Tiers of joy - Mazda 3 SP25 v Golf 118TSI

The word 'compromised' is an essential verb in the supercar road test lexicon, but nowhere is it less useful than here. Meet Mazda's 3 and Volkswagen's Golf. The former has, in just one generation, become a third-place regular in the Aussie passenger car sales charts, and even climbed to number one in January this year. The latter has built a devoted following and iconic status in its native Europe over five generations, and has a smaller, but no less loyal following here.

They've both done so by firmly establishing themselves as do-it-all hatched-back (and sedan, in the case of the Mazda), four-door, five-seat transport with enough driver appeal to satisfy the enthusiast. In short, by demonstrating a remarkable absence of that nasty 'c' word.
Just $200 separates the list prices of this newly-released pair, the sixth-generation Golf 118TSI Comfortline manual ($30,690) and the second-generation Mazda 3 SP25 manual hatchback ($30,490). You're buying a lot of car for your $30K in either case, but in the Golf you trade-off some of the equipment you get in the richly-appointed Mazda.

The Japanese hatch gets a mild bodykit, 17-inch alloys, metallic paint, front foglights, six-disc in-dash CD, sat-nav and Bluetooth phone/audio. Its German counterpart charges $700 extra for metallic paint and to get 17s and front foglights (with cornering function) you need to tick the $2000 Sports pack option as worn by our test car, which also buys you sports suspension, front sport seats, tinted windows, and a low tyre pressure indicator system.

In its favour, the Golf scores some desirable standard features not found in the SP25, including a driver's knee airbag, rain-sensing wipers, a chilled glovebox, auto up/down on all windows, and adjustable a/c vents and overhead reading lights in the rear.

In addition to the Sports pack and metallic paint, as tested our Golf featured the $1500 adaptive chassis control pack (including three-stage adaptive dampers), and the $1800 Dynaudio premium sound system, taking its total price to $36,690.

The 3 was fitted with the Luxury pack, which adds leather trim and Bose sound, and also had the optional glass tilt/slide sunroof. This combo costs $4000, bringing the SP25 to $34,490.

Continuing the value comparisons, the Golf's 62.5 percent three-year Redbook resale rating is almost identical to the Mazda 3 SP25's 63 percent figure.

In the fuel-cost stakes they're remarkably even, too. The Golf (at 7.6L/100km) drank around 13 percent less than the Mazda (at 8.7L/100km) but calls for 98 octane juice, at about 13 percent more expensive (on test) than the Mazda's required 91RON. Where 98 isn't available, the Golf will accept 95 octane premium.

Their paths to power, however, set them apart. The Golf uses supercharging and turbocharging to pump its 1.4-litre four up to 118kW. The Mazda's big 2.5-litre twin-cam four inhales air at atmospheric pressure and produces 122kW.

Despite their differences, the 80-to-120km/h in-gear acceleration times we recorded were close, the only noteworthy difference being in sixth, where the VW was around six percent quicker. However, the Golf's at an advantage in urban driving, making peak torque from 1750rpm to 4500rpm. The 3, meanwhile, builds progressively to a peak of 227Nm at 4000rpm. The fact the Golf's in that sweet, torquey zone so early in the rev range makes it feel faster in day-to-day driving, and that's something you appreciate often.

If their different modes of aspiration aren't evident in the performance numbers, they come through in each engine's distinctly different character. The SP25's 2.5-litre donk is a revvy operator. Good thing it sounds decently rorty, because in the Mazda the engine's an ever-present companion, allowing lots of noise to filter into the cabin.

However, it's as though the SP25's accelerator pedal is mapped via the electric throttle system for a non-linear relationship with the actual throttle - lots of throttle at small pedal angles, and only a bit more throttle at larger pedal angles. Although this makes the car initially feel lively, it can make the accelerator hard to modulate, and can make wide-open-throttle acceleration seem slightly disappointing. But despite confusing the senses, the Mazda actually pulls heartily from low revs and spins freely to peak power at 6000rpm.

The Golf's twin-charged four is near silent by comparison, so much so it's possible to get to fourth or fifth and forget you still have another cog or two to play with. Loaded-up at low-rpm (like, say, when doing a hill-start), there's a subtle diesel-like clatter, but progress into the meat of the rev range and it's all smooth, refined thrust and distant rort. The VW is also possessed of a well-damped gearshift action, with what feels like a shorter throw than the Mazda's. The 3 counters with a slick action and a positive mechanical movement into each gate.
In standing acceleration, they're again incredibly close. The Mazda needed 7.90sec to hit 100km/h from rest, and crossed the 400m mark in 15.67sec at 147.0km/h. The VW took 7.95sec and 15.68sec (at an identical terminal speed). Neither was particularly straightforward to launch, however, with wheel tramp a real issue.

Away from the strip and onto the open road, the Golf cruises at 110km/h in sixth at just under 2400rpm, meanwhile the 3 is doing just over 2600rpm.

