Kia Cerato S v Mazda3 Neo Sport 2018 Comparison

Now boasting a five-year warranty, can the respected Mazda3 stay ahead of the new Kia Cerato?

Young pup enters small-car dogfight with new tricks

The new Kia Cerato sedan is very fresh to the market. Yet while the latest model to wear the nameplate was launched in Australia barely two months ago, it’s already notching up strong sales.

Last month the Kia Cerato sold over 1400 cars, without a hatchback option in the range. So its tally is particularly impressive when measured against other segment rivals that are offered in both sedan and hatchback styles.

Why are we comparing them?

This comparison serves a two-fold purpose. We’re seeking answers to these two questions: Can the new Cerato live up to its promise? And can an older but highly regarded competitor with improved warranty coverage remain a credible alternative?

Without a hatchback body style in the Cerato range at the moment (it’s due later this year), our only option for a comparison with the new kid on the block was another small sedan. Enter the Mazda3.

The Mazda3 has been applauded over several years for its mix of durability, practicality and driving dynamics. While the Toyota Corolla sells more than the Mazda3, the current Corolla is soon to be replaced by an all-new model, and in a comparison with the Hyundai Elantra a couple of years ago, the Corolla was roundly beaten.

If any car is likely to give the new Cerato a run for its money – other than the Elantra from Kia’s parent company – it will be the Mazda3.

Who will they appeal to?

Small cars are very popular in Australia. Buyers can purchase a practical family car for under $20,000 – although perhaps that involves a bit more haggling these days.

Volume-selling small cars tend to be upmarket models, but what about lower-priced small sedans for a young family on a budget? Entry-level small sedans are ideal for a family on one income and with two kids under five. There’s plenty of room in the boot for portacots and prams, and adequate space in the rear for rear-facing child safety seats.

And small cars are cheap to run, insure and buy. Do they have to be unrelentingly practical though? Can’t even the most affordable small sedan be fun to drive as well? And shouldn’t the family car at least offer some visual presence and a host of comfort and convenience features to surprise and delight?

How much do they cost?

Unfortunately, the test Cerato S came to us with a manual transmission, whereas the Mazda3 was automatic, so the pricing is not a case of apples for apples. But a couple of conclusions were there to be made. The Cerato comes in under $20,000 drive-away, but $520 for metallic paint takes it up to an as-tested price of $20,510.

Mazda sent us the entry-level Mazda3 Neo Sport with automatic at an as-tested price (before on-road costs) of $22,490. If a buyer were to opt for the manual Mazda3 Neo Sport, the price would be $20,490, which is $500 more than the Cerato, but Mazda doesn’t charge for most metallic paint options. So unless the buyer specifies Soul Red Crystal metallic or Machine Grey metallic – each a $300 option for the Mazda3 – the manual Mazda3 is $20 cheaper than a manual Cerato with metallic paint… until you factor in on-road costs.

It’s different with the automatic options, however. The Mazda3 is priced at $22,490 in automatic form, and that’s exactly $1000 more than the automatic Cerato S.

Additionally, when conducting a ‘spec-adjusted’ comparison on paper, the Cerato streaks ahead of the Mazda3. The Mazda may have alloy wheels and a keyless ignition as standard, versus steel wheels, plastic covers and key starting for the Cerato, but the Kia does come with lane departure assistance and driver fatigue warning, plus auto headlights, rain-sensing wipers, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Throw in seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty cover and the Cerato is points ahead of the Mazda3, even though the Mazda’s warranty coverage has now come up to five years/unlimited kilometres.

Finally, there’s the service interval to consider. Both cars are subject to servicing at least once every 12 months, but long-distance drivers will appreciate the Cerato’s 15,000km minimum ceiling over a 12-month period. Mazda drivers travelling more than 10,000km in a year will need to have the Mazda3 serviced twice during any 12-month period.

What do they do well?

Both cars are fun to drive, but the Cerato holds the road better and its handling is more consistent. The Kia’s traction and stability control systems are very well calibrated too, and the Mazda’s g-Vectoring Control is a highlight in an extreme driving scenario.

The Kia has a moderately sporty engine that feels lively and responsive. It’s a good match for the light, positive manual gear shift, and the transmission’s gearing is an ideal match for the low-rev torque available for climbing hills or short-shifting away from traffic lights.

The Mazda’s automatic transmission is very clever, shifting up at the redline unless the driver is changing gear manually, but it also shifts down on hills for engine braking, even when the powertrain is not operating in Sport mode. Overdrive ratios in the Mazda transmission mean the engine isn’t working quite as hard at 100km/h – just 1800rpm, versus 2600rpm for the manual Cerato.

Inside, the Kia is better equipped (see How much do they cost?), but the Mazda is generally well finished by small-car standards. That’s not to say the Cerato is poorly finished by any means; just that the Mazda is the benchmark here.

The Mazda’s driving position felt better, no doubt helped by not having a clutch pedal, and the front seats were more comfortable over a distance. For its part, the Cerato’s instruments were more conventional and easier to read at a glance, plus the Kia came with a digital speedo readout as well as an analogue unit.

There’s more legroom in the rear of the Cerato, but less headroom there than in the Mazda. Occupants can stretch out more in the Kia, but Mazda3 will accommodate humans up to about 180cm tall in the back without the passengers ducking the head. Kneeroom is fine in both cars. The Cerato has the larger boot of the two cars on test (408 v 502 litres).

What could they do better?

The Cerato, on 55-series Kumho tyres, road firmer than the Mazda3 (on 60-series Bridgestones), and was prone to choppiness over rippled bitumen surfacing country roads. While the Mazda3 rode better, it also rolled more in corners and its ultimate roadholding couldn’t match the Cerato’s. It was more likely to step out at the rear – and at lower overall speeds.

The Mazda3’s power delivery felt stodgy after the Cerato, until you had it switched to sport mode and spinning higher in the rev range. Engine noise felt coarse in the mid-range, compared with the more refined powerplant in the Cerato. Engine flare in the case of the Cerato forced slower (manual) gear changing for the sake of smoothness.

Neither car offered outstanding headlights and both were fitted with temporary-use space-saver spare tyres.

The Cerato’s seats were well shaped, but after an hour they felt uncomfortable in the base. Lumbar adjust would be useful too. Both cars lacked adjustable vents and USB ports for the rear-seat occupants.

Occasionally, the Mazda3’s suspension was noisy over sharper impacts and there was a light metallic rattle from the boot.

Which wins, and why?

It speaks volumes for the Mazda3 that it’s still so popular and still credible in the small-car segment after four years in the local market. Topping up the warranty cover to five years has been a smart move – albeit a belated one.

The Cerato benefits from not being an incumbent. In as much as a relatively conservative design can be fresh and exciting, the Kia hits that target.

Initially, this was shaping up to be a tough decision. But realistically, the Cerato’s seven-year warranty is a trump hand, even with Mazda catching up. Local chassis tuning for the Cerato over-vroooms Mazda’s zoom-zoom. And the Kia wins with slightly better packaging and extra kit of the kind that buyers want – Apple CarPlay, auto headlights and the added safety gear.

It’s the Cerato for us.

How much does the 2018 Kia Cerato S sedan cost?

Price: $20,510 (as tested, plus on-road costs)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Output: 112kW/192Nm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel: 7.6L/100km (ADR Combined); 7.4L/100km (as tested)
CO2: 174g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety rating: TBA

How much does the 2018 Mazda3 Neo Sport cost?

Price: $22,490 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Output: 114kW/200Nm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel: 5.7L/100km (ADR Combined); 7.6L/100km (as tested)
CO2: 134g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety rating: Five-star ANCAP (2016)