Aggression is a trait few would associate with small hatchbacks. Yet here are the new Hyundai i30 and updated Mazda3 as not only absolute giants of their class, but giants competing within the most gigantic, top-selling new-vehicle segment around.
To ramp things up, the dog-eat-dog end of the small hatch spectrum has been chosen for this comparison test – the entry-level automatic models, the i30 Active and 3 Neo, where every cent matters and pragmatism over-rules the emotional.
This is where bread-and-butter Hyundais and Mazdas become bigger than Ben Hur.
For under $25,000 before on-road costs, combinations of cabin equipment, safety and infotainment technology, and performance, all become delicate balancing acts. So, which entry-level small hatch best – or most aggressively – balances the ledger?
Hyundai i30 Active ($23,250 plus on-road costs))
Mazda3 Neo ($22,490 plus on-road costs)
The days of $19,990 driveaway i30 Active automatics are gone with this new model. Hyundai’s entry-level auto now costs $23,250 plus on-road costs, plus $495 for any colour except white, which totals $23,745 (plus orc) as-tested.
Equipment is up, with 16-inch alloy wheels standard, plus automatic on/off headlights, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with digital radio, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, satellite navigation with live traffic and reverse-view camera all standard.
The lightly facelifted Mazda3 Neo auto costs $22,490 (plus orc) and six colours are free, while dark red (as-tested) and grey add $300 – for a $22,790 (plus orc) total.
Mazda matches its rival’s alloys and rear parking sensors, but it lacks all the other equipment except for auto-off (but not dusk-sensing auto-on) headlights. Its major plus, however, is standard autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that can automatically apply the brakes to avoid a collision or pedestrians at up to 80km/h. That piece of potentially life-saving technology is not yet available on the Hyundai.
Hyundai will add AEB as an option on i30 Active later this year, and it has suggested around $1000 will be the price. But that could take this model to $24,745 (plus orc) or close to Mazda’s middle-specification 3 Maxx at $24,890 (plus orc).
Either a 3 Neo or 3 Maxx could have been chosen for this test. Why? Because the entry i30 sits right in between both. Tick a metallic paint option on the Active and it becomes $1255 dearer than Mazda’s entry model; yet it’s then only a $1145 stretch to Mazda’s mid-spec model.
The point relatable to this section is that, inside the cabin, the 3 Neo gets a basic, monochromatic-display AM/FM radio, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and USB-connected infotainment unit that looks prehistoric and is very fiddly to use.
Hyundai’s touchscreen is brilliant to use, by contrast, with snappy graphics for the navigation, plug-and-play for CarPlay and many different stations on the digital band. And the 3 Maxx matches its 8.0-inch display and all features except for CarPlay.
With the mid-spec Mazda a buyer not only scores AEB and a touchscreen, but also foglights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, blind-spot monitor, auto-dim rear-view mirror and rear cross-traffic alert still all unavailable in this Hyundai.
Both the 3 Neo and i30 Active cabins feel slightly downmarket due to the plastic-rim on the steering wheel, but otherwise they are closely matched with each other.
The Mazda leads with superior fit-and-finish and more consistently matched plastics that include soft-touch materials on the dash and doors, the latter of which include cloth inserts. The newer Hyundai takes a slight step backwards for interior quality compared with the old model, with some rubbery finishes and all-plastic door trims.
Being the newer generation, the i30 Active’s sweeping dash design looks more modern, however, and it offers extra storage spots and nicer manual air-conditioning controls than its rival, along with generously bolstered – almost sporty – front seats.
The 3 Neo’s front chairs are softer and cushier, while not necessarily being less supportive, while its driving position is lower, and its thinner steering wheel – taken from the MX-5 – feels racier to hold. The biggest downside is no digital speedometer, but it does include an auto up/down driver’s window missing from its rival.
A greater division emerges further back inside each small hatchback.
The Mazda’s rear seat is the most plush and supportive here. A particular nod goes to the cosy side support for the shoulders and upper thighs of outboard riders, while an extra five centimetres of legroom can also be found.
Hyundai’s seat cushion is actually longer, which affects its legroom score, but the firmer base and backrest doesn’t hold passengers quite as snugly. Both lose points for a lack of rear air-vents, though at least each score door-mounted bottle holders.
In the battle of the boots, though, the tables turn. The 3 Neo gets a luggage capacity of only 308 litres, which is below average for the segment. Not only does the i30 Active trump it with a 378L capacity, but it exclusively gets a full-size spare wheel underfloor. Its rival gets a space-saver temporary unit, despite offering less space.
ON THE ROAD
So far the Mazda triumphs for choice (between cheap Neo and value-packed Maxx), standard safety technology and cabin quality; while the Hyundai returns serve with a newer cabin design, benchmark infotainment technology and a big boot.
