areas it is better. Just stay away from the automatic gearbox.
Fast Facts: MAZDA3 2.0 ASTINA PLUS
Engine: 1998cc four-cylinder petrol
Power: 121kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 210Nm at 4000rpm
Transmission: six-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 9.0-seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 198km/h (claimed)
Fuel: 5.9l/100km (claimed combined)
CO2: 140g/km (claimed)
Price: From R407 900