Small cars test: Corolla vs. Mazda3

TOYOTA COROLLA

The latest generation of our top-selling passenger car has a bold new look — and direction. Toyota has vacated the bargain basement. The starting price above $27,000 drive-away for an auto is at least $4000 more than the predecessor.

To help justify the extra expense, the Ascent Sport comes loaded with radar cruise control, city and highway AEB, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. Its lane-keeping assistance, as with similar tech on many other cars, should not be relied upon.

One piece of artificial intelligence that works well is the speed sign recognition camera. Rather than relying on map data, a camera scans for reflective signs, road markings, and illuminated boards mazda 3 competitors. It even detects the “40” signs on the back of buses. It could save your license, if not your life.

A digital speedo is a welcome addition, and tablet-style, the eight-inch touchscreen has buttons and dials, so it’s easier to operate on the move. Smartphone mirroring isn’t available, and navigation and digital radio are $1000 extra.

There are soft-touch materials on the dash and doors, and the comfort and quality of the seat fabrics are among class best. However, there’s not much love for rear occupants, with a tight knee room and not much storage space. The boot is smaller than that of a Yaris hatch. This Corolla favors form over function, with a sleek design at the expense of practicality — fortunately, the driving experience matches its sporty looks.

The new engine has plenty of power, and the steering feels slightly more natural than it does in the other two. Ride comfort is equally impressive, although the suspension can make the car feel a touch too light over bumps at times.

We criticized the grip of the eco tires in our initial assessment. However, after further testing on familiar roads, it’s apparent they have sufficient grip but are simply more prone to squealing in corners when pushed to their limit. This quirk of the tires apart, it’s the most fun-to-drive Corolla to date.

VERDICT

The Corolla has the most comprehensive safety tech, and it’s cheap to run and is finally fun to drive. But it’s let down by short warranty, high price and compromised cabin space. The Mazda is a sharp drive and comes with more mod-cons. But its compact cabin, road noise, and service costs weigh against it. By far the most luxurious and competent, the Golf is roomiest to boot. The safety must-haves are covered, and more advanced aids are available for a small added cost.

THERE is a lot of hype around SUVs, but hatchbacks are still our second most popular choice of the car — and these are three of the best.

Toyota has just released a new version of the top-selling Corolla, so it’s time to get reacquainted with the other class benchmarks, the Mazda3 and VW Golf. To level the playing field, we’ve chosen variants that line up closest to the Carolla’s new higher starting price of $27,900 drive-away. All three tested cost within $500 of each other.

MAZDA3

Updated earlier this year, the range starts with the Neo Sport from $23,490 drive-away with auto. For Corolla money, you can go two grades above that to the Touring as tested, from $27,490 drive-away. Alone in this trio, it has leather seats, sensor key with push-button start, dual-zone air conditioning, auto power-folding side mirrors, and paddle shifters on the steering wheel.

It lacks smartphone mirroring, but a Mazda accessory app will be available later this year.

The seven-inch infotainment display is smaller than the eight-inch touchscreens in the other two but has built-in navigation and digital radio, both optional on the Corolla and Golf. In addition to a rear camera and sensors, standard safety kit includes blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert.

and unique in this trio, front, and rear autonomous emergency braking.

It lacks radar cruise control and lane-keeping assistance hardware (standard on the Corolla, but the tech that’s supposed to read between the lines is so hit and miss its advantage is limited). The Mazda’s cabin is starting to look dated despite the addition of chrome highlights.

The instrument cluster is comparatively small, and there’s no digital speed display. However, it comes with two USB ports to accompany a 12V power outlet and 3.5mm auxiliary socket. The others have one of each. There is a sliding cover for the center console, and the audio control dials and buttons nearby are more comfortable to use than similar arrangements in luxury cars. Rear seat space is snug, with just a fraction of room between occupants’ knees and also the pew facing it’s merely slightly superior compared to Corolla; however, there’s a place for feet under front chairs. Boot distance is more than ordinary, although much less miniature as Toyota’s freight grip.

On the road, the Mazda3 shines, with smooth, precise and light steering plus good road holding — and suspension that doesn’t jar over bumps. However, the tires are noisier than its peers on coarse-chip surfaces, a Mazda trait.

The engine has the least zip but makes good use of available power, especially in the intuitive sport mode, or when using the paddle-shifters to exercise the six-speed auto.

VW GOLF

Sales of small cars are down, but the resurgent Golf, updated this time last year, is keeping newer rivals on their toes. The next model is due in 2020. The lineup kicks off with the 110TSI Trendline, from $27,990 drive-away with auto.

Standard fare, not matched by the other two, includes front and rear sensors, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, high-resolution eight-inch touchscreen, back air vents, and rear door pockets (the other two have just beverage holders).

It may not be the most modern-looking interior these days. Still, it oozes quality, from the glasslike high-resolution eight-inch touchscreen to the leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear lever and large carpeted storage pockets in each door. On the dash and doors, there are soft-touch

materials and flashes of faux-metal trim, and there’s padding on each door’s elbow rests.

It’s the shortest car here bumper-to-bumper, yet it has the roomiest cabin, and by far the most significant cargo hold. Rear passengers have a couple of centimeters of extra knee room. The large window area means outward vision is perfect. Seven airbags and autonomous emergency braking are standard. Still, radar CruiseControl (with stop-start in traffic), blind zone warning and rear cross-traffic awake are a part of the $1500 solution package.

Still, the benchmark when it comes to riding and handling, the Golf soaks up bumps and thumps with aplomb. The steering is direct without being too sharp. Its Continental tires are quieter than the Mazda and Toyota rubber by some margin.

Overall, the Golf is a more relaxed drive, possibly due in part of the engine not being overworked.

Despite the smaller capacity, its turbo produces 25 percent more torque than the others. The difference is palpable, although it requires 95 RON — the others run on regular. The seven-speed twin-clutch auto takes a moment to engage the first gear when you release the brake pedal from rest.

But it is smooth and fast once over the proceedings.

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