Should I Buy a Volkswagen Golf or a Mazda3?

QUESTION

I want to spend around $30,000 on a new car, have driven test Golf Highline and Mazda SP25GT. I would prefer leather upholstery. Loved the ride and engine response in the Volkswagen Golf Highline. The Mazda3 SP25 GT was nicely optioned but left me a little flat with its ride. Not really sure what car to go for. Any suggestions on makes and models in my price range?

ANSWER

Here are three different car options below, plus an assessment following.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF
Highline
$32,790 (rrp)

2014 Volkswagen Golf a.jpg

Safety: five-star
Manufactured: Germany
Seats: five
Engine: 1.4-litre petrol 4cyl
Induction: Turbocharged, direct injection
Power: 103kW @ 4500-6000rpm
Torque: 250Nm @ 1500-3500rpm
Fuel: 95 RON unleaded
Economy: 5.2L/100km
Transmission: 7sp DSG
Length: 4.349m
Width: 1.799m
Height: 1.491m
Kerb weight: 1265kg
Towing: 1400kg
Tyres: 225/45R17 on 7-inch alloy
Spare tyre: Space saver
Warranty: 3yrs/100,000km

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

8-speaker audio
Dual-zone climate air con
Bluetooth
Reversing camera
No proximity key with pushbutton start
Engine stop/start in traffic
No bi-xenon headlamps
Part leather trim
Rain-sensing wipers
No sunroof ($1850 option)

MAZDA3
SP25 GT
$32,590 (rrp)

2014 Mazda3 SP25 a.jpg

Safety: five-star
Manufactured: Japan
Seats: five
Engine: 2.5-litre petrol 4cyl
Induction: Atmospheric, direct injection
Power: 138kW @ 5700rpm
Torque: 250Nm @ 3250rpm
Fuel: 91 RON unleaded
Economy: 6.1L/100km
Transmission: 6sp Auto
Length: 4.46m
Width: 1.795m
Height: 1.47m
Kerb weight: 1357kg
Towing: 1200kg
Tyres: 215/45R18 on 7-inch alloy
Spare tyre: Space saver
Warranty: 3yrs/100,000km

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

9-speaker audio
Dual-zone climate air con
Bluetooth
Reversing camera
Proximity key with pushbutton start
Engine stop/start in traffic
Bi-xenon headlamps
Part leather trim
Rain-sensing wipers
No sunroof ($2900 option)

HYUNDAI i30
SR
$30,190 (rrp)

2014 Hyundai i30 SR a.jpg

Safety: five-star
Manufactured: South Korea
Seats: five
Engine: 2.0-litre petrol 4cyl
Induction: Atmospheric, direct injection
Power: 129kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 209Nm @ 4700rpm
Fuel: 91 RON unleaded
Economy: 7.5L/100km
Transmission: 6sp Auto
Length: 4.3m
Width: 1.78m
Height: 1.471m
Kerb weight: 1380kg
Towing: 1300kg
Tyres: 225/45R17 on 7-inch alloy
Spare tyre: Full-sized alloy
Warranty: 5yrs/unlimited km

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

6-speaker audio
Dual-zone climate air con
Bluetooth
Reversing camera
Proximity key with pushbutton start
No engine stop/start in traffic
HID headlamps
Part leather trim
Rain-sensing wipers
No sunroof ($2000 option)

Specifications & equipment according to Redbook.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF

The Golf is a beautiful car that drives really well but is plagued by systemic reliability issues. Volkswagen owners thus fall into two camps - the (larger camp) totally satisfied and really chuffed camp of people who love their Golfs and the (smaller camp) of monumentally pissed-off owners whose cars are defective, often resist being fixed and suffer long delays awaiting parts supplied from Germany. It doesn’t help that the dealer network has a reputation for not giving a stuff if you’re in the second camp.

There are too many people in Camp 2 to discount the possibility that you might easily be one of them if you buy a Golf. There’s a disproportionately high rate of defects in Volkswagens, although not all are defective. Most are not, but it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette with too many chambers loaded.

