THE Mazda3 has had a prolific rise to the top of the small car segment using performance, price and quality as a foundation from which to impress.
Its not-so-friendly tussle for the number one spot with the Toyota Corolla has always been an interesting fight to watch with the Mazda3 crossing the line first for the past two years.
As it stands the Corolla is ahead - just marginally so - and recently drive-away prices dropped to $19,990 for entry-level models to help maintain sales momentum ahead of the much talked-about new model arriving in the new year.
The Mazda3 is big for a small car - that is one of its appeals - and it will carry you in some comfort. The seats remain a bit flat for our liking and leg room in the rear is a stretch but it still manages to punch above most in its class.
There have been slight updates for the better to the materials used in the console and the change in colour from red to a more readable white on the instruments was also a well-considered move.
Buttons, dials and surrounds have a quality feel while the upholstery in our Maxx Sport put up a firm resistance to the dirty shoes and hands bandied about so liberally by its smallest passengers.
There is a storage pocket on the back of the front passenger seat but not the driver's which is hardly a favourable omission but storage in the doors as well as the centre console is good.
The boot at 430 litres deals well with a couple of medium sized suitcases or the weekly shop although the lack of hooks - such a little expense - is a bit annoying.
On the road
Zippy and confident, the Mazda3 delivers a pleasant driving experience doing all you ask of it with little fuss. It is agile and nifty in the busy streets of the city but also shows an ability for the open road when stretched.
Drivers more accustomed to the softer suspension of the Toyota Corolla for example could find the ride a bit firm but for our money it was easy to see why it is a car with such a large following.
Steering feel is accurate especially when pushed hard through corners, acceleration is smooth, grip good and our automatic gearbox was slick, clean and never puffed. There is at times quite noticeable road noise but those instances are few and far between.
What do you get?
There is certainly enough gear to keep you up with the Joneses. Bluetooth and audio streaming is standard across the range and the Maxx Sport is also equipped with dual-zone air-conditioning, cruise control, auto headlights, rain-sensing wipers, multi-function control screen and six speaker stereo.
An excellent safety package includes dual front, side and curtain airbags, ABS brakes with brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution, traction and stability control as well as electronic throttle control and Triple H safety construction.
The Mazda3 has been able to stay ahead of an impressive pack for two years, including the likes of the Toyota Corolla (from $19,990), the Holden Cruze (from $19,490), Hyundai i30 (from $20,990) and Ford Focus (from $20,290)
One of the Mazda3's strengths is its diversity, its ability to draw interest from professionals, young and old couples and as a good second car for a growing family.
It does a lot of things well but our Maxx Sport was hardly sporty and if that is your intent you would do better with the MPS or SP25.
The manual adjustment on our test car was awkward and the rear pillars and back window combined with the raised boot lid make it difficult to see. A reverse camera or at the very least some rear sensors wouldn't go astray.
Our test car was without the fuel-saving SkyActiv technology that will come standard across the range from next year, so economy was far from the best in the class. Despite Mazda's figures of 8.2 litres per 100km, we could only manage in excess of 10 litres/100km which is far too much for a car of this size. Mazda's passenger vehicles come with a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty.
The exterior of the Mazda3 with its toothy grin, chunky bumpers, high wheel arches and sculpted side panels does give it a sporty edge which is nicely complemented by new fog lights, a chrome exhaust tip and aerodynamic spoilers.
It certainly is a car that would stand out from the pack - if it wasn't so popular.
What matters most
What we liked: Reliable ride, versatility, good inclusions.
What we'd like to see: Better front seats, reverse camera or sensors as standard.
Warranty and servicing: Mazda offers a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is every six months or 10,000km.
Model: Mazda3 Maxx Sport.
Details: Four-door front-wheel drive small sedan.
Transmission: Five-speed auto or six-speed manual
Engine: 2.0-litre in-line four cylinder DOHC S-VT petrol generating maximum power of 108kW at 6500rpm and peak torque of 182Nm @ 4500rpm.
Consumption: 8.2 litres/100km combined average (7.9l/100km for the manual).
Bottom line: From $19,990 drive-away (Maxx Sport from $24,490, as tested).
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