Mazda 3 SP25 hatch automatic Safety Pack ($28,690)
Toyota Corolla ZR hatch automatic ($28,990)
SUVs don't have it all their own way when it comes to showroom dominance. There’s still a lot of power left in small cars – just look around any shopping centre carpark.
The Mazda3 has become the 'go-to' hatch of the decade. It’s the car for the driver who wants style, versatility, reliability and fuel economy with a brand that re-defines “urban prestige”.
But it hasn’t always been that way. The venerable Toyota Corolla has been the nation’s small-car spine since I went to school in short pants.
It has recently been given a facial and comes up looking sharp, bulging with standard features and even breaking Toyota’s conservative bent with new paint colours (that will either make your eyes water with tears of joy or, perhaps, pain).
Both cars are priced within $300 of each other, despite the Mazda being fitted with the optional – but highly recommended – safety pack.
If you’re in the market for a small, well-equipped hatch that carries a sense of luxury, the Mazda 3 SP25 and the Toyota Corolla ZR may be hard to beat. Here’s how they compare in this in-depth report.
QUALITY and DESIGN:
I prefer the look of the Toyota cockpit. For the driver, it feels more like a compact sports car (even though it’s not followed up beneath the accelerator pedal) and the touchscreen’s blue-light illuminations look especially classy.
But the touch buttons aren’t as easy to use as conventional twist controls and, occasionally, a couple of stabs were necessary to increase the radio volume (yes, there are steering-wheel buttons).
But the Corolla’s cabin looks neat and upmarket and the ZR even gets leather-faced seats – with heating, which the Mazda doesn’t have - which always impresses.
Mazda is a bit more conservative in its styling but the placement of the fixed monitor atop the centre of the dash is perfectly within the sight-line of the driver.
The Mazda has a single-dial instrument panel with the analogue tachometer needle surrounding a digital speedometer.
Visibility is reasonably good for both though the thick C-pillars, small back windows and wide A-pillars (Mazda) aren’t overly reassuring.
Each has a reverse camera and the Mazda adds rear park sensors.
Fitting all driver shapes is easy. Both have seat height and reach-tilt steering wheel adjustment. Front ventilation outlets and controls are liberal but unlike some segment rivals (like the VW Golf) there are no vents in the back of either car.
INTERIOR SPACE and COMFORT:
Any small-car fight-off will centre around how it fits you, your family and your toys. Both these cars do the job – but one is more liberal with space, that’s mainly because the Mazda 3 is a slightly bigger car.
Not by much, 130mm longer overall and 100mm longer in the wheelbase, but it means a bit more legroom for rear passengers.
The Toyota, in fitting this ZR model with all the good-bits from its parts shelf, loses friends with its headroom.
Normally, it’s not an issue, but the new Corolla is 55mm lower than the previous generation and the ZR cops a beautiful panoramic glass roof – a delightful addition but one that dramatically lowers the headroom.
For me at 177cm, it wasn’t a problem in the front seat but in the back, my hair was wiping across the glass.
Rear legroom is reasonable, though the seat is firm and formless. Short trips only, I’d suggest.
Mazda 3 owners shouldn’t get too cocky: There’s a bit more legroom in the rear and the sunroof issue is non-existent, but the back seat is similarly firm and flat.
Buyers chasing comfort will check the specs and hit the Toyota button. Those into technology will be enticed more by the Mazda. Sorry, you can’t have both.
Look at the standard offerings from Mazda and there’s satellite navigation, cloth seats, six-speaker audio and leather trim for the steering wheel and gear-shifter knob.
That’s ordinary. But fire up the ignition and the internet world opens up thanks to Mazda’s excellent MZD-Connect infotainment system.
This packages a seven-inch touch screen with console control knob (yes, like Audi and BMW) and internet access with music streaming access via paired device – all accessible while the car is in motion.
There’s also voice recognition including using your speech to enter sat-nav commands.
By comparison, the Toyota has tricks like heated seats and leather upholstery. It adds satellite navigation, a six-speaker audio and leather trim for the steering wheel and gear-shift knob.
The Corolla’s infotainment system has a seven-inch touchscreen, access to the internet via paired device - but not accessible while the car is moving – and voice recognition.
Simple stuff like connecting the mobile phone is a doddle for both (don’t laugh – you’d be surprised how many car makers stumble over this task) but the Mazda is more intuitive despite having a greater complexity of services.
The Mazda is fractionally bigger so obviously you’d expect more space inside the boot.
It’s actually a bit more than a fraction. At 308 litres, the Mazda’s boot volume (below) is reasonable though short of the sector benchmark – Volkswagen’s Golf – at 380 litres.
Fold the split rear-seat down and the Mazda can take 1263 litres; it is also quite accommodating because of the wide and high tailgate opening.
The Toyota (below) is smaller at 280 litres but has a two-tier boot floor to give it greater versatility.
The rear seats also split to fold down – not flat though – for 1120 litres.
That two-level boot-floor hides enough foam to float a small yacht but also means the standard space-saver spare could be swapped (sorry, I mean purchased) with a full-size spare. That could be beneficial to an owner covering a lot of country distances.
Both cars have reasonable personal storage space, though the Mazda wins because it is more open and is a bit wider around the centre console.
MORE: VISIT THE GALLERY for a full view of each model's interior.
ON THE ROAD
Car makers aren’t stupid. They’ll find a formula that works and all their rivals will copy it. So it’s no surprise that these cars are pretty much on par.
Well, until it comes to the drivetrain. There’s no argument that Toyota is a conservative company, sticking its creative head out very rarely and then only for a brief period.
The engine in the Corolla is practically the same engine as my 2000 Corolla – a 1.8-litre chain-drive camshaft four-pot pushing 103kW at a teeth-rattling 6400rpm.
