Since the Japanese brand made the big split from Ford – a partnership which lasted over 30 years until 2010 – it’s been laying low product-wise, perhaps financially shellshocked without joint projects and developmental costs sharing.
But just as it has more than once in its near 100-year history, the marque from Hiroshima has landed on its feet and is busy rebuilding itself and a fresh vehicle lineup under its own, in-house umbrella.
On test here is the new, third-generation Mazda3; one of the first standalone productions to come from Mazda since the break up. Where the previous Mazda3 shared parts and most of its underpinnings with Ford’s Focus, the new one’s a model unto its own. Designed from the ground up under Mazda’s new SkyActiv banner (a term which encompasses new engine, gearbox and chassis tech but also translates to “our own design, not Ford’s”) the latest 3 comes in both hatch and sedan flavours, each with five model derivatives which identically match each other in spec and pricing across both body styles.
Here, though, we’re taste-testing the top 2-litre petrol Astina version in booted sedan guise. It’s clear from the outset that Mazda’s focussed much attention on the 3’s exterior. Compared to the old one its steel skin is stylised in a most dramatic fashion, with all sorts of creases, curves and pleats from nose to tail. It’s indeed a sedan by literal definition, but from a side profile there’s a certain elongated fastback look happening. And it’s a good one.
IOL mot nov26 mazda3 b Our test car was the 2-litre normally-aspirated petrol-engined Astina sedan. Power is adequate rather than exceptional.
But, if the outside’s all wasabi, the inside’s plain rice. Yes, there’s a Mercedes-esque and tablet-like 7” display plonked atop the dash which acts as a colourful interior centrepiece, but other than that it’s fifty shades of black. Black plastic – some high quality and some not so much – dominates the interior from headliner to floor mat. Our test car also featured black leather, which gave a very overcast and moody feel. To be honest, though, I kind of liked it, and it should be easy to clean.
COMFORT & CONNECTIVITY
BMW could probably take legal action against a very iDrive inspired infotainment control knob, but at least it makes for easy navigation of a complex series of systems menus. The Astina gets navigation as standard (although it wasn’t working in our test car), and I’m impressed with hi-tech connectivity functions (via cellphone pairing) for internet radio and SMS dictation – although I also struggled to get these features to work properly.
The Astina also comes with a head-up display screen, but I’m sorry to say that it’s a cheesy extra which cheapens the driving experience. The very old-fashioned digital readout projected onto a flimsy flip-up plastic screen is as annoying as it is unnecessary; annoying because it can’t be folded away (but frustatingly does when ignition is off), and unnecessary because it’s positioned exactly 10cm above (I measured) an identical digital readout in the actual instrument cluster.
Comfort is a highlight. The Astina gets eight-way power seats, and they’re excellent at tilting, angling and supporting in all the right places. Seating position in relation to the wheel, pedals and controls is also well planned. Good ergonomics in other words.
Space is also good. The sedan’s boot can gobble 408 litres of cargo (100 more than the hatch) and that’s with a space-saver spare under its floor. Rear seats will accommodate most human frames with decent leg-stretching room, but that sloping roofline might invade head space for taller passengers.
IOL mot nov26 mazda3 c Black plastic dominates the cabin from headliner to floor mat.
NICE RIDE, AVERAGE PERFORMANCE
All Mazda3s also get a multi-link rear suspension setup which does wonders for bump soaking. Great ride quality.
It’s interesting, however, that Mazda has laughed off turbo tech for its new SkyActiv petrol engines, opting instead for some unconventional techniques in the hunt for efficiency. A complex exhaust manifold together with fancy hollowed-out pistons and an insanely high (for a naturally-aspirated motor) compression ratio of 14:1 offer up an average fuel consumption of 5.9 litres/100km according to its maker. Our real world figure, at reef altitude, was 8.5. Not bad. Not fantastic.
Power isn’t fantastic either. Mazda quotes 121kW/210Nm, which seems realistic but without a turbo to compensate for oxygen deficiencies this 2-litre gets out of breath quickly. It’s also a little too noisy when exercised beyond a jog, probably as a result of high compression, and it comes across as unrefined at times. An old-school torque-converter style six-speed auto gearbox doesn’t help either and frequent gear kickdowns antagonise the buzzy motor.
At R326 300 the flagship Astina’s not cheap. Standard features include leather, keyless ignition and go, rain-sensing wipers, a blind-spot monitoring system, parking sensors and a sweet nine-speaker Bose stereo, which is impressive, but at this price the top Mazda3 is encroaching on some well-established competition such as VW’s Jetta, Opel’s Astra and Toyota’s Corolla. A tall ask.
Considering its current circumstances, Mazda’s done a fine job re-launching its midsize Mazda3. Packaging, in terms of aesthetics and features, is right on par with market rivals but I fear its drivetrain might be a little outdated compared to ultra-modern gearbox and turbopetrol technology. Lesser priced Original, Active and Dynamic Mazda3 models with fewer creature comforts, manual gearboxes and smaller engines, are probably better propositions.
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Mazda3 sedan 2.0 Astina
Engine: 2-litre, four-cylinder petrol
Gearbox: Six-speed automatic
Power: 121kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 210Nm @ 4000rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 10.4 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 195km/h
Consumption (claimed): 5.8 litres per 100km
Price: R326 300
Warranty: Three-year/unlimited km
Service plan: Three-year/unlimited km
Ford Focus sedan 2.0 Trend AT (125kW/202Nm) – R292 900
Kia Cerato sedan 2.0 SX AT (118kW/194Nm) – R322 995
Opel Astra sedan 1.6T Cosmo (132kW/266Nm) – R302 500
VW Jetta 1.4 TSI Highline (118kW/240Nm) – R331 900