As you can see above, the Golf is seriously down on peak power but it compensates by what people call mid-range torque (they really mean low-rpm power) - that's thanks to the turbo. The reality is, the Mazda will out-accelerate the Golf, but the Golf will feel strong at mid-revs.

Volkswagen really doesn't do itself any favours on the specification level, either. Space saver spare tyres are a disaster for Australian owners. No bi-xenon or LED projector headlamps is a joke compared to the other two, and the DSG transmission is great for spirited driving, but it's a reliability hand grenade for the company as well as awful to drive in traffic. The requirement to feed it premium unleaded fuel isn't a great option, either.

Volkswagen should up the warranty immediately to match Hyundai ... but this would involve admitting they have a reliability problem, which they appear disinclined to do, philosophically. (That Teutonic mindset.)

MAZDA3

Mazda doesn’t have the same reliability problems as Volkswagen (quite the opposite) but the Mazda3 is a bit high on the road noise front and i-Stop (the auto engine shutdown and re-start in traffic) is appalling. You can disable i-Stop as you drive (by holding a button under the RH air vent) but its default state on start up, every time you get in the car, is ‘on’. Designing it like that is monumentally conceited of Mazda’s engineers, in my view.

The power delivery of the Mazda's 2.5-litre direct injection engine will murder the Golf if you're having a real go (33% more peak power at lower revs will do that...) And the space-saver spare is a less-than-perfect inclusion in an otherwise good car. Apart from those criticisms, I love the Mazda3. (And remember, no car is perfect.)

It's easy to see why the Mazda3 is in a photo finish with Corolla as Australia's most popular car. 

HYUNDAI i30 SR

2014 Hyundai i30 SR 2.jpg

Obviously you haven't considered this car - the Hyundai i30 SR is still a bit of a secret, but a really impressive one from a consumer standpoint. Frankly, I really like the Hyundai i30 SR. It can't match the Mazda or the Golf on torque output, but it's a real deliverer on power, compared with the Golf. That means it'll kill the Golf in sheer acceleration, but at 2000-3000rpm, the Golf will walk away with it. 

The Hyundai i30 SR has a strong direct injection engine has 20 per cent less capacity than the Mazda, it drinks the same fuel, and it delivers only seven per cent less power (admittedly at 14 per cent more revs). On the torque front, it's pretty much a pro-rated delivery as well, based on engine capacity.

Hyundai spent a lot of time and effort on locally-tuning the i30 SR's suspension for Australian conditions, and they did a good job. The end result is one of the best-riding hot hatches for Australian conditions - well in front of the Mazda3 on ride quality and noise, vibration and harshness.

From a practical point of view, the Hyundai i30 SR is a compelling ownership proposition: full-sized alloy spare wheel and tyre (meaning: no 80km/h limit if you get a flat on the freeway, 200km from home). Also this is a huge advantage if you biff the kerb (typically with the front left wheel). You have a spare - literally - that you can whip out and replace it with. (Bear in mind you can do this only once.) Many full-sized spares in other marques are steel wheels.

The warranty is also a real plus for anyone who wants to own the car longer than three years, and also for high-mileage drivers. The i30 SR is the most compact of the three vehicles. (But only by a slim margin on the Golf.) That's good to know if your parking situation is cramped.

OTHER COMPETITORS

Let's leave the small car sales back markers out of the race - there really are no hidden gems out there (great cars that don't sell, waiting to be discovered). Here are some that sell in significant numbers, which I rate as 'don't buy' propositions for you. 

Holden Cruze: Don't buy

This would have to be one of Australia's worst cars. Multiple safety recalls here and globally, and appalling reliability, anecdotally. As an ownership proposition, this is the top car to steer hardest away from - and plenty of buyers are doing exactly that. Sales nosedived spectacularly in 2014 - down a massive 24 per cent from 24,421 in 2013 to just 18,554 in 2014. (Cruze sales were nearly 34,000 in 2011 - that's a monumental fall from grace in just four years.) This has occurred despite a range of price cuts and extensions of the model range. So at least the market is becoming savvy to the fact that there is much better buying around the place. The fallout from Holden's appalling failure to sustain local manufacturing despite its willingness to accept billions in taxpayer funding on the implicit understanding that this was exactly what it would do, has also had a profound impact on the brand's popularity. Holden, like Ford (below) is slinking quietly out the back door of contemporary obscurity as a result - total Holden domestic sales have fallen from 178,000 units in 2004 to 106,000 in 2014 - a fall of 40 per cent in a decade, in a market that's climbed from 960,000 to 1.11 million sales. And of course, with the new grill and styling treatment, the 2015 Holden Cruze is even uglier. Like, if that's the solution, I'll eat my hat...

