Drive Life

Road Test: 2016 Mazda3 2.0 GSX sedan & SP25 Limited hatch – Kings of the Commuters?

Road Test: 2016 Mazda3 2.0 GSX sedan & SP25 Limited hatch – Kings of the Commuters?

I’ve got to admit, this was one car review (well, two) I was looking forward to doing. Mazda seem to be riding a wave of great design and great cars – the CX-9 I tested last month was quite stunning for an SUV – both in design and driving. The quietness and general NVH of that car on the highway was incredible.

So, Mazda3, no pressure then! Let’s see if it can lift the bar in this segment.

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First Impressions

There are subtle but also obvious changes from the previous version. Its design is now much more in line with the rest of the Mazda range. That’s not a bad thing – why change something that looks this good, especially at the front.

Mazda sent me two 3s, one after the other. First up was the hatchback version of the top-of-the-line SP25 Limited model. Finished in Jet Black Mica, it looked stunning. As it is with all current Mazdas, the family look is unmistakable. Side-on, this does seem like a bigger car than the 3 of old. The front seems quite wide too, but it all comes together nicely. At one point I had a bunch of teenagers drooling over both the inside and outside of the Limited. That must be saying something.

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I think the wheels of the SP25 test car helped as well – 18” alloys of course, but the design and dark gloss finish of them are a stand out.

After the hatch, I had the sedan version in 2.0 GSX guise. This one was finished in Eternal Blue Mica and looked just as good. Thank you Mazda for not sending me a grey car. It’s funny though, after picking the sedan up and then parking it somewhere, side-on I thought I had been given a Mazda 6. It’s gotten big, and just like the Honda Civic now seems Accord-sized, the 3 looks big enough to be a 6 from only a few years ago.

I was thinking about the last sedan I had tested – and couldn’t remember what it was. These days it’s all hatchback, station wagon or SUV, so it was refreshing to drive something that what is now a bit different.

As you would expect, the interior of the Limited with its lashings of black leather with red stitching is a nice looking cockpit. Rear legroom looks just fine and the boot looks like it has lots of usable space.

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The GSX sedan is still nice, but I sort of wished I hadn’t gotten it after the Limited. Gone were my heated leather front seats, replaced with black cloth. Still, it looks sort of classy. I think I’ve just been a bit spoilt lately with lots of test cars with leather.

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The actual exterior differences between the two models were a bit hard to call, especially side-on. Different wheels naturally (16” vs 18”), and the Limited has DRLs, a rear spoiler and rear privacy glass.

The Range

There seems to be something for everyone in the new Mazda3 range. There’s the 114kW, 200Nm 2.0-litre GLX, 2.0-litre GSX (tested), 2.5-litre SP25 and the top of the range SP25 Limited (tested). All are available as a sedan or hatch.

The $32,795 base GLX model comes with 16” alloys, Bluetooth, manual AC, cruise control, a six-speaker single-disc CD player with steering wheel controls, a 7” colour-touchscreen central display, push-button start, and keyless entry. The GSX at $35,995 adds dual-zone climate AC, a leather steering wheel, SatNav, front fog lamps, auto headlights, rear parking sensors, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, proximity keyless entry, auto folding side mirrors, and auto wipers. For a $3K premium, that’s pretty good value.

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Moving up in the world to the $39,895 SP25 obviously gets you the 2.5-litre, 138Kw/250Nm motor. On top of the GLX/GSX goodies, you also get paddle shifters, 18×7” alloys, rear privacy glass, rear spoiler, auto-dimming interior mirror, a 9-speaker 231-watt Bose audio system, Active Driving Display (HUD), Driver Attention Alert, front parking sensors, and Traffic Sign Recognition.

At the top of the range is the SP25 Limited. For your near-on $48K, the SP25 Limited adds some DRLs, LED headlamps, heated mirrors, an electric tilt/slide sunroof, leather seating, 10-way electric driver’s seat with two memory settings and electric lumbar adjustment, heated front seats, adaptive cruise, adaptive headlights, Forward Obstruction Alert, Lane Departure Warning, and Lane Keep Assist.

