WANT TO KNOW IF JAPANESE STYLE AND SOPHISTICATION HAS EDGE OVER EUROPEAN REFINEMENT? SO DID WE ...
This is a big one: Japan v Europe, Driven’s 2013 Car of the Year v the 2014 winner.
The Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf are the most important global models for their respective manufacturers. They are also arch-rivals in this country. VW has priced the latest Golf to go head-to-head with mainstream models; Mazda has become a truly aspirational brand with its new-generation models, which have the style and sophistication to take on the Europeans.
Both cars also happen to be NZ COTY winners, as voted by the NZ Motoring Writers Guild (including Driven’s motoring staff and contributors) and Automobile Association. Golf won in 2013 while Mazda3 is the reigning champion.
We’ve chosen top-of-the-range models for this comparison, which blend luxury with sporting aspiration. The Mazda3 SP25 (that’s Sports Package, 2.5-litre) Limited is top-specification for the local range. The VW Golf R-Line is as high as you can go without actually crossing over into pure performance territory with the GTI and R models. It’s based on the Golf Highline, but has a sports package of its own with the optional R-Line trim added.
The Mazda3 is the most expensive with a price of $47,495. Add the R-Line package to the Golf and you pay $43,990. We could equally have chosen the non-Limited Mazda SP25 at $41,395, but the flagship model has no problem justifying its price. Both Mazda3 and Golf are also the most important expressions of new-generation platform technology for their makers. The SP25 employs SkyActiv hardware, which focuses on lightweight construction and low-friction powertrains. The latest Golf is designed around VW’s MQB platform, which will underpin every small-medium model from the group for the foreseeable future.
The Mazda3 and VW Golf are the most important global models for their respective manufacturers. They are also arch-rivals in this country.
Both SP25 and R-Line are available as diesels but we’ve chosen the more popular petrol versions. The engines illustrate the very different approaches of these two companies.
VW is a master of downsizing and the Golf’s 1.4-litre turbo engine makes an impressive 103kW. Mazda engineers talk of the SkyActiv ethos of “rightsizing”, so the SP25 gets a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre that makes 138kW. Torque is exactly the same for both, though: 250Nm. The Mazda is faster to 100km/h at 7.8sec v the VW’s 8.4sec. But the R-Line makes an impression in terms of fuel efficiency, with average consumption of 5 litres per 100km compared with the SP25’s 6 litres.
To drive, they are very different in character. The Mazda’s engine builds in aggression as you ascend the rev range and is matched to a conventional six-speed automatic. The VW’s powerplant is linear but prefers to race around the mid-range, thanks to its seven-speed automated dual-clutch (DSG) transmission.
The Golf’s extra ratio is there for rolling acceleration rather than cruising ability: top gear in both cars is virtually identical, sitting just below 2000rpm at 100km/h. You also get a Sport setting for the DSG, although it can feel manic in urban driving. Nice double-declutch downchanges, though.
The Golf is a clear winner on refinement, with superior noise, vibration and harshness management and a cosseting ride, even on the sports suspension and 18-inch alloys that come with the R-Line package.
But it’s no match for the Mazda in terms of sporting character. The ride is firmer and the steering has more substance than the VW’s. There’s more understeer in the SP25 than the R-Line but also more communication with the road surface and less body roll. While the Golf requires smooth driving, the Mazda3 will happily adjust its cornering attitude according to the throttle.
The SP25 Limited is unrivalled for driver-assistance and active safety aids. It has adaptive cruise control, which will automatically keep you the correct distance from the car in front, autonomous braking at city speeds, bi-xenon lights with automatic high-beam control and bending function, lane guidance, blind-spot warning and cross-traffic alert — a handy radar-based feature that will warn you of vehicles approaching from the rear when reversing out of a parking space or driveway.
The Golf R-Line has none of that. Some of these options appear on the options list for the Golf range, so to put that equipment in context let’s consider bi-xenon headlights with curve function ($3000) and adaptive cruise control with city braking ($1250). That’s $4250, which theoretically takes the R-Line beyond the price of the SP25 Limited before we’ve even considered the interior equipment.
Speaking of which: the Golf gets quite a cabin dress-up in R-Line trim, with a special steering wheel, sports seats with grippy microfibre upholstery, special trim inserts and stainless steel pedals/scuff plates. The cabin styling is conservative but it’s beautifully finished, with a wealth of soft-touch materials.
The SP25 adopts a more radical look, with dark tones and an instrument panel dominated by the rev counter.
You don’t get the same impression of sheer quality as you do in the R-Line, but it’s a lot more interesting and certainly very sporty. The MZD Connect touch-screen system, with its crisp graphics and excellent connectivity (including internet radio and social media), also shows the Golf’s infotainment system the way to go — although we do like the way the graphics on the Golf screen pop into view as your finger gets close.
The SP25 Limited betters the Golf R-Line with leather upholstery, power seat adjustment and keyless entry/start.
Again, these are all equipment items that exist in the Golf universe, but together they’d cost another $6000.
Having said that, the R-Line’s sports seats are more comfortable and supportive than the SP25 Limited’s leather chairs.
It’s the other way around in the back, with the Mazda offering better seat-shape and more legroom courtesy of an extra 63mm in the wheelbase.
However, Golf passengers will appreciate the ventilation outlets in the rear; the Mazda3 has no such feature.
Practicality goes the Golf’s way, with a boot that has a clever dual-height floor.
In normal position it gives you a flat load-through to the folded rear seats, but you can also drop it down a notch to maximise cargo volume. Ultimately it’s more spacious than its rival: 380 litres versus the Mazda3’s rather modest 308 litres.