Due to certain circumstances, this author was granted the chance to successively experience two up-to-date (rental) cars up close. The resultant findings led to conclusions not just regarding the (de)merits of each vehicle, but the modern automobile in general.
Just a few days after having returned the rental VW Tiguan, it was time to head back to the counter for yet another go at the Rental Car Lottery. After my partner and I had turned out to be less than smitten with VW’s core SUV offering, I had – again – made an attempt at guessing what fate the car rental’s key cabinet would have in store for us this time around. My (figurative) money had been on the VW T-Roc.
As we’d booked a ‘Golf category’ car, I was expecting to be proven right yet again (and pondering a second career as clairvoyant) when the courteous gentleman behind the counter turned around from the filing cabinet, sporting a bit of a grimace. ‘You booked a Golf, right? Well, I have… a Mazda 3 Diesel Automatic for you.’
He certainly needn’t have looked as apologetic, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been an admirer of Mazda’s ‘Kodo’ form language for some time and found the brand’s designers and spokespeople among the more pleasant members of the automotive industry I’ve so far come across. So why not actually drive one of their products for a change? For these reasons, and because it’s no VW SUV, I was very much looking forward to getting acquainted.
The icing on top of this Japanese rental car cake soon turned out to be its colour: Soul Red Crystal. For despite its overblown monicker, this luscious, deep, yet vivid hue of metallic red must rank among the most pleasant of signature colours currently available, this side of Alpina’s delightful opalescent green.
However, the moment the Mazda 3 showed its true colours was when I twirled its steering wheel for the first time. For even within the confines of an underground car park, the 3 proudly betrayed how much attention had been spent on getting its controls right.
So the steering wheel – perfectly sized, down to the diameter of its rim – acted as a channel of proper, physical communication and interaction with the car and the road. The brakes, which appear limp compared with the VW Tiguan’s at first, turn out to be expertly calibrated, allowing for delicate and progressive use (rather than abrupt on/off operations).
So what, on paper, should be a handsome, but dated also-ran, quickly turned out to be a proper joy. Even its least enticing feature – that diesel engine – was clearly superior to the Tiguan’s power unit, certainly in terms of driver enjoyment. Apart from its expected lack of low speed refinement (probably also due to less insulation being fitted, compared to the VW) and surprisingly lacklustre fuel consumption figure (just a litre less diesel per 100 kilometres than the heavier, taller SUV’s petrol average), it must be said.
For all her wonderful qualities and traits, my partner is also a bit of a badge snob – and hence the kind of person who would’ve reacted to the rental car station clerk’s news the way he so obviously anticipated. And indeed, she wasn’t bowled over with joy when I told her about our Japanese companion as I picked her (and the dog) up before we set off in the direction of northeast Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
For that reason, I expected to be spending far more time behind the Mazda’s steering wheel than the VW’s. Yet, as it turned out, fine handling is stronger than badge snobbery. So even before we’d left Hamburg behind us, my better half expressed a genuine appreciation of the 3 – at least in terms of how it drove. And that was before she had to avoid a piece of cargo a lorry had just lost at 150 kph, to which the Mazda responded with astonishing aplomb (unlike the Jaguar behind us that crashed right into it).
In many ways, the Mazda turned out to be an old-fashioned product indeed. It had obviously been created with driving and the driver in mind, which lent it a sophistication in that area that was in a different league to the Tiguan’s anodyne, dispassionate approach to the subject matter. Even its ride was no worse than the German bestseller’s, just as its boot was not significantly smaller than the SUV’s.
These Mazda iDrive-like infotainment and safety assistant systems were far simpler too (but did all we asked of them), down to the old school matrix displays next to the physical gauges in front of the driver. The one feature the VW lacked though was a head-up display, where the Mazda also showed current speed limits – albeit without the nannying flashing when those limits are exceeded by the driver.
The only aural warning we were ever exposed to was in relation to the blind spot monitoring system (which is one of the few such driver aids I unreservedly approve of), which would emit a noise if one was turning the wheel in the direction of an incoming obstacle. Given this sensible programming, we were never tempted to switch it off.
So the Mazda quickly turned out to be a likeable car indeed. And that’s even before discussing its looks.
Astonishingly, the current generation of Mazdas, despite having always been attractive, benefitted significantly from their respective mid-life facelifts – in the 3’s case too. Even the matrix front grille graphics, which usually appear ever so slightly gimmicky and cheap work a treat here. Chrome and creases do add a whiff of flamboyance to what is, after all, just another Golf class car, but all these touches are applied in such measured, competent style that the end result is simply a good looking, zestful piece of automotive design, rather than a blingtastic showcase of overdone design cues à la previous generation Mercedes A-class. The Mazda3 stands out for the right reasons, rather than for the sake of it.
The Mazda’s interior cannot keep up with this, however. Some of the plastics’ textures and fittings are not as neat as they could be, whereas the use of shiny black, pseudo piano lacquer plastic on some surfaces is both uninspired and unnecessarily adds a false aspirational flair. This is all the more surprising as the dark satin grey used elsewhere is far more interesting and inspired.
As it stands though, there are too many different materials to be found inside the 3’s cabin, which, apart from that main caveat, is generally well laid out, down to the decent seats. Surprisingly, outward visibility turned out to be no poorer than with the Tiguan either.
After a few pleasant days by the Baltic Sea’s coast, some spirited country road and motorway driving (and one refuelling stop too many, which must be blamed on both fuel consumption and the small fuel tank), the Mazda 3 returned to the underground car park where I had picked it up a few days prior.
In certain ways, and after the disillusionment exposure to the Tiguan had brought about earlier, the Mazda reinstated why I am fond of the automobile in the first place, flaws and all. For this was a machine that helped improve the time I had to spend with and in it, for it not only carried us from A to B in safety, but catered to particular desires through its excellent handling and delightful controls.
The Mazda 3 is a car that interacts, that ‘talks’ to the driver. In today’s environment, one could almost forget about this automotive trait.
Of course, this kind of ‘driver’s car’ is unlikely to represent the future of the automobile. Hopefully though, the VW Tiguan’s strict, yet barely competent nanny approach to motoring doesn’t do so either.
But here’s hoping that Mazda can somehow continue to make cars like this for some time, even if the customer group of keen drivers may well diminish. After all, pleasing a smaller group of people is preferable to serving a large, indifferent crowd. Or is it not?
The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at