Ford Focus:
Don't buy

2014 Ford Focus.jpg

The problem with the Focus is: It's just not up there with Mazda3, et. al. It's spectacularly un-focussed, among segment leaders that aren't. Ford has spent the past few years shooting itself in the foot nicely. Focus sales fell by a staggering 21.2 per cent last year alone - much more than the company's overall nine per cent sales slide in 2014. Ford is a basket case that is increasingly on the nose to Australian buyers because of the failure of the factory locally, after consuming untold millions in taxpayer funding. Ford was selling 129,000 vehicles in Australia 2005. A decade later, as 2014 closed off the books, they just missed selling 80,000. In the same time, the market grew from 988,000 sales to 1.1 million. This is emblematic of Ford's failures in the US and globally - they just stopped listening to what their customers wanted. Extreme corporate hubris took over, and is still in play.

Honda Civic:
Don't buy

2014 Honda Civic.jpg

Remember when Honda was the BMW of the Orient? That would've been the mid-1990s. That was then; this is now. The Honda of today is a very different company compared with the pre-GFC Honda. Honda got smashed by the GFC, and the Tohoku tsunami didn't help. As a consequence, R&D expenditure flatlined, and Honda's product lineup today can't match competitors. Civic is a shadow of its former self, compared with its relative merits a decade ago. Honda managed more than 60,000 sales in 2007. Last year (2014) all it could achieve here was just shy of 33,000 - the brand has almost halved in popularity in eight years. And that slump shows no sign of abatement, with last year representing a 16 per cent fall in sales locally for this once-great engineering powerhouse. Civic sales fell a staggering 45 per cent last year alone - down from 14,261 in 2013 to 7878 in 2014. Unbelievable.

Mitsubishi Lancer:
Don't buy

2014 Mitsubishi Lancer.jpg

Mitsubishi is another spectacular non-performing Japanese carmaker in the 21st Century. The product range - mainly Triton, Pajero, Challenger, and Lancer date back almost to the time when engineering design, research and development was carved on clay tablets, and Noah was getting plans for the ark direct from God. The current Lancer dates back to design fundamentals first released in 2007. We're talking five-speed manual transmissions (which are, these days, museum exhibits) in a geriatric platform. In any case, there's a big gap in the Mitsubishi Lancer lineup - no real sporty entrant exists to slot alongside the Mazda3 SP25 GT or the Hyundai i30 SR. It's a stretch of several thousand dollars to the Ralliart Lancer - a completely different proposition with all-wheel drive and 2.0-litre turbocharged motivation - and even then, you'd be buying a Subaru WRX every time. Every time.

Toyota Corolla:
Too uninspiring

2014 Toyota Corolla.jpg

Toyota is a powerhouse with the phenomenal ability to read the market and deliver what people in great proportion actually want. They are brilliant at it, and they own the lion's share of car sales in Australia - 18.3 per cent of the market in 2014. The Corolla leads the market with about 44,000 sales, a repeat of its 2013 performance. Corolla is incredibly popular ... but not that sporty or engaging. It's got the look, but if you want a car that excites, you're not going to find it in this pillar of mainstream motoring. The hatch range tops out with the $30,740 (rrp) Corolla Levin, a 1.8-litre four with a CVT that produces the same power as the Golf above but at 6400rpm, and only 173Nm of torque. It's got the look, and it's well appointed, but if you're in the market for an engaging, spirited drive, you're shopping in the wrong place. Move on spirited drivers; nothing for you to see here...except perhaps the Toyota 86.

MORE CAR ADVICE