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So – $48K for a Mazda3? Tough call. In fact, when you compare it to the SP25 at $40K you are getting a lot more for $8K – but still, that’s now knocking on the door of fifty thousand dollars…

One thing that is missing from the range is the ‘old’ SP22 diesel that pumped out a fairly decent 420Nm of torque. Cracking acceleration, anyone? There are now no diesels in the Mazda3 range, and I am sure there are some that will not be happy with that scenario. Apparently Mazda only sold a handful of these a month and it simply wasn’t worthwhile continuing the model.

The Inside

With the Limited hatch, the waistline is quite high so it seems a little darker in the back seat and adding to this is the swept up rear doors. Actually the sedan is pretty much the same – very nice looking on the outside, but a little dark on the inside in the rear.

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Legroom is good though, certainly I got no complaints from passengers – it’s slightly above average for the class here.

Both models have Mazda’s MZD Connect Infotainment System that uses a rotary selector dial and which works brilliantly. Nice and easy, you’ll be a pro in 5 minutes. Both models also have the smaller volume knob right next to the rotary dial, in case you aren’t using the steering wheel controls.

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Each has a CD player, and overall audio performance is good on the GSX, and excellent on the Limited. The Limited version adds a 9-speaker, 231-watt Bose audio system and it really shows – crisp and clear, I had Beyonce’s Irreplaceable cranked up near full volume on more than one occasion. My daughter even mentioned she could hear the bass from 200 metres away. Audio input options include USB, AUX, Aha, Pandora and Sticher.

Both cars include voice recognition that works as well as can be expected. It got me frustrated a few times, but luckily you can bang the rotary dial down to simply select what the option is on the screen instead of constantly saying, “YES!!!” when she won’t listen to you.

One issue I had with the inside of the car was with my radar detector. The 3 has just one 12-volt socket, and it’s right in the middle of the car. Not ideal. My curly cord is now not so curly…it’s lost its twang. This is the first car I’ve tested that I can remember, that doesn’t have at least the 12-volt socket in the front of the car.

Not ideal!

Not ideal!

When I switched from the Limited to the GSX model, I did at first miss the electric adjustment of the seat – using the handle under the seat almost seemed old school. But you soon get used to it, although I did really miss the electric lumbar adjustment.

The Limited model comes with a Heads Up Display, but it’s not projected onto the windscreen, it’s a little pop-up screen that comes out of the dash. It doesn’t work as well as a true Heads Up Display, but better than nothing. Your speed, turns when using navigation, and warnings that a car is in your blind spot – all shown on the display.

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The 3 also comes with a camera that reads road speed signs, and these are shown in the HUD. It actually works better than relying on SatNav, as it picks up road works speed limit signs too. I drove into a commercial property with a 20km/h limit and instantly this showed in the HUD. Pretty cool.

One thing to watch on the inside is the little gap under the CD slot. I can tell you now it’s big enough to swallow a pen, but not big enough to get your fingers in to retrieve said pen. Coins be gone if they drift down to this hidey-hole (note to Mazda, keep the pen).

Pen-eating slot...

Pen-eating slot…

As mentioned, the Limited comes with a black leather interior with 3-stage heated front seats. Sometimes this can make an interior even darker, but the Limited has lashings of tasteful brown leather on the door panels as well – it looks very classy.

Steering wheel controls are excellent – no need to look down at any point. The Limited has adaptive cruise and the GSX has standard cruise, both controlled from the wheel. The Limited also has a power tilt/slide sunroof, and I left the cover open all the time to get more light into the interior.

Excellent SAtNav on both models

Excellent SAtNav on both models

Rear three-quarter visibility on both the sedan and hatch is not the best – nowhere near as bad as the Kia Soul I had the other week, but those swept-up rear doors and biggish C pillar don’t help things. Luckily the reversing camera has great quality to make up for it.

The Drive

Straight up: the SP25 has a freaking brilliant chassis. Sure, it’s a little on the firmer side, but the grip and overall handling is simply fantastic. It totally inspires confidence in the driver and I had to remind myself that this is a front-wheel drive car. I took the SP25 on my Favourite Handling Road and it performed brilliantly. Sticking the car into Sport mode makes the engine make some nice noises, with little throttle blips on the downshifts. Oh yes. And the handling – did I mention the handling? – not totally flat, but very controllable with nice steering feel. On corners that I recently had an AWD Skoda Superb squealing tyres, no noise from the tyres of the SP25. You can really push this car around tight bends – and I am talking posted 20km/h bends.

