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2019 Mazda 3 review: The Astina returns
WITHIN the Eurokars Group, there seems to be a palpable sense of excitement about the new Mazda 3. That's saying something, because this is a company that also deals with McLarens, Minis, Porsches and Rolls-Royces here.
But now that the car is in Singapore, it's easy to see why a general buzz surrounds the newest Mazda. It's the kind of hot prospect that makes salesmen from rival dealerships jump ship and swim over.
The Mazda 3 goes on sale tomorrow with no less than a five model line-up: a Sedan in Classic, Elegance and Astina trims, and a Hatchback with the Elegance or Astina pack.
If "Astina" rings a bell, it's because it alludes to Mazda's 323 Astina, a distinctive fastback with pop-up headlights from 1989. Eurokars executive chairman Karsono Kwee apparently helped choose the name for top versions of the new 3, not only for its mellifluous sound, but as a reminder that Mazda has always tried to build remarkable cars.
More people by far will buy a sedan, but if you're in a mood to splurge, the Hatchback Astina sits right at the top of the price range, at S$111,688 with Certificate Of Entitlement. The most basic Sedan Classic starts at S$92,688.
It's hard to know where to start with the new 3 but an obvious place would be the styling, since it's the one thing that seems to make such an impression on people.
The slender lamps and Jaguar-like grille make it instantly recognisable, and the bodywork has gained a sort of sculpted smoothness that finally makes it clear what Mazda's designers mean when they talk about "beauty by subtraction", the principle that currently guides their hands.
As handsome as the Sedan is, it's the Hatchback that's the Romeo of the bunch. Come to think of it, maybe that should be "Alfa Romeo"; the focused stare, pert proportions and clean lines mean the Mazda looks as good as Italy's finest efforts.
Yet, while the exterior might have been the work of an Italian design studio, what's under the bonnet has so far only been available from German cars.
Every Mazda 3 here comes with a 1.5-litre engine and six-speed auto, which is neither particularly exotic or powerful - the Hatchback takes all of 12.1 seconds to reach 100km/h - but there's some interesting engineering in the form of something that Mazda calls M-Hybrid.
In case you couldn't guess, it's a mild hybrid system designed to save fuel. Built around a small lithium-ion battery pack and a 6.8 horsepower starter-generator, it's broadly similar to Mercedes' EQ Boost setup. The system can give the petrol engine a brief burst of assistance, which helps the Mazda get underway from standstill with some extra pep.
It also wakes the engine up seamlessly, whenever it shuts down at standstill to save those droplets of precious petrol.
That refinement is something of a recurring theme, as far as the driving experience goes. The Mazda is quiet on the move and totally absent of clonks or thumps from the suspension mounts, and only when you accelerate hard do you hear the engine's throaty voice.
Even on 18-inch wheels, the Mazda rides firmly but in a well-controlled manner, and the steering and suspension are set up to deliver predictable, easy turns and a calm reaction to bumps.
In fact, the Mazda clearly deserves a more powerful engine because its chassis is pretty much spot on. Everything from the weight of the steering to the pedal pressure feels just right, and you can sense the monumental effort that's gone into giving the car a wonderful tactility.
The way the various buttons around the cabin click just gives the Mazda a lovely sense of quality, one that's complemented by the materials used for the dashboard and elsewhere.
If anything, the soft-touch plastics and leather used for the interior trim are straight out of Audi's playbook, and they make the Mazda feel like a car that costs twice as much.
Even the most basic model comes with an 8.8-inch infotainment screen (with built-in satellite navigation) controlled by a rotary dial, and an instrument cluster that mixes analogue gauges with a 7-inch digital display.
The sophistication doesn't stop there, especially if you pay the S$7,000 it costs to upgrade from the Classic to Elegance spec. That buys a suite of driver assistance systems, such as a 360-degree monitor, active cruise control, autonomous emergency braking and blind spot monitors that give you ample warning of other cars looming in the lanes beside you.
Suitably equipped, the Mazda 3 can even slam on the brakes for you if you stick its nose into traffic at a blind junction and risk a collision. That sort of stuff tends to come with bona fide premium cars, and is almost unheard of at this end of the market.
If the Mazda 3 has a weakness, it's the lack of room in the back. The seating in the rear makes it seem as if engineers made space there their lowest priority and spent all their time getting everything else just-so.
Yet, the Mazda feels like such an expensive car, it's easy to forget that it is supposed to be a humble player in the compact class. Instead, it's ended up as a car that looks like an Alfa Romeo outside, feels like an Audi inside and drives a bit like a baby Lexus.
Perhaps it's just as well the Eurokars Group is used to handling luxury cars.
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
Agent Eurokars Mazda
Price S$111,688 with COE