It’s official: the Mazda3 is the 2014 New Zealand Car of the Year. We test the pseudo-sporty SP25 six-speed manual version.
Base price: $38,395.
Powertrain and performance: 2.5-litre petrol four, 138kW/250Nm, 6-speed manual, front-drive, Combined economy 6.5 litres per 100km, 0-100km/h 7.1 seconds.
Vital statistics: 4460mm long, 1450mm high, wheelbase 2700mm, luggage capacity 308-1222 litres, fuel tank 51 litres, 18-inch alloy wheels on 215/45 tyres.
We like: Style, strong SkyActiv engine, good blend of sporting character and comfort/convenience features.
We don’t like: MZD Connect screen locks out when car is moving, best safety features still reserved for Limited model.
How it rates: 8/10
WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW? If you want an endorsement of the Mazda3’s talents, look no further than the 2014 New Zealand Car of the Year (COTY). Mazda’s newcomer was the winner of the country’s only truly independent COTY in December last year, the first choice of a judging panel comprised of members of the New Zealand Motoring Writers Guild and the New Zealand Automobile Association. It beat nine other cars on the NZ COTY shortlist.
The Mazda3 was also voted People’s Choice in a separate poll run by the AA.
So everybody likes it; we won’t get slowed down too much more by the car’s trophy-gathering career.
But one of the reasons the Mazda3 has garnered so much acclaim is that it’s not just an outstanding vehicle in terms of design and engineering - it’s also offered in a comprehensive range that answers the needs of many different buyers. The Mazda3 can be as mainstream as you like, but a little bit niche as well.
Our test car here is a case in point. It’s the SP25, which is a more powerful incarnation of the car than the GLX and GSX versions. It’s offered in a sleek five-door body shape (as tested here). It comes as standard with an automatic gearbox, but you can also specify a six-speed manual for a $1500 saving, making it a pseudo-sporty hatch.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE? All Mazda SkActiv models come from the same basic toolbox. The Mazda3 is based on a modular, scalable platform that’s also shared with the CX-5 and Mazda6.
The same goes for its 2.5-litre engine, which is served up in a very similar state of tune to its siblings. Except that the Mazda3 is much smaller and lighter, which gives it much more performance and sporting potential.
We tested the 2.0-litre Mazda3 earlier in the year and found it impressive, but lacking in low-down strength and refinement. No such complaints about the 2.5-litre engine fitted to the SP25, which not only has more power but a much more linear delivery and superior refinement when it’s working hard.
The SP25 does not really claim to be a warm hatch, but it’s certainly brisk: 0-100km/h in 7.1 seconds is quick enough to get the attention of keen drivers.
It’s a bit of quiet achiever in the corners as well. It’s not overtly sporting in the way it tackles backroads, but it’s extremely capable and can be deceptively fast. The ride is firm, especially on the SP25’s 18-inch rims, but not uncomfortably so. The electrically assisted steering is not the last word in communication but it’s accurate and the chassis is remarkably consistent.
All would be lost if Mazda offered a niche model like this and the manual gearbox wasn’t up to scratch. But this is a good one: Mazda, like Honda, still seems to revel in making slick-shifting three-pedal transmissions (this one is Mazda’s own design).
The Mazda3 is big on active safety features. The SP25 has blind-spot monitoring system, reversing camera and rear cross-traffic alert.
However, you still need to step up to the SP25 Limited – and give up that manual-gearbox option – to gain headline features such as adaptive gas-discharge headlights with auto-dipping, radar-operation for the cruise control, lane-departure warning and a city braking system that will automatically slow and/or stop the car in a potential nose-to-tail collision.
IS IT EASY TO LIVE WITH? The Mazda3 might be smaller than the CX-5 or Mazda6, but it’s also newer and has a more polished interior. The styling is better quality and more cohesive than its siblings, and it features a more up-to-date infotainment system called MZD Connect, with a combination of touch-screen and centre-console controller.
The CX-5 and Mazda6 both have systems based on an integrated TomTom sat-nav unit, which is not only a bit clumsy but can be occasionally unreliable – at least if anecdotal and test-car experience is any indication.
Anyway, MZD Connect is all class and is being added to facelift versions of the CX-5 and Mazda6 this year.
The SP25 has a different instrument panel to the standard models, with a central tachometer and a head-up display, which is projected onto a piece of Perspex rather than directly onto the windscreen as with other systems. It’s crisp and clear though, and adds to the premium impression.
SHOULD I BUY ONE? Why wouldn’t you want an NZ COTY award-winner? The Mazda3 is an outstanding small car, with the pricing and credentials to compete in the mainstream, yet the ability to reach up towards premium territory with the SP25 model.
This car has enough sporting flavor to satisfy, especially with that manual gearbox, yet requires little compromise in terms of comfort and luxury.
It’s just a shame that so many of the Mazda3’s impressive driver-assistance features (which the company groups under the i-Activesense brand) are still restricted to the much more expensive SP25 Limited – but that doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the SP25 manual experience.
- Air conditioning: Dual climate
- Audio: CD, iPod compatible
- Automatic lights/wipers: Yes/yes
- Blind spot warning: Yes
- Bluetooth: Yes
- Cruise control: Yes
- Driver footrest: Yes
- Head-up display: Yes
- Heated/ventilated seats: Yes/No
- Keyless entry/start: Yes/Yes
- Lane guidance: No
- Leather upholstery: Yes
- Parking radar: Yes with camera
- Power boot or tailgate: No
- Power seat adjustment/memory: Yes
- Remote audio controls: Yes
- Satellite navigation: Yes
- Seat height adjustment: Yes
- Self-parking technology: No
- Split/folding rear seats: 60/40
- Steering reach adjustment: Yes
- Stop-start: Yes
- Trip computer: Yes
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