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The 3 uses ‘G-Vectoring Control (GVC)’ to achieve this, altering many different suspension and engine settings to give you the best possible handling. It works.

Mid-corner bumps? Who cares. The SP25 ignores them. I even tried slamming the brakes on mid-corner to see what happened, and there was no drama – just great control. Brakes on both cars can’t be faulted – nicely progressive with a perfect amount of feel.

Not only that, but it eggs you on to go harder. There’s no doubt Sport mode helps here – chuck it in Sport mode and it is transformed.

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I didn’t take the GSX on the same road, and while the chassis is still very good, in Sport mode it just makes more noise, but not of the nice sort like the SP25. The GSX does go lots better in Sports mode – but like the SP25, around town it doesn’t feel like a 2-litre. In fact both cars surprised me in that in general driving, you don’t get the feeling they are a 2 or 2.5-litre engine.

A lack of torque is the issue here, get some revs up and they take off, but for around town and commuter driving (where I expect the 3 will spend most of its time) you want easy driving, not high revs.

I’m going to be hypocritical here as I really enjoyed using the GSX as a commuter car. After a week, I felt into its groove and it just all worked together. I think 4-up on a commuter run would see lots more gas pedal used, but in day to day driving it does very well.

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My gut feeling with both cars is that they need an extra mode. ‘Normal’ mode is a bit too sedate (it’s really an Eco mode) and Sport mode is frantic – so let’s just change Normal to Eco and have a middle of the road setting, please Mazda. That would make both cars so much a better drive in normal use.

While wind noise at most speeds is really well controlled, road noise on coarse chip seal is a bit loud. And while the SP25 in Sport mode the engine almost sounds rorty, when not in Sport mode the engine was surprisingly loud. When cold – dare I say this – it sounds a bit like a diesel. Warmed up is a definite improvement, but it’s still louder than I expected for a new model. I’ve noticed this with other SkyActiv engines, they are quite noisy especially on the outside of the car when the engine is cold.

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One annoyance is the engine’s auto-stop system. I discussed this with the CX-9 and I’ll say it again – it’s a bit naff. Sure, on quick stops at the lights, it works well. But when you are going to be stopped at a red light for a while, and put the electric park brake on, the engine starts again. To stop it again, you shift the car into Neutral, the engine stops. Then when you go again, the engine starts. Yes, you could put it into Neutral first and then the handbrake, but I just wish the system was intelligent enough to realise the park brake was on and if the engine is off, leave it off until you accelerate again. Rant off.

Well, almost. One good thing with the auto-stop system (Mazda calls it istop) that I haven’t seen on others is the ability to almost manage when the engine turns off, when stopped. I found that if I came off the brake pedal just enough at the last moment, the system would not kick in. Or if I did this and then wanted the engine to stop, I could push the brake pedal down a tad and the engine would stop. Handy.

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The SP25’s lane departure warning works well, and is an active system so gives the steering wheel a nudge back into the lane if it thinks you need it. The GSX doesn’t have lane departure warning, and I didn’t miss it but I must admit it’s still a nice safety feature.

Blind Spot Monitoring is fitted to both test cars and works great – especially since you also get warnings in the Heads-Up Display on the SP25.

I mentioned earlier that I had wished I got the GSX before the SP25 because I missed some features. One of those high on the list was adaptive cruise. On the GSX (which has standard cruise control) a few times I forgot and wondered why the car wasn’t slowing itself down. I stopped using cruise on the GSX after that. On the plus side for the GSX, you can increase the speed in 1 km/h increments but the adaptive cruise on the SP25 is by 5km/h lots only. Both cars show the cruise control you have set right in front of you on the dash – excellent.

The auto on both cars was faultless – a nice normal 6-speed auto that was spot on. Changes down in Sport mode were almost instant; this transmission is a great match for both engines.

Fuel economy on both cars was off the manufacturer’s figures, but what’s new. The SP25 gave me 6.6l/100km over 600km of driving (it’s rated at 6.0), and (how’s this) the smaller-engined GSX gave me 6.8l/100km on almost exactly the same driving pattern (rated at 5.7), over 750km. Factor into that I drove the SP25 harder than the GSX (it begged me to, really. Darn you Sport mode!). If you needed a reason to go for the SP25, well there it is – it’s cheaper to run. Enough said.

