THE NEW WORLD ORDER

MAZDA’ NEW 3 HAS BOTH SOPHISTICATION AND SEX APPEAL, BUT BEFORE IT CAN LAY CLAIM TO RESETTING THE HATCHBACK BENCHMARK, IT NEEDS TO TOPPLE THE EVERGREEN GOLF, AS WELL AS RANGE-TOPPERS FROM HOLDEN AND FORD

WORDS BY RON MATHIOUDAKIS

THE 3’S CABIN IS MORE AKIN TO THE GOLF’S AUDI A3 COUSIN, SINCE IT FORFEITS REAR-SEAT ACCESS AND HEADROOM AT THE ALTAR OF STYLE

Weight here please

The previous BM-series Mazda 3 was a triumph in lightweight engineering, but as a result of that obsessive drive to keep the kilos off, NVH and refinement levels suffered. This time, Mazda worked tirelessly to fill in noise pathways in the body-in-white, employing innovative sealing, carpeting and floorpan insulation solutions. Mazda also used more high-tensile steels to increase strength and rigidity which quell road, tyre and suspension noise. On average, kerb weight rises by around 44kg – impressive given all the extra equipment fitted.

3 crosses over

Love the 3 but need wagon-like practicality? Behold the all-new CX-30, available next year, and essentially the 3’s crossover sibling. Slotting between the hugely successful CX-3 and CX-5 for Aussies addicted to SUVs, and developed concurrently with the evergreen Mazda small car, it brings family-friendlier packaging (including a 430L boot), AWD availability, and the all-important raised driving height, to the same impressive underpinnings. What a 70mm wheelbase cull does for rear legroom remains to be seen, but still… Subaru XV, watch out!

IN MUCH THE same way we sometimes adopt extraordinary Kiwis as our own (but sadly never some of their politicians), ‘Australia’s Own’ car is now the Mazda 3 – and has been so for some time.

A regular podium seller since bursting onto the scene in 2004, the series from Japan is today deeply ensconced in our national streetscape. Toyota’s Corolla might pip it for sheer sales, but more private buyers choose the diminutive Mazda, and – as a show of pride in their purchases – in higher model grades too.

But the road has been long and not always easy, with six decades of continuous (and often colourful) development. Commencing with the 600 in 1963, the line evolved into the 1200/1300 and then several generations of breakthrough 323s along the way. Not all resonated (remember the ’94 Astina 2.0litre V6?), proved reliable (though the R100 of ’69 was our first rotary), were ruly (torque-steering 3 MPS, anyone?) or even wore Mazda badges (witness 21 years of Ford Lasers from ’81), but collectively all slowly won Aussies over with high quality, driveability, efficiency, affordability and – vitally – aftersales care. Consistency has been the key to the Mazda’s success.

While not strictly all-new due to carryover powertrains and some other platform components, the striking fourth-gen 3 builds on such virtues with bolder yet cleaner styling inside and out, a stronger body, longer wheelbase, substantially more upmarket fittings, better comfort, greater safety, improved dynamics (despite ditching a multi-link rear end for a more practical torsion-beam arrangement) and an obsessive drive to cull noise/vibration/harshness (NVH) pathways. The latter has long been a series bugbear.

Result? Mazda is so confident this BP-series redesign is the finest C-segment small car going, it has bravely/foolishly pushed prices firmly into Volkswagen Golf turf. Time to test the latest 3 against the best.

We’ve plumped for the richest of the six 3s currently available. The range-topping G25 Astina from $37,990 (plus on-roads) is powered by the quartet’s only normally aspirated engine – a newly overhauled, 139kW/252Nm, 2.5-litre fourcylinder unit, driving the front wheels via the same six-speed automatic. If this seems expensive, consider that the $40,735 323 Astina V6 equivalent of 1995 cost over $70K in today’s money. And that was with a fraction of today’s features.

Speaking of which, along with the usual luxuries like leather, powered and heated front seats, paddle shifters, sunroof, satnav, rear camera, smartphone-mirroring multimedia, DAB radio, adaptive LED headlights and driver-assist safety tech like AEB, the latest Astina ushers in adaptive cruise with stop/go, surround-view vision, front cross-traffic alert and a projector head-up display. With optional metallic, ours hit $38,485.

