03 Dec 2018

Battle of the hatchbacks: Corolla, Mazda3, i30 and Golf compared

We compare four of the most popular hatchbacks on the market
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Not for more than a decade has the small car segment been this competitive. 

Indeed, the quartet of $25,000-to-$30,000 five-door hatchbacks gathered here actually challenge each other more closely than at any point in recent or distant memory.

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Back in 2008 the Volkswagen Golf was the most sophisticated option, but you paid a premium for it. Since then, however, it has fallen in price while raising equipment. The Mazda3 was sporty but overly harsh, something this facelifted and soon-replaced model puts a stop to with superb ride quality – we’ll tell you that from the off.

Almost laughably, the Hyundai i30 and Toyota Corolla lacked so much technology that they still utilised four-speed automatic transmissions – and now both offer the likes of active lane-keep assistance and adaptive cruise control for the least coin.

With the exception of the terrific Holden Astra hatch, which sadly wasn’t available to test, these are the top picks for the money, no question.

The middle-tier Corolla SX is all-new, arguably the sexiest (times really have changed) and it offers the most active safety technology – yet it’s also the priciest, failing to scrape in at under $30K driveaway by just $559. The i30 Active is the second-newest, also one-up-from-base and tested here with a newly available Smartsense package that incorporates extra safety and convenience equipment.

Then there are the oldest options. The Mazda3 will be replaced by the end of next year, but this Maxx Sport is amazing value with a run-out driveaway offer that is the cheapest here by almost $3000. It could be too good to ignore. And the Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Trendline is also a driveaway special, leaving it mid-pack for affordability despite offering the most advanced engine and, historically, benchmark refinement.

TESTED

Hyundai i30 Active Smartsense

Price: ($25,140 plus on-road costs, $28,271 driveaway)

Driveline: 120kW/203Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl | six-speed automatic

Fuel use claimed: 7.4L/100km | tested: 9.1L/100km

Mazda3 Maxx Sport

Price: ($24,490 plus on-road costs, $25,490 driveaway)

Driveline: 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl | six-speed automatic

Fuel use claimed: 5.8L/100km | tested: 7.9L/100km

Toyota Corolla SX

Price: ($26,870 plus on-road costs, $30,559 driveaway)

Driveline: 125kW/200Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl | automatic CVT

Fuel use claimed: 6.0L/100km | tested: 7.0L/100km

Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Trendline

Price: ($27,490 plus on-road costs, $28,490 driveaway)

Driveline: 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo 4cyl | seven-speed dual-clutch automatic

Fuel use claimed: 5.4L/100km | tested: 7.1L/100km

OVERVIEW

Priced from $24,490 plus on-road costs, or at the time of writing $25,490 driveaway, the 3 Maxx Sport is the cheapest of the automatic-equipped quartet. Yet its standard equipment list is persuasive. All get 16-inch alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel and automatic on/off headlights, but the rest of its kit list acts as a benchmark to which the others here are judged. This 3 includes autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitoring, electric-fold mirrors, dual-zone climate control, auto on/off wipers, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, satellite navigation and a digital radio.

It takes optioning the $1950 Smartsense package on the i30 Active, which becomes $25,140 (plus orc) or $28,271 driveaway (including a $500 discount offer at the time of writing), for Hyundai to broadly match Mazda. Everything above becomes standard except for auto on/off wipers and climate control, though it responds with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology on a larger 8.0-inch (versus 7.0in) screen, plus active lane-keep assistance and adaptive cruise control.

The Corolla SX, at $26,870 (plus orc), should be next up. But the lack of any offers, now two months after this model launched, makes for a recommended retail price (RRP) of $30,550 driveaway. That said, the Toyota blends Mazda standouts (auto on/off wipers and dual-zone climate) with Hyundai high-points (active lane-keep and adaptive cruise), while exclusively adding keyless auto-entry, wireless phone charging, speed-limit sign recognition, LED headlights and auto up/down high-beam.

Meanwhile the Golf 110TSI Trendline is priciest at $27,490 (plus orc), yet with a $28,490 driveaway offer (until December 31) it becomes just $219 costlier than i30. But while AEB is standard – unlike Hyundai’s Active – a $1500 Driver Assistance Package must be added to get active lane-keep, adaptive cruise, blind-spot and auto reverse-park assistance (a class-exclusive to match the already-standard front parking sensors). However, it lacks the keyless auto-entry, climate control, sat-nav and digital radio of the Corolla (while 3 gets the latter three and i30 the latter duo).