There isn’t much in it, depending on your priorities, and the fact both small hatchbacks use 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engines and six-speed automatics might at first glance suggest that there wouldn’t be much between them on the road.
The i30 Active offers 120kW of power at 6200rpm, and 203Nm of torque at a high-ish 4700rpm. It also boasts the marginally lighter kerb weight of 1276kg, but its claimed combined cycle fuel consumption of 7.3 litres per 100 kilometres is the highest here.
The heavier, 1296kg 3 Neo delivers 114kW at 6000rpm and 200Nm at 4000rpm, though it includes stop-start technology to help deliver an official 5.8L/100km. Our test loop comprising urban, freeway and country road driving, saw the fuel gap narrow to just 0.7L in the Mazda’s favour, 7.3L/100km versus 7.9L/100km.
Hyundai’s engine is the smoother, quieter and more flexible of the two 2.0-litre units. Particularly through the mid-range it remains more distant than its rival, but it’s also keen to exploit the top end.
Although Mazda’s four-cylinder can’t escape some buzziness at low revs, and can then turn thrashy, it wins the battle of the two six-speed automatics.
Both autos are very intelligently tuned to hold lower gears on hills, and slickly upshift at the correct time, but the facelifted 3 Neo exclusively introduces a Sport setting that is near-perfectly tuned for enthusiastic driving.
Most surprising, however, is this facelifted Mazda’s new noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) measures. Road noise has long been a sore point of the 3 small car range, and while it hasn’t become completely hushed, it’s now far more competitive than before.
In fact, changes to the suspension of this Neo delivers more plush ride quality than before, but to an even greater degree it now keeps level control of its body over all manner of roads; and that elevates it to class-benchmark-rivalling level. In other words, a Volkswagen Golf level, whether around town or on country roads.
Every Mazda3 uses a sophisticated multi-link independent rear suspension (IRS) set-up, whereas Hyundai reserves IRS for its performance-focused i30 SR model grade. In isolation the torsion beam-suspended Active rides well and remains decently controlled, but on either urban or country roads it feels outclassed alongside the Neo.
Again, surprisingly, our test i30 delivered noisier suspension and greater cabin boom than its rival. Outright coarse-chip road noise is lower, but the way this Hyundai resonates certain bumps throughout the cabin is markedly inferior. Its sedan sibling, the Elantra, also feels more supple and refined than this newer hatch.
Dynamically, the newest Hyundai offers medium-weighted and direct steering, and with fleet-footed agility through corners that makes even this entry Active fun to drive.
If the i30 is honest fun, though, then the nip-and-tucked Mazda3 is now verging on sophisticated. Its steering is lighter but sharper, and its chassis is just as agile as its rival while being more composed, settled and poised when mid-corner bumps arise.
Where the Mazda simply feels engineered to a higher standard, despite being the more affordable entrant here.
Some ground for the i30 is made up off the road, though. Its annual or 15,000km servicing intervals result in a capped-price cost of $777 over three years or 45,000km, plus there’s the value of its five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty.
The 3 demands annual or 10,000km servicing intervals, with a capped-price cost of $928 over three years, or $1256 if 40,000km comes up first.
While the Mazda’s three-year warranty is inferior, buyers can expect to recoup some savings on fuel. Its 0.7L lead every 100 kilometres on this test works out to be a 105L annual saving based on the average 15,000km per year that Australians drive. With regular unleaded at $1.30 per litre, that’s $137 remaining in the back pocket per year, or a $410 saving over three years – or the equivalent extra needed for servicing.
As expected from two giants of the small car class, this test comes down to the wire.
The 3 Neo forges ahead with its standard AEB, while the i30 Active wins with its touchscreen; it all depends whether safety or infotainment technology is the greater priority. Likewise, the Mazda offers a cushier cabin and more efficient engine, though the Hyundai includes a bigger boot, stronger engine, cheaper servicing and longer warranty; but for a higher up-front cost of between $760 (white) and $1255 (metallic).
A narrow win here ultimately comes down to sophistication and choice, and for an entry model the 3 Neo now provides a glimpse of a more premium driving experience for less. It’s a credit to Hyundai that its new i30 is now most impressive in sporty SR trim, but in this contest Mazda democratises its best chassis even at the lower end.
Meanwhile, until Hyundai offers AEB (or perhaps a 3 Maxx-rivalling Active X model grade) for sub-$25,000 before on-roads, the next step for i30 buyers is the $28,950 (plus orc) SR. A Mazda buyer can either save cash and buy a 3 Neo, or spend more on a 3 Maxx to resolve its infotainment deficit; and still for only $24,890 (plus orc). Whichever the model grade, it’s simply the most aggressive small-car buy here.
Hyundai i30 Active – 3.5 stars
Mazda3 Neo – 4.0 stars