Equally fresh is Ford’s Focus, a recent comparo winner in spirited ST-Line guise. Launched last December, the somewhat fussily styled SA-series from Germany sits on the Blue Oval’s state-of-the-art C2 platform, bringing advances in lightweight strength as well as NVH suppression. As with the Mazda, multi-links give way to a torsion rear set-up in the name of cost and space efficiencies, but Ford has gone one further with truly downsized engineering, in the form of a 134kW/240Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo and eight-speed torque-converter auto powertrain.

Our chosen $34,490 Titanium includes goodies unavailable in the Astina like a WiFi hotspot, wireless charging and remoteactivated windows. But there’s no driver’s seat memory, while matching the Mazda’s sunroof and head-up display add $2K and $300 respectively. With $650 metallic and $1K self-parking, our Focus commands $38,440.

1. FORD FOCUS TITANIUM

Hardy, workmanlike dash miles away from ‘luxury’ despite gimmicky Jaguar-esque rotary selector, brushed aluminium trim and classy night-time lighting. Messy dials seem especially cheap. Still, there’s heaps of room, practicality and functionality, while all the tech is present. Seats provide basic comfort and support front and rear, and there are decent levels of space too. No rear air vents (again) is an annoying omission. A scrappy effort for ‘Titanium’ flagship. Cargo capacity is a useful 375L. Spare is a space saver.

2. HOLDEN ASTRA RS-V

Getting on now, the Astra’s interior is at least cohesive, and actually rarely puts a foot wrong in terms of functionality and practicality, but it won’t raise your pulse. Seating is adequate front and rear, but the leather is slippery and most plastics seem bargain-basement. RS-V feels too built down to a price and mean in this company, with no rear vents or centre armrest. Noisiest of the lot by far, too, with noticeable plastics chatter inside on rough roads. Boot offers 360L, spare is a space saver.

IN DETAIL First class or cattle class? We have both

3. MAZDA 3 ASTINA

The latest 3 possesses possibly Mazda’s best-ever smallcar cabin - it’s certainly the quietest. Lovely steering wheel, fine seating, great ergonomics, gorgeous instrumentation, premium controls and fastidious quality set the cocooning Astina apart. However, entry/egress out back is limited due to lower roofline and smaller door apertures, vision out is limited in every direction and back-seat legroom also lags behind Golf’s despite scalloped front seatbacks. Spare is a space saver, but boot volume is just 295L.

4. VW GOLF 110TSI HIGHLINE

Easiest access, great driving position, highest quality, most space, biggest storage and best practicality set Golf apart six years on. Dull, blocky dash houses updated and upgraded multimedia and instrumentation that also keeps VW at the pointy end of the pack. Highline’s seating in both rows is also a class above, feels very Audi-like. Now no longer the quietest with the new 3 here, but it’s refined. Boot capacity is 380L, with a space-saver and the group’s lone ski port.

Runner-up to the winning Golf in our last small-car megatest (see January 2017), the handsome Holden Astra remains underrated, so in comes the top-line RS-V, also from Germany but via Poland, at $31,740 – or $36,280 due to an Innovations Pack ($3990) bringing Opel’s excellent adaptive LED matrix headlights, sunroof and adaptive cruise, plus $550 for metallic. Auto up/down electric windows, powered front seats and rear centre armrest aren’t available, but auto parking and remote starting are fitted, as is a punchy 147kW/300Nm 1.6-litre four-pot turbo/six-speed auto combo.

Oldest of our foursome is the Golf in mid-range 110TSI Highline guise from $36,490. Released in 2013 – though a thorough ‘Mk 7.5’ facelift brought worthwhile updates in 2017 – the third German and former COTY winner has famously seen off most challengers since. Packing a 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo with sevenspeed dual-clutch, our Volkswagen mostly mirrors the Mazda’s spec, though with a $2300 Sound/Vision pack (bringing fully digitised and customisable instrumentation, upgraded sat-nav and better audio) and $500 metallic, buyers are looking at $39,290.

Additionally, the VW comes with the luxury of space. Entry/ egress is easiest of the lot, material quality remains unsurpassed, functionality is unimpeachable and the ambience draws you in. The facelift has kept the tech current and nothing here beats the Golf for all-round vision, seat comfort, room for five adults and overall utility. It is mind-blowing how ahead of the pack the Mk7 was in 2013. The sheer ubiquity of the VW’s dated cookiecutter dash and some hidden minor switchgear are perhaps the sumptuous Highline’s only true shortcomings.

In some ways the latest 3’s cabin is more akin to the Golf’s more daring Audi A3 cousin, since it so obviously forfeits rear-seat access and headroom (both of which remain serviceable but are the worst here) at the altar of style. Yet the Astina is very much its own, fiercely Japanese achievement too. Check out the Alfa Giulia influences in the flowing horizontal lines, lush surfaces, tactile switchgear and dramatically better-quality trim than before; all help the cocooned, almost hushed Mazda achieve a sense of sporty opulence that eludes even most luxury-branded hatches. Attention to detail is also remarkable, as evidenced in the seductively thinrimmed wheel, Cinemascope-esque instrument dials that could grace a Porsche and the flawless driving position. Jobs for this car’s successor would be limited to improving back-seat access, stretching rear legroom and fixing the dismal rear vision, but none are so bad as to be deal breakers. Otherwise, Hiroshima’s cohesive C-segment hatch leaps two generations forward.

If only we could say the same about the Focus. In isolation, there’s much going on inside the Titanium – not least the plentiful space, storage and ventilation, as well as sufficient vision, comfy seats and a simple, logical control layout. And though dated to look at, Ford’s SYNC3 multimedia interface still works fine. But the dash screams budget at this lofty price point, like it’s meant for a Fiesta, with lower-quality materials than anticipated in many areas; the instrumentation – while comprehensive – possesses zero flair; and the rear seat seems from a lower grade, with no face-level vents and some noise intrusion. The cabin is an amalgam of two design proposals and it shows.

ENGINE DONOR

The rest of the best

Peugeot’s 308, the Subaru Impreza and Toyota Corolla also deserve to be here, but the French hatch is undergoing a revamp with more power and an eight-speed auto coming later in the year, so that was unavailable, while both the Impreza and Corolla don’t quite have the required sporty performance at this stage to take on our premium quartet. We eagerly await a turbo Impreza variant in the future while the Toyota sorely needs the larger 2.0-litre petrol/electric hybrid powertrain as found in the related Lexus UX. Fingers crossed…

The opposite applies inside the Astra, since Opel clearly worked to a single vision. Sure, it looks from a bygone era, there’s even more tyre noise than expected, and the chatter from interior plastics on rough roads is the most palpable here, but as a box-ticking exercise, the cabin is purposeful, accommodating, comfortable and spacious. That said, the rear seems cold and barren compared to even that of the Focus, with bottom-drawer plastics, AWOL vents and no centre armrest. And weirdly, left-side occupants’ legs must angle slightly askew to the right. How could this design have debuted four years after the Golf’s?

The noisiest of the group, at least the Holden’s red detailing and black trim provide a suitably rousing mood to match the prodigious performance on offer. Make no mistake, it’s the hot rod of the quartet, tearing through each speed increment fastest and by some margin, though with 6000km on the odo against the Ford’s 2000km and just 500km apiece for the Mazda and VW, the Astra was also the loosest by far. Hence it’s the only one here that didn’t disappoint against the stopwatch.

NOTHING HERE BEATS THE GOLF FOR ALL-ROUND VISION, SEAT COMFORT, ROOM FOR FIVE ADULTS AND OVERALL UTILITY

At 60km/h, the Holden was almost a second ahead of the next quickest (Golf); at 100km/h the gap widened to 1.6sec against the equally green Astina and by 140km/h, the divide against both ballooned by nearly 4.0sec. Lusty and eager to break traction in the lower gears, the Astra’s 1.6 turbo roars into life and storms from point to point with almost hot-hatch ferocity. RS-V may as well stand for ‘Rocket Ship Velocity’ in this context. The flipside, predictably, is rock-star thirst for the premium brew – an 11.3L/100km test-average was 3.1L/100km adrift of the frugal Golf.

Given extra clicks under their belts, the rest ought to deliver stronger showings than our numbers indicate, though rain also undermined our Mazda and VW’s times. Later, both grew exponentially faster as the kilometres piled on.

However, the turbo-fed Golf always felt perkier as well as sweeter at lower speeds than our tight atmo 3, which required a wilful right foot and lots of revs for really rapid getaways; the Astina would only reel in the German in the 80-120km/h increment and beyond.