So, the 3 is revvy, rorty and a bit on the noisy side; the Golf's torquey, cultured and hushed. They're equally quick-ish, but the Golf (just) gets the nod for flexibility

The SP25 is billed as a sporty hatch, but with VW's Sports pack optioned (as well as adaptive chassis control; which we tested in 'auto', rather than 'comfort' or 'sport') the Golf 118TSI is a good match in the twisties. Wheels' favoured ride/handling loop is a scything, gnarly slice of bitumen, and was more challenging than ever thanks to persistent rain (incidentally, the Golf's rain-sensing wipers proved to work perfectly, matching wipe speed to the immediate rainfall).

The initial impression is that the Mazda has more reactive steering, which gives a greater sense of agility than its rival. Steering kickback wasn't evident in either, and only the Golf experienced mild crash-through on a couple of occasions. Both tread a well-judged line between body control and absorbency for sports-suspended models, with unwanted oscillations only happening over larger bumps tackled at speed. On balance, although the Golf's steering feels a fraction inert alongside the alive 3, its extra ride quality and refinement are attributes most will appreciate more often.

It should be noted, however, that coarse-chip roads are met with significant tyre drone in both cars, despite Mazda's work on NVH and VW's claims MkVI is the quietest Golf ever.

Electronic stability control, a standard feature on both hatches, came into play at the extreme, but was never intrusive. Only very patchy sections of tarmac unsettled them, and only the tightest of corners were enough to invoke front slip.

Overall, the Mazda feels more agile; the Golf noticeably more comfortable. Both chassis are well-balanced and willing to be driven hard.

Each car's styling offers an accurate snapshot of its character. So, the adventurous second-generation 3 with its bulges and creases portrays its pointy, revvy personality. You certainly get a lot of 'design' for your small-Japanese-car-buck these days.

Alternatively, the Golf's conservative exterior reflects the relaxed nature of its powerplant and its refined manner. If the overall shape is undramatic, it should age well, and attention to detail like the hatch handle integrated into the rear badge, and the VW logo in the centre of each headlight, impresses.

If there are two different exterior approaches at play, it's a similar story inside. The Volkswagen's staid dash panel and instruments are in stark contrast to the 3's sweepingly modern design. Despite that, the Euro hatch offers a pervading sense of quality and class that the Mazda, with its seemingly cheaper plastics, can't quite match. The Golf's soft-touch tiller and gearshift knob, the chrome trim around the HVAC vents and the roll-a-lid on the storage compartment between the front seats (which contains the ubiquitous VW bottle opener) are examples of the small details that solidify this impression.

Its perceived quality mightn't measure up, but the 3 does, however, take the award for 'most buttons on a steering wheel', at 20-odd. The Mazda's (optional leather-trimmed) front pews also match its rival's optional sport seats for ergonomics in relation to the tiller, gear lever and pedals, though the terrifically snug and supportive optional Volkswagen sport seats win on outright comfort - they're some of the best factory seats available.

With the optional sound system box ticked on each hatch and snapper Mark Pakula, a self-confessed audiophile, on hand, a road test of the doof-doof variety was inevitable. As part of the Luxury pack on the SP25, it scores a Premium Bose system with 242-watt amplifier and 10 speakers (including a subwoofer mounted in the centre of the spare wheel - which is a space-saver in both cars, by the way).

The Volkswagen's Dynaudio (a well-regarded, Scandinavian brand) 300-watt audio package upgrades the Golf from a single disc in-dash unit to a six-stacker, and brings eight speakers.

With both systems cranked to 11, the Golf's impressed by immediately putting you on the sticky carpet of an indie pub, crisply reproducing guitar twangs and cymbal tinks, and kicking out solid bass. That said, you'd probably be entirely happy with the Mazda's system in isolation.

Rear accommodation is comparable, with similar head- and leg-room, however the Golf's boot is better fitted-out, with a ski-port, 12-volt socket, and a profusion of hooks and tie-downs.

So, which flavour: German or Japanese? Before you even sit in the Mazda 3 SP25 its eye-catching exterior has your attention, and the drive experience matches the sheetmetal, immersing the driver with sharp steering, a slick, mechanical gearshift and a gutsy, enthusiastic, if ultimately noisy, engine.

The conservative-looking Golf, meanwhile, offers tangibly better refinement and quality than its rival, and has an effortless gait thanks to its high-tech, torquey engine.

There's no loser here, but there is a car we'd prefer to own. The Golf's our pick because it does a better job in areas owners will appreciate every time they drive it. It's comfortable and classy, quiet and quick. And, when you're in the mood, entertaining enough to encourage driving for its own sake. The word 'compromised' simply doesn't apply.

Correction - Volkswagen Golf v Mazda 3 comparo

In the Volkswagen Golf 118TSI versus Mazda 3 SP25 comparo in our June issue, the 'Billed quality' breakout on page 91 describes what we (incorrectly) perceived to be a fault with the Golf's electric exterior mirrors.

As an understandably annoyed Volkswagen and a couple of owners have since pointed out, the behaviour of the mirrors (when we adjusted one mirror, the other mirror moved with it) is actually a long-standing feature on Golf and other Volkswagen models. The idea is, if a driver adjusts the driver's side mirror, the passenger's side mirror moves by the same angle. It's intended as a quick and easy means of adjusting to suit drivers of different dimensions. The mirrors can also be configured to adjust individually through a settings menu found in the car's multi-function display.

So, lesson learned. We're off to take a good hard look in the mirror(s).

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