JOHANNESBURG, Gauteng – Life’s not easy for C-segment hatchbacks at the moment. South African buyers – just like the majority of their global counterparts – continue to turn to the all-conquering crossover in droves, leaving most traditional family hatches floundering near the foot of the monthly sales lists.
Indeed, in this segment in the first half of 2019, only the outgoing Volkswagen Golf enjoyed some semblance of local sales success, returning a monthly average of 341 units (with a healthy chunk wearing GTI and R badges, of course).
Toyota’s fresh-faced Corolla hatchback, too, has carved out a bit of a niche, averaging 149 units over each of its first four full months in the market. Meanwhile, the likes of the Renault Mégane, Peugeot 308 and Opel Astra have been reduced to bit-part players that seldom pass the 30-unit mark. And Ford’s not even going to bother bringing in the new Focus.
Where does that leave the latest Mazda3? Well, while the previous model was a solid seller, there’s no escaping the fact the fourth-generation version is facing an uphill battle in a declining segment, through no fault of its own. And it certainly doesn’t help this model’s cause that the closely related CX-30 is set to join the party early in 2020, presenting a crossover-shaped threat from within Mazda’s own stable.
But the new Three arrives in South Africa armed with eye-catchingly elegant styling (it really is stunning in the metal), an impressive level of on-road refinement and a cabin exhibiting the sort of perceived build quality to rival the interiors of some premium brands.
And that, together with the bullish pricing of this range-topping Astina derivative (which is admittedly crammed to the rafters with standard kit), suggests the local arm of the Fuch?-based firm plans to pinch at least a handful of sales from the likes of the Audi A3 Sportback and Mercedes-Benz A-Class as it nudges its hatchback into a noticeably more premium space.
That bold pricing extends across the rejigged local line-up, which now starts as high as R357 000 (although, again, standard specification is very generous even on the base Active model) and runs through to R474 000 for the subject of this driving impression. Although the range again comprises five-door hatchback and four-door sedan body styles, it’s been pared back to 12 derivatives (from the 16-strong previous-generation line-up, which kicked off as low as R269 000), with the Japanese firm effectively scrapping the base Original variants as well as the flagship Astina Plus derivatives.
On the engine front, the ageing 1,6-litre, four-cylinder petrol mill (77 kW/144 N.m) has been replaced by a 1,5-litre unit (88 kW/153 N.m) of the same configuration, while the 2,0-litre powerplant has been carried over, albeit now reserved for the range-topping Astina models (the local line-up again includes no diesels nor the firm’s fancy new Skyactiv-X compression ignition petrol engine … for the time being, anyway).
The naturally aspirated inline-four generates the same 121 kW as before, although peak torque has increased three units to 213 N.m, again offered at a lofty 4 000 r/min. Mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic transmission (there’s a six-speed manual cog-swapper available on other trim levels), the 2,0-litre lacks the mid-range punch offered by turbocharged rivals, which leaves it feeling a little breathless – particularly at altitude – when a sudden turn of speed is required. The torque-converter transmission, too, occasionally feels somewhat hesitant in its responses.
Still, drive with a modicum more restraint and you’ll appreciate the impressive levels of refinement on offer, as well as the supple suspension set-up (interestingly, incorporating a torsion-beam rear arrangement rather than the previous model’s more sophisticated multi-link structure), which delivers a pleasing balance between ride comfort and dynamics.
The cabin is another highlight, serving up a delightful mix of soft-touch surfaces and useful on-board technology. It’s a satisfyingly driver-centric and uncluttered space, with only the most vital information delivered to the person sited behind the wheel, mostly via a configurable seven-inch TFT display positioned in the instrument cluster and a crisp head-up display (standard across the range) projected onto the windscreen. Mazda’s new 8,8-inch screen, meanwhile, is controlled via a rotary dial on the centre console, proving refreshingly simple to use – naturally far less fiddly than most modern touchscreen-based arrangements – and incorporating Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality as standard.
The driving position, too, is spot on, with the Astina grade boasting a 10-way adjustable perch capable of being dropped usefully low (and offering great support, too). That chunky C-pillar, however, combines with a tiny rear screen to create a nasty over-the-shoulder blind-spot. While legroom in the rear is more than sufficient for the class (and luggage space a little below average at a claimed 295 litres, a few units down on that of its predecessor), the sloping roofline does cut into headroom somewhat, although we suspect only fairly tall occupants are likely to complain.
As mentioned above, the Astina trim level wants for little, with its standard features list including big-ticket items such as adaptive LED headlamps, a sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control (with rear vents), black leather upholstery (also optionally offered in burgundy), keyless entry, a 12-speaker Bose sound system, rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, blind-spot monitoring and black 18-inch alloys (rather than the grey items featured in the accompanying international press shots). A three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and a service plan of the same length are also part of the package.
Ultimately, while the powertrain isn’t quite as punchy as some buyers (particularly those at the Reef) may demand, it’s clear the Mazda3 has taken a major step upmarket, coming across as very well engineered, being rather rewarding to steer and offering a cabin that’s not only excellently insulated from engine- and road-noise but also hewn from high-quality materials.
So, after a few months of depressed local sales thanks to the previous model’s run-out period, can the new Mazda3 wade back towards the top of a segment under strain? Well, this latest model feels rather well equipped to fight off the ever-increasing crossover threat and – despite an increase in pricing that puts it uncomfortably close to the larger CX-5 – is likely to continue delivering solid monthly sales performances, with the hatch in particular playing second fiddle only to VW’s Golf.
Still, it’s interesting to note Mazda Southern Africa itself is forecasting lower volumes for the Mazda3 nameplate in the light of segment stagnation, even if this sales drop-off is expected to be offset by the arrival of the CX-30. Nope, it’s not easy being a C-segment hatch … even a really good one.