And the Focus? Barely run-in, its numbers, too, weren’t terrific – 8.2sec to 100 proved half a second shy of our ST-Line’s results several weeks earlier – but like the latter, the three-potturbo Titanium’s seat-of-the-pants reactions feel much brawnier than what the stopwatch says. Feisty off the line and punchy through the gears, thanks in part to considered auto ratio tuning, the Ford subjectively seems the Golf’s match and way more alert than our somnolent Mazda. Its 9.5L/100km average is way off the pace, however.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair on the Ford, for it begs to be belted along, goaded on by a chassis with an almost supernatural ability to feel both ultra-light on its feet and rooted to terra firma. Though not quite as acute as the more-tautly suspended ST-Line’s, the Titanium’s talkative helm remains meaty yet lean, while acute handling agility and seamless cornering control – aided by intricately unintrusive electronic traction tuning – are further plus points.

However, while all this suggests the old multi-link rear may not be missed after all, the vaunted ride suppleness endemic to this series evaporates on the 18-inch wheel and (quality Michelin Pilot Sport) tyre package, replaced by an unwelcome uncharacteristic firmness that’s at odds with the Titanium’s upmarket aspirations.

No such dynamic degradation afflicts the Astina, even though it’s also sitting on a torsion beam and wearing size 18s. While not quite as tactile as the Ford’s, the 3’s steering is deliciously immersive and pitch-perfect in effort. It ushers in newfound handling fluency and poise, with the Mazda remaining uncorrupted even at speed over tight, bumpy roads, finally elevating the series up alongside greats such as the Focus ST-Line and Peugeot 308. Except it’s even quieter than the latter, imparting a vault-like isolation from most road surface irregularities that would be totally alien to people familiar with earlier models. That old, jiggly droning that defined (and defiled) previous 3s is history. Hallelujah!

True, riding on 17s, the Golf prevails with the softest ride of the posse, but the Highline’s body motion isn’t as contained as the Focus and Astina’s, and likewise the steering is both less eager and more remote. But only comparatively, for the ageing VW is still a supremely secure and relaxed high-speed grand tourer, carving through the apexes with entertaining precision, selfassurance and imperious dignity.

Finally, the tearaway RS-V. With steering that’s also not quite as weighty or tactile as the best, the Holden’s chassis tune is likewise not quite as focused. Yet the Astra can be hustled through tight turns with bridled accuracy for fast and scrappy fun that delivers its own wayward joy. You’ll likely feel as well as hear what’s going on below, but it’s rarely unpleasant.

Rowdy and a tad unsophisticated the rapid RS-V may be, it nevertheless remains a small-hatch charmer, with a can-do attitude and easy accessibility that helps the Astra ascend above its dated interior. The Opel-based Holden deserves to be on every shopping shortlist.

WHILE NOT QUITE AS TACTILE AS THE FORD’S, THE 3’S STEERING IS DELICIOUSLY IMMERSIVE AND PITCH-PERFECT IN EFFORT

SPECS THE SAMURAI AND THE SLICED

The Titanium doesn’t quite have the dynamic appeal of the excellent ST-Line, falling short for ride comfort, while failing to lift the patchy cabin’s interior presentation sufficiently to justify the extra spend. It’s what we feared – an inferior rear suspension mated to oversized wheels and ill-judged specification. Despite possessing many great traits, including superb steering, engaging handling balance and smart packaging, this is the underachiever of the latest Focus line-up.

We’ve long said the seventh Golf iteration is one of the world’s best vehicles and all the car anybody would ever need. And little has changed, highlighting the monumental achievements of this 2012 design. The 110TSI Highline may be marginally more expensive, but it brings Audi levels of tech, quality and desirability for much less. Yep, that’s why this VW is a bargain.

No doubt the Golf 7 served as a muse for Mazda when developing the latest 3, for the result is its own brilliant interpretation of what a 2020s hatch should be, rather than yet another carbon copy. The Japanese hatch has progressed far further than we had dared hope, yet within its own terms forged over 56 years of 1200s, 323s and 3s. Number four’s the charm.

If you feel a pang of pride knowing that, you’re probably not alone. In G25 Astina guise at least, Australia’s adopted small car brings home the gold.