That German-built contender, from the only European brand of the group, also typically gets a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, though until December 31 this is raised to five-year, unlimited kilometre coverage to match South Korea’s Hyundai and Japan’s Mazda. It makes the latter’s native Toyota rival look stingy with three-year, 100,000km cover – although it has the best reputation for quality here.

Volkswagen also prices its five-year or 75,000km servicing package at $1931 where the Corolla costs just $875 and the i30 asks $1395. They all get annual or 15,000km servicing intervals, however, where the 3 requires yearly or 10,000km check-ups at a cost of $1770 – though that’s just to 50,000km.                      

THE INTERIOR        

Rather than counting equipment in the Golf 110TSI Trendline, it’s arguably better to count the number of ways in which its interior bests the competition. The basic design may be a half-decade old, but it’s the only contender here to successfully blend a high-resolution and quick-acting touchscreen, with high-quality soft-touch plastics, comfy front seats, plentiful rear legroom, and wrap it all up with a big boot.

The devil is in the detail, too. It gets rear-seat air vents, for example, which is matched here by i30 only – and only when Smartsense is optioned. The Volkswagen is the only one with carpeted door pockets and rear map lights, too, though it’s also the only one without seatback map pockets. Class-leading rear legroom is matched by best bench of the group, while the 380-litre boot is the second-largest – yet it’s the only rival here to score a tiny ski-port in addition to the usual 60:40 split-fold backrest.

It’s the Hyundai that comes closest to challenging the above contender. Beyond being the only other model here with rear air vents, its boot is the biggest at 395L, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that only i30 gets a full-size (versus space-saver temporary) spare tyre. Its touchscreen matches the above rival for size (8.0in), standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, plus equally slick resolution and response. Yet with digital radio and sat-nav, the Active wins the infotainment race.

Fit-and-finish is also to a high standard in the South Korean, as are the generous storage, spot-on ergonomics and snug front seats. Compared with the German, though, it dips in materials quality and rear-seat space – the vinyl-like plastics aren’t helped by door trims bereft of cloth inserts; and while the high-set back bench makes for terrific visibility for rear riders, the backrest is the hardest here and legroom is average. For a couple of hundred bucks less than the Golf, it isn’t quite as great.

For some $3000 less than either, however, the Mazda really doesn’t show much evidence of any significant shortfall inside. The ageing and blocky design might be nearly done and dusted, but a recent facelift has brought trim tweaks and equipment additions that boost the ambience significantly. For example, soft leather-look trim now flanks the centre transmission tunnel, an MX-5 steering wheel greets the driver, and the dual-zone climate control addition brings rather lovely knurled-silver controls.

Along with soft-touch dash and door plastics – the latter with cloth inserts – and 3 doesn’t feel as austere as i30. The infotainment system also works a treat, via a brilliant console-mounted rotary control, and only the lack of CarPlay/Android Auto and a digital speedometer (the only model here to miss one) really grate. While the Mazda offers a similar amount of rear legroom to the Hyundai, it gets less headroom, and the pleasingly cushy bench is set too low. Conversely, the boot floor is too high, restricting volume to 308L – though it does offer plenty of tailgate-to-backrest length.

There’s no shortage of boot length in the new Corolla, either. Open its rakish tailgate and the space looks comparably large. But that tailgate is so rakish that it crimps volume (and crushes luggage) when closed, while the boot floor is set even higher than in the 3. It doesn’t have to be that way, because the space-saver spare leaves room for a lower floor – except the tyre-change toolkit is placed above the spare rather than inside it, which could easily drop the carpet down by several centimetres.

It’s a quick packaging fix that would boost the paltry 217L volume. The SX also lacks the rear air vents of the even-pricier ZR, as well as its soft-touch door plastics, though any model grade still offers the least rear legroom and most claustrophobic (due to high door trims) surroundings. The saving grace is a bench that rates as equal-comfiest here, certainly with greater plushness and support than the Hyundai.

