Motoring Review: Stylish hatch is small on price and big on features

2015-01-25 14:00

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Mazda is setting out to prove that a mid-range, fuel-efficient car does not need to be boring, bland or behind the times. Meet the new Mazda3 with SkyActiv.

#Trending had the opportunity to test the range-topping, six-speed 2.0 Astina Auto, which is priced at R326?300. On looks alone, the Mazda3 hatch already scores top marks. The five-pointed grille with a chrome strip flowing into swept-back headlamps is eye-catching and elegant, and the sporty side profile and rear tapering windows add further to its dynamic look.

However, the narrow back window impairs rear visibility for the driver. Good thing, then, that there’s standard rear parking sensors in the Astina Auto, but it’s a pity it’s not standard in some of the less expensive models. Cruise control is also standard.

The beautifully appointed interior with high-quality finishes and sporty leather seats is easy on the senses, and reminds me very much of the Renault Mégane, which is one of its direct competitors. But the Mazda3 is also taking on the even bigger dogs of the C segment, such as the Volkswagen Golf.

The dashboard is quite low, which enhances front visibility and creates more visual space. The infotainment system’s central colour touch screen is one of the user-friendliest and most ­intuitive I have come across, and can also be controlled via a rotary dial situated between the front seats. If your phone is connected via Bluetooth, you can have your emails and texts read out to you.

It actually does a very good job of imitating Mercedes-Benz’s Comand online system and can also be voice activated.

Yes, there’s very little to fault inside the cabin. Mazda didn’t go overboard with the faux carbon fibre trim and the red stitching adds more sporty fun. The sloping roofline does invade a bit of headroom towards the rear, so the tall supermodels in the back should probably leave their stilettos in the boot. My test model was also fitted with a beautiful glass sunroof, which is more like a glass ceiling, really. This is standard on the Astina Auto.

Instead of opting for smaller, turbocharged ­engines, Mazda’s 2-litre SkyActiv engine is naturally aspirated, but as green as can be. A larger, direct-injected, non-turbo engine means one has a bit more grunt in the lower gears.

The engine also shuts off when the car comes to a standstill and restarts quickly as one pulls away.

Fuel economy of about 6?litres per 100km is rather remarkable for a 2-litre engine, especially one that offers a generous 121kW of power and 210Nm of torque. Driving dynamics are edgy and engaging because of the stiffer, lighter ­SkyActiv body shell. The electrically assisted steering is crisp and precise, and gunning the Mazda3 around the deserted corners of the Houw Hoek Pass just outside Caledon proved to be much more fun than I expected.

Even though the engine is quiet, there’s a bit more road noise than one would like. But there are so many other things to be pleased with, such as the convenience and safety equipment, and of course the above-mentioned nimble handling. ABS, EBD, brake assist and six air bags are standard fare, with all three 2-litre models gaining stability control as standard.

If you’re not too obsessed with power and you’re putting kids through varsity, then the 1.6?litre Active model at R242?900 (only R10?000 more than the 1.6 Original) should do just fine. You’ll still get the large LCD touch screen with all its trimmings and six speakers.

Another winner is the MazdaCare after-sales plan. Every model is offered with a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty and service plan with roadside assistance. I do hope South African buyers will realise that Mazda is bringing a real value proposition to the table.

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