I had the two 3s for nearly three weeks – one thing I noticed that I haven’t mentioned is the build quality. Yes, we do go on about this sometimes; most cars that we test are pretty good and it’s hard to find one that isn’t well built. In saying that, the Mazda3 is beautifully put together. It oozes build quality.

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The Competition

Unsurprisingly, this is one crowded market segment. Plenty to choose from, if a small-medium sized car is what you are after.

Brand/Model Engine Power/Torque

Kw/NM

Fuel L/100km

(claimed)

Price Highest to Lowest
Skoda Octvia RS TSI Liftback 2.0 4-cyl turbo 162/350 6.4 $49,990
Mazda3 SP25 Limited 2.5 4-cyl 138/250 6.0 $47,495
Ford Focus Titanium 1.5 4-cy turbo 132/240 6.9 $46,840
Hyundai i30 Elite Limited 2.0 4-cyl 124/201 7.7 $43,990
Honda Civic NT Turbo 1.5 4-cyl turbo 127/220 6.0 $42,900
Toyota Corolla GLX Sedan 1.8 4-cyl 103/173 6.6 $37,490
Kia Cerato 2.0 EX Sedan 2.0 4-cyl 112/192 7.2 $36,990
Mitsubishi Lancer 2.4 GTi Sedan 2.4 4-cyl 123/223 8.7 $36,990
Mazda3 GLX sedan 2.0 4-cyl 114/200 5.7 $35,595
Subaru Imprezza S-Edition Hatchback 5dr SLT 6sp 4WD 2.0i 2.0 4-cyl 110/196 6.8 $29,990
Nissan Pulsar Sedan ST 1.8 4-cyl 96/174 6.7 $29,990

The Pros and Cons

Pros Cons
  • Engine noise in Sport mode (SP25)
  • Chassis dynamics
  • Build quality
  • It’s a fun drive (SP25 in Sport mode)
  • Brakes
  • Bose audio system
  • Equipment levels
  • Engine noise in Sport mode (GSX)
  • Bit dark in the rear seats
  • A little underpowered (both) when not in Sport mode, for engine size
  • No front 12-volt socket

What do we think of it?

Has the Mazda3 lifted the bar in this segment? Yes and no. The SP25 chassis is amazing – and certainly there has been not much wrong in the previous model when it came to handling, but this thing can really tackle those twisty bits with a vengeance.

I’m a fence-sitting mode here. I love some aspects of the 3 (especially the SP25), but some things didn’t get me as excited as I thought I would be. The performance of the engines in day-to-day driving is a bit dull.

Then again, as a daily driver they both do exceptionally well.

If it came down to it and someone asked me if they should buy one (if it met their needs) then the answer would be 100% yes. I can’t really see anyone being disappointed with either model.

I really wanted to award both cars a 4.25 Chevron Rating, but there’s no such thing. So giving them some ups for general overall excellence, a 4.5 Chevron Rating for both cars it is. 

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Vehicle Type Medium sedan; medium hatchback
Starting Price $32,795 + on-road costs
Tested Price $35,595+ ORC

$47,495 +ORC

Engine SKYACTIV-G 2.0 litre in-line, 4-cylinder, 16 valve, DOHC, S-VT petrol engine with i-stop;

SKYACTIV-G 2.5 litre in-line, 4-cylinder, 16 valve, DOHC S-VT petrol engine with i-stop

Transmission 6-speed automatic with Sports mode
0 – 100 kph 8 seconds (SP25); 9.6 seconds (GSX)
Kerb Weight 1306 (GSX); 1341(SP25)
Length x Width x Height 4850x1795x1450 (sedan); 4470x1795x1465(hatch)
Cargo Capacity 408 litres (Sedan); 308/1222 (hatch)
Fuel Efficiency         SP25:

Advertised Spec – Combined – 6.0 L / 100km

Real World Test – Combined –6.6L / 100km

GSX:

Advertised Spec – Combined – 5.7 L / 100km

Real World Test – Combined –6.8L / 100km

Fuel Tank 51 litres
ANCAP Safety Ratings 5 stars
Warranty 5 year warranty

5 year roadside assist

5 year servicing

 

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