Toyota Corolla vs Mazda3 vs VW Golf: best small cars battle
THERE is a lot of hype around SUVs but hatchbacks are still our second most popular choice of 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 Corolla's new higher starting price of $27,900 drive-away. All three tested cost within $500 of each other.
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 airconditioning, 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 centre console and the audio control dials and buttons nearby are easier to use than similar arrangements in luxury cars.
Rear seat space is snug, with just a fraction of room between occupants' knees and the pew in front - it's only marginally better than the Corolla but there is room for toes under the front seats. Boot space is smaller than average but not as tiny as the Toyota's cargo hold.
On the road the Mazda3 really shines, with smooth, precise and light steering plus good roadholding - and suspension that doesn't jar over bumps.
However, the tyres 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.
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 line-up 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, rear air vents and rear door pockets (the other two have only drink holders).
It may not be the most modern looking interior these days but 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 biggest cargo hold. Rear passengers have a few centimetres of extra knee room.
The large window area means outward vision is good. Seven airbags and autonomous emergency braking are standard but radar cruise control (with stop-start in traffic), blind zone warning and rear cross traffic alert are part of a $1500 option pack.
Still the benchmark when it comes to ride and handling, the Golf soaks up bumps and thumps with aplomb. The steering is direct without being too sharp.
Its Continental tyres are quieter than the Mazda and Toyota rubber by some margin.
Overall, the Golf is a more relaxed drive, possibly due in part to the engine not being overworked.
Despite the smaller capacity, its turbo produces 25 per cent 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 first gear when you release the brake pedal from rest but is fast and smooth once on the move.
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. It even detects the "40" signs on the back of buses. It could save your licence, if not your life.
A digital speedo is a welcome addition and the tablet-style 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 tight knee room and not much storage space. The boot is smaller than that of a Yaris hatch.
This Corolla clearly favours 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 criticised the grip of the eco tyres 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 tyres apart, it's the most fun-to-drive Corolla to date.
The Corolla has the most comprehensive safety tech, 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 but more advanced aids are available for a small added cost.
PRICE $27,490 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 5 years/unlimited, 10,000km/12 month intervals, service cost over 3 years $1402
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 114kW/200Nm
SAFETY 6 airbags, front and rear autonomous braking, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, rear camera and sensors, 5-star rating
SPARE Space saver
Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport
PRICE $27,900 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 years/100,000km, 15,000km/12 month intervals, service cost over 3 years $525
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 125kW/200Nm
SAFETY 7 airbags, autonomous emergency braking, radar cruise control, blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane keeping assistance, speed sign recognition, rear camera, 5-star rating
SPARE Full size
VW Golf 110TSI Trendline
PRICE $27,990 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 years/unlimited km, 15,000km/12 month intervals, service cost over 3 years $1258
ENGINE Turbo 1.4-litre 4-cyl, 110/250Nm
SAFETY 7 airbags, autonomous emergency braking, front and rear sensors, rear camera
SPARE Space saver