While the back seat is certainly more competitive than the boot, up front the Corolla SX more competitive again. It has the best front seats, the lowest driving position, plus nice dashboard plastics. If the 8.0in touchscreen isn’t the quickest unit, then at least the sat-nav’s voice control works brilliantly – and it’s the only model here to score it. Along with wireless smartphone charging, plus terrific speed-limit sign recognition, and it’s clear that the Toyota does provide just enough extra for its price.

What’s also clear, though, is that none of these Asian rivals can pamper passengers and pack-in stuff like the Euro contender. The Mazda is the affordable all-rounder, the Hyundai hits highs with a big boot and top touchscreen, while the Toyota’s up-front quality shines. But they respectively lack the detail or space, the trim expense or seating, and rear (passenger or boot) room of the less well-equipped Volkswagen.

ON THE ROAD

If the ups and downs of these contenders are distinguished inside, then things get closer and tighter on-road. Here, it all depends on where your personal priorities lie.

For performance and sportiness, the Corolla backs up its good looks by delivering the strongest engine, and best steering and handling, of the quartet. After a string of mediocre efforts over the last decade, this Toyota’s brand new chassis and suspension brim with sophistication, especially given that its ride quality is superb.

On paper, the SX looks little different to rivals. Its 2.0-litre petrol engine matches the i30 Active and 3 Maxx Sport for displacement, four-cylinder count and also a lack of turbocharging that significantly boosts the 1.4-litre petrol Golf 110TSI Trendline. But its average 200Nm of torque at 4400rpm, and 125kW of power at 6600rpm, fail to reveal just want an immediately responsive and quick-revving unit this is.

Many dues must go to the continuously-variable transmission (CVT), which isn’t something said often about this type of automatic that works by infinitely moving engine revs up and down like an abacus or pulley. They can feel slurry and stodgy, which is why Toyota has given this one a mechanical first gear for tight and immediate take-off, plus 10 virtual ‘gears’ – or steps – to keep the petrol on the ball.

The only way to describe the Corolla’s handling is unflappable, given how poised and planted it seemingly endlessly feels. When teamed with that potent engine, nothing here can touch either its straight-line speed or its ability to slurp up a string of bends.

Yet for effortlessness and quietness, the Golf 110TSI Trendline (perhaps unsurprisingly) comes to the fore. Its little turbo engine needs to work less hard than the others, owing to 250Nm produced from 1500rpm until 3500rpm, while its 110kW at 6000rpm may be the lowest here, but the same is true of its 1261kg tare mass.

Where the aforementioned rival can get growly when extended, joining a decent level of road noise to equal the racket in the Mazda and Hyundai, the Volkswagen gets by with a relative whisper from both under the bonnet and up through the floor. More than once did this tester audibly ‘ahhhh’ a sigh of relief after getting out of one of the other less refined contenders and into this German – especially at the end of the day.

The 3 Maxx Sport is nowhere near as noisy as even the pre-facelift model was, however, so it’s a shame a plethora of recent engineering revisions have been hidden under essentially unchanged clothes. But that’s the humble, Japanese culture. Rolling on chubby tyres, this model’s ride quality is now inseparable to Golf, defined by immaculate control for perfectly level progress, but with a soothing edge.

The six-speed auto also reeks of engineering integrity, being smoother off the line than the seven-speed dual-clutch Volkswagen while boasting greater shift smarts especially in the superb Sport mode. Not just for a $25K special, the apparently ageing Mazda still indeed feels special – and that continues with playful handling that moves around the driver the most and is the most engaging here, guided by sweetly mid-weighted steering that bests all except for the amazingly light and slick Toyota’s.

Nor can the Maxx Sport quite close in on the same-sized engine of that latter rival, with its 200Nm at 4000rpm and 114kW at 6000rpm being betrayed by its loud and coarse nature. That said, a 3 SP25 auto asks $27,990 driveaway at the time of writing, and it upgrades to a 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre engine. Similarly, an i30 SR also upgrades to a 150kW/265Nm 1.6-litre turbo – yet unlike the Mazda, the auto costs $32,735 driveaway at the time of writing, falling well beyond the confines of this test.

Only that isn’t all, because the SR further upgrades to an independent rear suspension (IRS) missing from the i30 Active but standard on every 3 (and Golf and Corolla). That design is more sophisticated than this model’s torsion bar rear-end, which offers decent compliance and good control for fun handling. But the suspension is noisy, often sending a hollow thrum through the cabin over potholes.

Along with Kumho Ecowing tyres, which are the least impressive here, plus nicely direct but slightly too-heavy steering, and it just falls short of elite-level competition. That said, with 120kW at 6600rpm and 203Nm at 4700rpm, the Hyundai’s mill is sweeter than the Mazda’s, even if the auto isn’t as smart, and quieter than the Toyota’s, even if it isn’t as quick. There’s pace and response in decent measure.

Ah yes, decent is the word – with the exception of fuel usage, that is.

Starting with the highest combined-cycle consumption claim of 7.4 litres per 100 kilometres, the Active soared to 10.9L/100km on our low-speed urban test loop, before a freeway figure of 7.2L/100km resulted in our 9.1L/100km ‘combined’.

Meanwhile the Mazda used stop-start technology to its advantage around town. Its 5.8L/100km claim moved to a lower-than-i30 8.3L/100km, but its higher-than-i30 7.4L/100km highway figure highlighted how hard it works – for 7.9L/100km overall. By contrast, the Golf’s turbo was clearly spinning harder moving from each traffic light, because despite stop-start tech its 5.4L/100km claim soared to 7.9L/100km urban then lowered to a benchmark 6.2L/100km freeway – for 7.1L/100km overall.

Yet even without stop-start tech, the Corolla’s 6.0L/100km claim only moved to 7.5L/100km urban and 6.5L/100km freeway, for 7.0L/100km on the dot combined. Given that the Volkswagen needs 95RON premium unleaded and the others all need 91RON regular brew, the Toyota wins the performance and economy race.

TMR VERDICT

The king is dead; long live the king. That is how we should be concluding this comparison test, because the Golf 110TSI Trendline is no longer the absolutely obvious and singular benchmark that its predecessors since about 2004 were.

Yet the Volkswagen wins this comparison because it best combines the things that may matter most to small car buyers: comfort beyond box-ticking features, space with amenities missing from others, engine and suspension refinement from the premium – not mere mainstream – classes, plus competitive active safety tech if you add the option pack for (at the time of writing) bang-on $30,000 driveaway.

For all of the above, though, the Corolla SX is more enthusiastic, more fun, more spirited, better equipped from both a safety and convenience perspective, and even without a driveaway-no-more-to-pay deal, it costs just $550 more than a safety-kitted 110TSI Trendline. It drives like the best car here, but for its noisiness, while a small boot plus cramped and claustrophobic rear quarters cement its equal-second place.

Equal second? It might be the oldest model here, but the 3 Maxx Sport is the definition of an all-rounder. How can you go past $25,490 driveaway with AEB standard? Certainly not for a model with high equipment, comfy seating, a decent boot, soothing ride, the most fun handling and great steering. It dips nowhere, frankly, except for equaling the Toyota’s high road noise and lacking engine smarts.

And best consider the i30 Active likeable and virtuous, but lacking standard AEB and becoming costly with it optioned. Even so, the Smartsense package makes for the best i30 of the non-SR breed, with rear air vents and safety kit to gel with its huge boot. Its engine is flexible, if thirsty around town, and its handling and ride control are very good. To justify its $28,000 driveaway ask, though, it could use more advanced, comfier suspension – which is available with the pricey, but brilliant, i30 SR auto.

Even so, the Hyundai shares all-rounder status with the Mazda, only without the razor-sharp price – if you get a good deal though, go for it. Otherwise, choose the 3 Maxx Sport for its astonishing value, the Corolla SX for its sophistication and subtle sportiness, and the Golf 110TSI Trendline – as ever –  for its superb space and solitude. But make no mistake, any of these cars have never been closer, or better.

HOW THEY RATE

Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Trendline – 4.5 stars

Mazda3 Maxx Sport – 4.0 stars

Toyota Corolla SX – 4.0 stars

Hyundai i30 Active Smartsense – 3.5 stars

(Please note, driveaway prices are quoted to a Sydney 2000 postcode. Government and statutory charges will vary slightly, but not significantly, between states.)

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