They’re not flashy but these popular picks are at the peak of their game in the showroom.
Popularity is often scorned. Just look at McDonald’s, One Direction and My Kitchen Rules. Purists argue that biggest doesn’t necessarily mean best.
In the car industry popularity equals success. SUVs may be the latest craze but the humble hatchback is still the main game in the new car market. Last month, the country’s three top-selling cars were small hatches.
To better understand the attraction, we pitted enduring favourites the Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 against the Hyundai i30, which last month toppled both in the sales race thanks to an unbeatable drive-away deal.
A new Mazda3 was launched to widespread acclaim last year but the Corolla and i30 have had upgrades in recent months.
Hyundai i30 Active X
There was a time when Hyundais sold on price alone. That all changed with the i30, the first Hyundai that was a decent drive, well put together and capable of selling on substance alone. For the doubters, there was a five-year warranty.
But it still sells best when there’s an unbeatable deal on the table. Last month it was $19,990 drive-away with auto for the cheapest model. This month, it’s $21,990 for the Active X model, which adds leather, alloy wheels and other goodies. That’s roughly $6000 off.
The April update added a bigger screen, retuned suspension and standard reversing camera across the range. Styling tweaks brought the front end look into line with more recent Hyundais.
Inside, the i30 is showing its age. The centre screen is smaller than the other two here and the layout doesn’t feel as modern. It’s still easy to use and well laid-out — and now connects to the Pandora music app — but lacks a little pizazz. And there’s evidence of cost-cutting in the rear, with no middle armrest and plastic instead of cloth seat backs.
On the road, it’s much the same. The 1.8-litre engine is the noisiest under hard acceleration and the thirstiest. The suspension, tuned for local conditions, is pretty well sorted, feels comfortable and composed but doesn’t feel as sporty as the others through the corners. The nose will push wide when provoked and the steering lacks feel.
Price from: $24,390
Warranty: 5 years/unlimited km
Servicing: 12 months/15,000km. $747 over 3 years
Safety: 7 airbags, 5 stars
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl, 107kW/175Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto; FWD
Dimensions: 4300mm (L), 1780mm (W), 1470mm (H), 2650mm (WB)
Mazda’s most popular Mazda3 isn’t the cheapest. At $1900 more than the Neo, the Maxx is the punters’ pick. Unlike the Neo, it gets a standard reversing camera, and a $1500 safety pack includes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and auto braking.
Other goodies include satnav, fog lamps, seven-inch screen and internet radio apps. To seal the deal, the steering wheel, gearknob and handbrake handle are leather-wrapped. It’s easy to see how buyers get talked up to a Maxx.
The cabin is the most attractive of the three — in the front. Further back the beancounters have won the day. The Corolla and i30 get padded armrests, the Mazda’s are hard plastic. It also gets only one seat back pocket.
The Mazda’s engine wins back points — it’s more sophisticated, more powerful, quieter and more economical, thanks to stop-start technology that shuts down the engine at lights. The push-button starter on the dash makes the car feel more modern too.
On the road, the Mazda is the pick, although the margin of victory is much tighter than it once was. It feels the most relaxed on the freeway, while on country back roads it delivers a firm, controlled but comfortable ride.
The steering is lighter and, while lacking the feel of the Corolla, is still precise. The Mazda sits flat through corners and isn’t upset by quick changes of direction. It’s also quieter than previous generations, although the tyres still roar on coarser road surfaces.
Price from: $24,390
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Servicing: 12 months/10,000km. $971 over 3 years
Safety: 6 airbags, 5 stars
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 114kW/200Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto, FWD
Dimensions: 4460mm (L), 1795mm (W), 1455mm (H), 2700mm (WB)
Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport
Stroll through Toyota head office and you’ll come across the term Kaizen, or continuous improvement. The boffins have been tweaking the Corolla since it launched in 2012 and their latest effort includes a more modern-looking front end, retuned suspension, more equipment and a redesigned dash.
A reversing camera is now standard across the range, displayed on a new seven-inch touchscreen that can be linked through a smartphone to internet radio, weather updates and map functions.
Interior design has been a Toyota weakness but the latest Corolla’s more integrated and cohesive design includes brushed metal and faux carbon-fibre highlights. The centre screen no longer looks as if it was installed at Repco and the detailing all-round is less fussy.
The only complaint is that a touchscreen is harder to navigate on the run than Mazda’s central knob controller.
The Kaizen boffins also tackled another Toyota weakness, producing a car that matches the Mazda through corners. Gone is the mushy suspension and vague steering, and in its place is a car that is fun to punt through the twisty bits.
The previous model traded off improved handling for more road noise but the latest variant is quieter.
Fuel efficiency improves from 6.6 to 6.1L/100km, but it can’t match the Mazda for refinement. The engine can get a bit buzzy and the noise is exacerbated by the continuously variable transmission, which makes the engine drone more noticeable.
Price from: $22,790
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Servicing: 6 months/10,000km. $840 over 3 years
Safety: 7 airbags, 5 stars
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl, 103kW/173Nm
Transmission: 7-speed CVT, FWD
Dimensions: 4330mm (L), 1760mm (W), 1475mm (H), 2600mm (WB)
At the recommended retail price, the Hyundai is the first out of this contest. It’s still a very good car but a fraction off the pace on the road and a little dated inside. But if it were to stay at $21,990 drive-away (about $4500 less than the Corolla and $6000 less than the Mazda3), it would be the winner.
The next battle is tougher to call. The Corolla is roughly $1500 cheaper and the recent update has narrowed the Mazda’s advantage on the road and in the cabin. It’s also much cheaper to service, with six services costing less than three at Mazda.
However, the Mazda’s more powerful engine that is also slightly more efficient, and has more technology, including standard satnav and stop-start. It wins by a whisker.