That’s 3kW more than my car and even the torque is up only 2Nm in 15 years to 173Nm.
Yes, it’s a very reliable engine and the chain-driven camshaft negates any critical mid-life belt replacement.
But it’s no powerhouse and reaching the peak power figure effectively classes the driver as a sadist. And, from an aural point of view, a masochist as well.
The new(ish) continuously-variable transmission (CVT) replaces the old four-speed automatic and is light years ahead in terms of making the performance more flexible and by lifting fuel economy.
To a degree, the Aisin CVT box also quietens the rather harsh engine noise by sticking to the low-end of the engine’s rev range.
And sports-driving fans can relish in the paddle shifters to awaken seven preset ratios.
The Mazda is a completely different kettle of fish. The engine (along with the platform, chassis and body structure) was developed under Mazda’s SkyActiv umbrella of technology.
Together with variable valve-timing and lift, the engine claims 138kW at a relatively calm 5700rpm and torque of 250Nm at 3250rpm.
That’s a big jump on the Corolla, especially considering the much bigger-engined Mazda claims only 6.1 l/100km against the Corolla at 6.7 l/100km.
The Mazda uses a conventional torque-converter automatic with six forward ratios and rapid lock-up in each cog to ensure minimal slip.
Armed with these stats, the Mazda is first out the garage.
The 2.5-litre Mazda is the far more enthusiastic and responsive. (And better even than the 2.0-litre used in lesser Mazda models.)
The auto box changes up smoothly and quickly and reverses the action when slowing for approaching traffic lights.
No complaints here; one wonders in fact why some companies persist with the less-reliable and occasionally hesitant dual-clutch transmissions when they could otherwise use an auto like this.
For on-road performance then, where the Mazda strains like dog on a chain leash, the Corolla’s initial acceleration feels almost apologetic.
The CVT spools up to catch the engine’s rising revs and this disparity creates a softness in the power flow.
It’s great for most urban conditions and passengers love it because of the seamless, smooth forward momentum – but for the driver it feels a bit unresponsive.
That said the Toyota and Subaru CVTs are among the best around with minimal flare (where the engine revs much harder than forward momentum suggests) and good response to on-off accelerator work, such as found in the daily commute or around a winding road.
The CVT masks some of the weakness in the low-end of the Corolla’s engine. It is also adept at finding the torque output’s sweet spot, so is more economical than comparative automatics.
Not in the Mazda’s case, however, because that’s not a traditional example.
If you are going to enjoy 103 kilowatts - we're not talking big numbers there - the best way is to use the paddle shifters. It’s perhaps not what many Corolla owners would bother doing, but it’s worth the effort for a bit more excitement.
RIDE and HANDLING:
The Mazda has a great drivetrain combination that’s helped by a positive steering feel and minimal body-roll through the bends.
The SP25 actually handles very well, displaying few of the inherent front-drive characteristics and showing scant regard to fast corners with rutted bitumen.
The low-speed rumble of older models seems to have diminished but the low-profile tyres can be a bit noisy on coarse bitumen.
It’s also a comfortable car and reiterates the point that the Mazda feels a lot bigger, more assured and more stable than the Corolla – despite the fact they are a cigarette packet apart in length.
Enter the Corolla and it immediately feels more like a small sports car. The steering wheel feels smaller, the dash is lower than the Mazda and the pedals feel more compactly placed.
Handling in the Corolla is great, though it feels lighter and a bit less planted than the Mazda.
Steering input is as good and low-speed ride is on par, though the tyres react less noisily to bad bitumen.
Mazda’s SkyActiv technology is about integrating the various parts of the car to make it as efficient as possible.
Rivals will bung a turbocharger onto a small-capacity engine and create low fuel economy.
Mazda took the hard route, keeping costs down – by dispensing with the turbo – with an unorthodox high compression ratio of 13:1. Most cars are 10:1.
That high compression creates a lean-burn, using less fuel. That’s helped by stop-start at idle – yes, can be a pain but it pays dividends in traffic snarls – and the light body weight.
That’s probably why the Mazda is quoted at 6.1 litres/100km.
The Corolla takes a different road. It takes an old engine off the shelf and uses other components to create its fuel efficiencies.
The CVT box is one big way to slash fuel costs and in the Corolla (and front-drive RAV4) it works.
But it makes no whopping change at the bowser with the Corolla posting 6.7L/100km, 0.6L/100km more thirstier than the bigger-engined Mazda.
Both cars use 91 octane fuel which saves a few cents at the bowser, possibly enough change for a restaurant meal once a year. Don’t pass up on the small savings.
The low power and torque of the Corolla engine and the fact peak outputs arrive at very high revs (for a city car) puts it at a disadvantage compared with the lusty Mazda.
But the Toyota’s CVT is smooth and seamless and ideal for urban functions. The SP25 however is a more engaging drive and directly meets Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” philosophy.
For buyers facing the choice between these two, basically you won’t go wrong with either.
Personal preference will play a massive role in your decision, as will any motorist’s past brand history.
But, the Mazda offers more in terms of being more enjoyable to drive and more performance-oriented. It is also slightly bigger inside so will better suit a one or two-child family or owners who regularly cart passengers.
The Corolla is endearing and so easy to drive. However, this is the age of safety technology and it’s disappointing to see Toyota lag in even basic gear – like rear park sensors – let alone something akin to Mazda’s potentially life-saving arsenal, even if it is an option.
Ownership costs, including fuel consumption, are within coo-ee.
If it came to a crunch, I’d opt for the Mazda. It offers a lot more equipment, the infotainment system is excellent and the performance is almost magnetic.