Test Drives

2019 Mazda 3 review: The Astina returns



The new Mazda 3 is here and resurrects a famous nameplate with it. But a drive on local roads reveals that it deserves its own fame

SINGAPORE — No, you didn’t read that wrong, this is a review of the 2019 Mazda 3 Hatchback. But the Astina is back, at least in spirit.

The new 3 comes in Sedan and Hatchback form, with three trims levels for the former and two for the latter: Classic, Elegance and top-spec Astina, like the Hatchback you see here.

Mazda lets each market name their own variants, and as you’ll read, local importer Eurokars had its reasons for settling on “Astina”.

What’s the story here?
The new (meaning all-new) Mazda 3 goes on sale this weekend, and we snagged the keys to the Hatchback. May as well start at the top, and this Skyactiv-G 1.5 Astina version is the most expensive, best-equipped model.

So why “Astina”?
This was apparently a matter of some careful thought at Eurokars, but the team there apparently chose “Astina” because the word rolls off the tongue nicely, but also because it alludes to the then-futuristic 323 Astina from 1989, a fastback with pop-up headlights, and a car that proper enthusiasts of a certain vintage would remember.

It’s a reminder, in other words, that Mazda has long been bold enough to build distinctive cars. That said, Astina is just a trim name, and the new 3 has plenty going for it no matter what you call it.

Presumably the looks are enough to win people over?
Car styling tends to divide opinion, but it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like the look of the new Mazda 3 range. It’s sculptural, it mixes aggression with understatement perfectly, and everything about it seems in proportion.

That said, the Hatchback is the one that really plucks at the heartstrings. Its lines are so smooth and organic that Euro hatchbacks look fussy and lumpy next to it.

Is that the target market? Euro hatchbacks?
Well, it’s easy to see someone being tempted from a Volkswagen Golf or an Audi A3 by this. Seriously. There’s a real sense of quality to the cabin and a terrific coherence to the controls.

The dashboard plastics wouldn’t look out of place in a Mercedes-Benz (that’s no exaggeration), and there’s leather trim which adds another layer of poshness that makes you scratch your head and wonder how Mazda can afford to do this.

It all seems a bit business-like…
It does, and that’s exactly the point. The Mazda 3’s cabin is a welcome study in understatement and neatness. The button count is kept low, most of the controls are centred around an 8.8-inch monitor with a BMW iDrive-like rotary dial, and everything looks sleek, modern and clean.

There’s a less-is-more approach to design here, too. All the screens (meaning the main display, the 7-inch monitor in the instrument cluster and the head up display) are sharp and capable of displaying millions of colours, but everything is kept to a muted colour palette. Mazda seems to have realised that there’s no point bombarding your eyes with a variety of garish tones when a more restrained use of colour just looks better.

It all looks very nice, but how does it feel?
Remarkably, the controls feel even better than they look. If you sit in a Mazda 3, try the little switch that switches the drivetrain to Power mode — it just clicks with such weight and precision that you feel like playing with it all day.

Much the same applies to the other controls and buttons, which all have a sense of having been carefully calibrated for just the right tactile feel. It’s like Mazda has a team of people who only spend time poking at the cabin switches, which is something you imagine goes on at Lexus, where obsession with quality is everything.

Does the same attention to detail apply to the way it drives?
As far as the chassis goes, yes. On 18-inch wheels the ride is firm but very nicely controlled, and you can sling the Hatchback around with lots of confidence because it’s entirely benign and good-natured.

The steering and pedal effort are, you guessed it, beautifully judged, and the car immediately puts you at ease whether you’re pottering along or trying to carve a precise line through a corner.

Whoever set up the chassis really knew his stuff. So much so, in fact, that you soon wish for more firepower under the bonnet.

Why’s that?
Because there isn’t all that much in the first place. Singapore gets 1.5-litre Skyactiv-G engines with 120 horsepower and six-speed autos, and acceleration in the Mazda 3 is adequate at best. 

The Hatchback takes 12.1 seconds to get to 100km/h. That sounds slow, but the Mazda 3 actually feels fine in day-to-day traffic. Plus, the engine has a nicely exuberant growl, so it doesn’t feel like hardship to rev it aggressively. Use the paddles to drop a gear or two, floor it and in Singapore traffic at least, you’re unlikely to find yourself eating dust.

But the Mazda 3 has clearly been tuned for economy anyway.

How so?
All local cars get Mazda’s M-Hybrid system, a mild hybrid setup that is very similar to the Mercedes EQ Boost arrangement — instead of an alternator (which generates electricity), it has a starter-generator that can either generate current or use energy from a small lithium-ion pack to give the engine a 6.8 horsepower jolt of assistance.

That helps the Mazda 3 get rolling with a slight but sometimes noticeable shot of enthusiasm, but the main point is that it helps save fuel. The lithium-ion battery sometimes carries the car’s electrical load and is usually topped up only under braking (thus reducing alternator drag).

The starter-generator also biffs the engine awake very smoothly, so the engine start-stop system doesn’t feel like a pain to use, and hopefully you won’t deactivate it and cheat yourself of the fuel savings.

Why haven’t I heard of this before?
Maybe because it’s still a rarity in the car world, but also because a system like M-Hybrid is pretty much unheard of at this end of the Singapore car market. In fact, Eurokars has somehow scored a coup here; no other country in Southeast Asia has M-Hybrid, and even the Mazda 3s in Japan don’t have it.

If every model here has it, do I still have to buy the Astina spec?
Actually, the Sedan Classic is the most basic model, but it’s still well-equipped; the new high-res screen with satnav is standard, and so is the LCD instrument cluster. It gets rear air-con vents, a reverse camera (and rear parking sensors, just in case), seven airbags, an electric parking brake and even a head-up display.

But the Elegance pack (standard on the Hatchback but S$7,000 extra on the Sedan) gives the Mazda 3 the premium equipment to go with its premium cabin. It adds a powered driver seat, bigger wheels, auto climate control, blind spot monitors, active cruise control, keyless entry and engine starting, a 360-degree view monitor and so on and so forth, all the stuff of genuine luxury cars.

Whether you need the Astina pack’s fancy Bose sound system or adaptive headlights is arguable, but when it comes to the Elegance variant, you really ought to spend the money.

So the Mazda 3 feels like… a luxury car?
Almost. The one area where it’s lacking is in the back, where there simply isn’t that much room. For some reason, in moving to an all-new and more rigid platform, Mazda didn’t think to stretch the 3’s wheelbase, so it’s no bigger than before and actually feels pretty modest in the rear.

With the Hatchback you actually have to dip your head a bit to slip yourself through the rear door.

Who is this car really for, then?
The Hatchback? That’s easy: it’s for anyone in the five-door market in search of style and refinement, more than excitement or space. Among the Euro hatchbacks, it’s an impressive challenger full of style and equipment, and it’s high on quality.

If you want a four-door car, much the same applies: you get visual panache inside and out, and (unless you buy the Classic) plenty of equipment. Either way, the new Mazda 3’s appeal is obvious to see.

And if you’ve somehow never heard of the Astina name, there’s a good chance that you’re about to.

Mazda 3 Hatchback Skyactiv-G 1.5 Astina

Engine 1,496cc, inline 4
Power 120hp at 6,000rpm
Torque 153Nm at 4000rpm
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h 12.1 seconds
Top Speed 193km/h
Fuel Efficiency 5.5L/100km
VES/CO2 A2/125g/km
Agent Eurokars Mazda
Price S$111,688
Available Now

 

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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.