COMPARISON TEST: Australia’s best small car revealed
LOST in a tide of popular hatchbacks and high-riding crossovers, small sedans can be easy to forget - even if they make a lot of sense.
Cheaper than SUVs and often more accommodating than their five-door cousins, compact sedans represent a logical if unfashionable choice for many motorists.
With the arrival of a new Mazda 3 sedan - a couple of months after the more popular hatchback model - we thought it was time to revisit the sensible shoes of the new-car market.
Lined up against the Mazda is the underrated Civic RS and Hyundai's new-look Hyundai Elantra Sport, which is essentially the sedan version of the i30 hatch.
Hyundai Elantra Sport Premium
A quick look at the specs sheet reveals a degree of athletic intent in the Elantra Sport. Its 1.6-litre turbo engine is the most powerful here, sending 150kW and 265Nm to the tarmac through a dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Intricate 18-inch alloys, faux carbon fibre and a flat-bottomed steering wheel with shift paddles make a strong impression in the showroom. There is plenty of legroom but less headroom in the Elantra compared to its rivals, and the rear seats are firmer than expected.
Hit the road and it feels noticeably punchier than the Honda or Mazda, helped by superior torque and a quick-shifting auto. But the transmission is less convincing on a spirited drive, when it can struggle to choose the right gears.
Determined grip from premium Michelin tyres gives the Elantra an advantage over most rivals, though it can feel overly stiff on bumpy roads. There's a fidgety element to the Hyundai's suspension which enthusiasts might tolerate, but as with its i30 N-Line hatchback twin, the compromise between sportiness and comfort could be better.
Hyundai differs from the Cerato GT offered by its Kia cousin by choosing not to pipe simulated engine noise into the cabin, resulting in a quieter if less theatrical cockpit.
The cabin is well appointed, with red-stitched black leather trim, heated seats, a sunroof and other niceties. An 8-inch infotainment system brings Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, along with satnav, a reversing camera and parking sensors for the front and rear.
That's enough kit to warrant Hyundai's asking price of $33,990 plus on-roads, which translates to a little more than $35,000 drive-away. Customers who want to save $2500 can plump for non-premium versions of the Elantra Sport, though they will miss out on gear such as the sunroof.
Honda Civic RS
As with Hyundai, Honda takes a slightly sporty approach with the Civic RS. Though it isn't an RS in the same sense as hot hatches from Ford, Renault or Audi, the Civic brings a touch of attitude with black 18-inch alloys wrapped in the same Michelins as the Hyundai, plus sporty interior accoutrements.
Powered by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo engine with 127kW and 220Nm outputs, the Civic drives the front wheels through an elastic-feeling CVT automatic transmission. It's the only auto here which doesn't use traditional gears, resulting in doughy responses which blunt the engine's efforts.
Smooth around town and fine in day-to-day driving, the CVT might frustrate keen drivers, or those accustomed to more common transmissions. Beyond that, the Civic is great to drive with confidence-inspiring brakes, composed suspension and lightning-fast steering.
You steer the Civic with wrists as opposed to biceps, guiding it with precise movement that makes it a more rewarding proposition than most small cars. There's heaps of grip from the rubber, a more comfortable ride than the Hyundai and a throaty growl from the engine under load.
On the inside, Civic is by far the roomiest here, with plenty of storage options and a truly cavernous 517 litres of boot capacity. It has the comfiest rear seats but the Thai-built sedan can't match the Mazda's interior presentation, and it's let down by a 7-inch infotainment system with no satnav.
Priced from $31,990 plus on-road costs, the Honda matches the Hyundai and Mazda with a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. Buy before June 30 and you'll get an extra two years of coverage, free roadside assistance, CTP insurance and the first year's rego.
You'll also have an extra dollar in your pocket after five years of servicing, with the Honda coming in at $1405 for five years or 50,000 kilometres of maintenance, just $1 less than the Hyundai and $153 less than the Mazda.
Honda addressed a key flaw in the Civic with a midlife update that made autonomous braking, active cruise control and lane keeping assistance standard for 2019 - they had been missing in action.
Mazda3 G20 Touring
Safety is a key selling point for the new Mazda3 sedan. Every model grade is stacked with driver aids such as front and rear auto braking and active cruise control. The hatch even set a new benchmark in independent crash tests for front occupant protection, besting even luxury models.
There's more than a touch of luxury to the Mazda3. It's the quietest model here, thanks to fanatical attention to detail from the company's engineers. Roundly criticised in the past for excessive road noise, the new Mazda3 is now one of the quietest cars in its class.
It also feels more luxurious than the Honda or Hyundai, with soft-touch materials and clever technical solutions that separate it from the crowd. A head-up display and high-mounted, 8.8-inch widescreen infotainment display help keep your eyes on the road, and a rotary remote controller near the gear selector means you don't have to stretch to touch the display.
That's impressive stuff from a car which costs $29,990 plus on-roads - just under $33,000 drive-away. Spend an extra $1500 and you'll get front parking sensors (standard on the other two cars) along with a 360-degree camera, front cross-traffic alert and driver monitoring system you won't find on its rivals.
Rear occupants get their own air vents (absent in the Honda) and far superior vision to the Mazda3 hatch, which has a coupe-like glasshouse. Factor in a reasonably generous 444 litres of storage space and you can make a strong argument in favour of the four-door Mazda3.
Downsides? A carry-over 2.0-litre engine must be worked hard to deliver only 114kW and 200Nm. It lacks the effortless thrust of turbo rivals, but impresses with fuel use of just 6.1L/100km, the best figure here. Buyers who want more grunt can spend a little extra to get hold of a 2.5-litre engine, or wait for a thrifty and supercharged Skyactiv-X model due before the end of the year.
Sweet to steer, the new 3 brings impressive balance if less ultimate grip than the other two cars, something attributable to hard-wearing Bridgestone rubber. It soaks up bumps well and knows how to handle a bend, but doesn't pretend to be a sports car.
All three cars represent worthy alternatives to five-door hatchbacks and SUVs. New kit makes the Honda Civic worth more than a second glance, and drivers who want big-car grunt could do a lot worse than choosing Hyundai's Elantra Sport. But the Mazda wins this battle because it's the safest, best-equipped and most polished on the road.
Mazda3 Touring vitals
Price: From $29,990 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/unlimited km, $1558 over 5 years/50,000km
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 114kW/200Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 7 airbags, rear camera, rear sensors, front and rear AEB, adaptive cruise, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert.
Honda Civic RS vitals
Price From $31,990 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 7 years/unlimited km (until June 30), $1405 for 5 years/50,000km
Engine: 1.5-litre 4-cyl turbo, 127kW/220Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags, AEB, adaptive cruise, lane keeping assistance
Hyundai Elantra Sport Premium vitals
Price: From $33,990 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/unlimited km, $1406 for 5 years/50,000km
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo, 150kW/265Nm
Safety: Five stars, 6 airbags, AEB, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert