Tested: Australia’s favourite small car
The humble front-wheel drive hatchback has yielded to the mid-size SUV as suburban Australia's transport of choice but that doesn't mean hatchbacks have become redundant.
In fact, if you enjoy driving - as opposed to regarding it as a necessary evil, in which case an SUV will do the job just fine - then the front row of the 2019 hatchback grid is now worth close inspection.
What were once just shopping trolleys in previous generations have morphed into pretty decent driver's cars. Toyota's 12th-generation Corolla is the best drive ever to wear the badge, with willing performance and genuinely sporty handling. The Ford Focus is similarly engaging and enjoyable.
VW's Golf, due for replacement by the eighth-generation model at the end of the year, is still arguably the class benchmark.
They have now been joined by the new, fourth-generation Mazda3.
The days of the low-$20K drive-away hatchback deal are long gone. The pointy end of the field is now a $25K-$30K zone.
The 2019 Mazda3 range kicks off with the G20 Pure, priced at $24,990 with a carry-over 114kW 2.0-litre four/six-speed manual. Six-speed auto adds $1000. The G20 Evolve is $26,690 and we're testing the $27,690 automatic.
There is also a 139kW 2.5-litre, starting at $29,490 for the G25 Evolve manual. The top of the range, the G25 Astina automatic, is $37,990.
So prices are ambitious but ponder this. Not so long ago, the base model 3's standard infotainment and safety tech, plus its comfort and convenience features, would have been on a car that cost closer to $50,000.
Climb in and the 3 certainly feels premium grade. The Evolve is one of the cheaper grades but its elegant interior could easily be mistaken for an Audi. Fit, finish and materials, plus the tactile precision of its controls, are best in class.
Mazda follows Audi and BMW in steering clear of touch-only infotainment interfaces, preferring instead a rotary controller on the high, wide centre console.
The Mazda Connect set-up has a larger, hi-res screen and is now faster and more intuitive. Navigation, voice control for all functions, digital radio and Apple CarPlay /Android Auto are included.
The comfortable, supportive seat is complemented by quite a low, sporty driving position for a hatchback, with plenty of adjustability and handy storage.
It's tight in the rear seat and you have to duck under the coupe-style roofline to get in and out, or to secure kids in restraints. The boot is also small.
Firm and controlled, the Euro-tuned ride is still compliant and comfortable at speed. Many road testers have complained about excessive noise, vibration and harshness in previous Mazdas but I've found it no better or worse than most rivals, notably the Corolla.
Once again, Mazda has put in a major effort to improve refinement. Tyre roar on coarse bitumen is the only notable issue (as it is in the Corolla), largely because body, engine, transmission and wind intrusions have been muted so effectively.
Mazda and Toyota lead the field here. Adaptive cruise, with automatic stop and go in slow traffic, autonomous emergency braking, effective lane keep assist/departure warning and blind spot monitoring are all included, as is a comprehensive, easy to read head-up display.
On the road, the Mazda fails to convince. Performance is adequate around town but sluggish compared with the Corolla. Mazda's naturally aspirated 2.0-litre is also seriously underdone for bottom end and mid-range torque compared with the 1.4-litre turbo Golf and 1.5-litre turbo Focus.
Sport mode increases accelerator responsiveness and hangs onto the middle ratios in a vain effort to persuade you there's some genuine zoom-zoom happening. It's an illusion - all you get is slow done louder.
The new 3's performance isn't helped by the fact that it has put on about 40kg. Fuel efficiency has also taken a hit. This model claims 6.2L/100km, compared with 5.8L/100km for its predecessor.
Mazda has switched from independent rear suspension to a lower cost torsion beam yet the new 3 is as strong and tight as they come - it's agile, secure and predictable in corners, with light, accurate steering and powerful brakes.
Mazda claims its G-Vectoring Control Plus software monitors steering inputs, automatically adjusts engine torque and brakes the outside wheels to assist in fast, smooth cornering.
Can't say I noticed it, which means it's either extremely effective or there's simply not enough grunt to trigger its intervention.
When I get into this car, it feels much more expensive than it is. And from the outside, it looks a million bucks too.
Performance isn't a priority for me. I want elegant, expressive design, made-in-Japan quality and reliability and premium safety. This has got the lot.
Toyota Corolla SX from $26,870
Mid-spec Corolla runs a 125kW/200Nm 2.0-litre/continuously variable transmission. Goes well, is arguably the best handler in the class and has comprehensive safety spec. Tight rear seat and boot space are problematic.
VW Golf 110TSI Trendline from $27,790
Golf's 1.4-litre turbo/seven-speed dual-clutch gives strong, tractable performance and great economy, albeit on premium. Comfortable and refined. Add $1500 driver assistance option for comparable safety spec.
The Mazda3 G20 is up there with Corolla, Golf and Focus at the front of the hatchback pack. It's the most stylish of them by the length of the straight but it's also a lot slower than it looks.
Mazda3 G20 Evolve
WARRANTY/SERVICING 5 years; $1558 for 5 years/50,000km
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 114kW/200Nm
SAFETY Not tested, 7 airbags, AEB, lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise