Mazda3 2.0 Astina
I don’t think it matters in which segment of the market a manufacturer might be battling for sales - it’s always a tough job. And that’s because while it’s true that some cars are better than others, there are actually very few bad cars - by which I mean the kinds of cars that are completely and automatically avoidable. By and large, the big players invest a lot of time, resources and money making sure that the models they bring to market are safe, reliable and have enough appeal to at least satisfy a group of people big enough to justify producing the things in the first place. On top of that, it should be able compete well enough with anything else in its class. Things get interesting, though, when a manufacturer begins to compete outside of its traditional market. Because car making is already such a difficult thing to do, trying to take sales away from non-traditional rivals adds an extra level of complexity.
All of which brings us to Mazda who want to compete with the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and be seen as something more premium than, say, Toyota or Honda, their rivals over previous decades. They’ve been saying it for years; so, does the latest Mazda 3 bring them closer to achieving their goal?
In this episode, we’re driving the top of the range Mazda 3 2.0 Astina. At R485 000, it certainly has a price tag approaching premium - it’s just a R15 000 jump to the entry-level Audi A3, and a small, further step beyond that is the 1 Series. So to get brand loyal South Africans to take a look beyond the three Germans, you’d think the Mazda 3 would need to make a strong opening statement.
And boy, does it do that! This is one spectacular looking machine, especially in its eye-popping Red Crystal paint. This is a car that holds your attention, and it does it without be clever or having too many thing to take in at once. In fact, it’s just opposite: it’s simple, clean with perfect proportions and just the right amount of stylish aggression.
It’s hard to appreciate this car by just looking at pictures - or hearing me talk about it - because in the metal, it is absolutely striking. And low. Really low. Which adds a nice bit of sportiness to an already very attractive package. I could honestly rattle on for a long time about the design of the Mazda 3, but the styling is probably best summed up by the fact the Mazda 3 Hatch won the World Car of Design of the Year Award in 2020.
On its way to that award, it beat the Porsche Taycan. Which I’m sure was a great moment for Mazda, but for their premium aspirations, keeping up with that brand might be a bit of a stratch. For Now. So what else does the Mazda3 compete against? Well, there are those other Germans mentioned earlier.
Perhaps sn interesting place to start would be to look at what Mazda doesn’t: turbo power. The entire 3 lineup consists of just two engine options, both of them naturally aspirated. The 1.5 litre 4-cylinder puts out 88kw and 153Nm, while the 2.0 4-cylinder in our test car does a bit better with 121kW and 213Nm. In the conversations I’ve had with various people - a lot of whom would be in Mazda’s target market - not having turbo motors has an odd side-effect on brand perception.
It’s almost as if sticking with natural aspiration is seen as a little bit old school, behind the times. And that’s likely because these days it’s difficult to find a manufacturer that actively avoids turbo technology the way Mazda seems to. Now, the company will tell you that their SkyActiv engine technology delivers turbo-like performance, but it doesn’t really.
There’s not a lot urgency as far as the power delivery is concerned, and even when you’ve got a bit of space to let the thing run, the 3 Hatch doesn’t even feel… Exciting. Power is sent to the front wheels via a 6-speed auto, which is the only gearbox option for the Astina spec. There are shift paddles and a Sport mode, but neither really serve to up the enjoyment factor. But that’s not to say there’s no enjoyment to be had.
On the contrary, the Mazda 3 is incredibly enjoyable, with a real sophistication about it. The power delivery is smooth, the gearbox is unobtrusive, the steering has a nice weight to it… Even the brakes feel good. If there is one complaint - and it’s not really a complaint - it’s that the chassis feels like it would be able to handle a lot more power; it feels a little more eager to take on a challenging road than the engine ever is. That might be resolved if and when Mazda make good on their teasing a 2.5 litre turbo motor, which, if you believe the internet, is imminent. For now though, you have to settle for what is a drive that is on the polite side of enjoyable.
There’s hardly a daily driving situation that the Mazda3 doesn’t enjoy. In traffic and on the highway, it’s relaxed, comfortable and, again, that word “sophisticated” comes to mind. And all of it is underlined by an interior that is every bit as good as the rest of the package.
Arguably the toughest place in which to be seen as a premium brand is the interior - this is the place when where any interaction that isn’t as good as it should be will be most easily found. Touch something that doesn’t feel great, or see something that looks oddly designed or out of place, its impact is immediate and long lasting.
The Mazda3 hatch interior does almost everything right. The design is definite highlight - it’s clean, minimalist, functional and very nicely put together. Mazda have also redesigned the interface for the infotainment system: it’s now a higher resolution with slicker looking graphics, and is is easier to find your way around.
The spec in the Astina model is right where it needs to be. Highlights include the digital / analogue combo instrumentation, electric seats, standard sunroof and Bose sound system. It’s a very comfortable space, but it does have its shortcomings. The most obvious is the entry for rear passengers - because of the 3’s roofline, you definitely have to move your head out of the way when getting in the back seat; once you’re in, that same roofline necessitated smaller rear windows, which can make things seem a little more cramped than they might actually be.
The main thing that stands out for me is the premiumness. I’ll say again that this is a very good interior, but it is just short of what you’d find in an Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. There’s a particular weight to things like the switchgear and materials in those cars that is just a little bit off in the Mazda. Some of the plastics and the interactions feel a little too light, and little things like the depth of travel on the switches isn’t where it should be. It’s apparent in other places, too. Closing the front door has a reassuringly solid sound and feel, whereas the rear door sounds and feel quite tinny.
All os that may sound like nitpicking of the highest order, but when you’re playing in this league, those things need to be right - because they’re the difference between being ordinary and being premium. The differences are slight, but they are definitely there.
The Mazda 3 Hatch Astina is a very enjoyable car in every sense. It looks incredible, it’s well-specced with a nicely designed interior and it’s a great every day drive. It’s also another bit of proof that while Mazda might not quite be competing against the established players in this corner of the premium motoring market, they’re getting closer all the time - and building very good cars while doing it.
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