Last year Mazda impressed the AutoGuide.com team with the compact 3 enough for us to name it the 2014 Car of the Year.
That decision hinged primarily on one thing: the Mazda3’s ability to not only represent a remarkable value within its segment, but to venture into more premium territory than the cars it competes with directly.
Get the Flash Player to see this player.
But for the 2015 model year, Volkswagen is fielding a car that challenges the Mazda3’s top dog position. The new Golf gains interior volume over the previous model, offers improved driving dynamics and radical new style. Wait, sorry. Scratch the last point. It looks almost EXACTLY like the MK6. It’s almost as if the company’s designers are pushing to see how little they can get away with changing on the body. Rather than getting a new haircut, the 2015 Golf settled for a light trim.
Then again, I rock khakis and a side part most days of the week, so who am I to criticize? In my opinion, both cars are perfectly attractive in person although the Mazda does look more aggressive.
If you sat in them back-to-back, you would notice massive differences immediately. The Golf cabin feels considerably more spacious and easier to see out of compared to the Mazda, but that added space comes at the sacrifice of how sporty the Mazda3 feels.
Maybe it’s the more heavily raked windshield or the A-pillars that are thicker – and more annoying to see past – that do it. Whatever the reason, the Mazda3 feels like it will be more fun to drive even before you get in.
Seeing out from the driver seat is considerably easier in the Golf than in the Mazda3. As the driver you also get more space in the VW than the Mazda and that’s something worth considering.
But there still isn’t any getting around how much fun the Mazda is to drive. The chassis is especially neutral and that makes it a particularly fun car to pitch into corners. The steering wheel gives you an accurate sense of where the car will be pointing a split second from the moment at hand and – equipped with the 2.5-liter engine – it also feels quick.
Unfortunately that also comes at a cost. The Mazda3 has a relatively stiff suspension that makes it fun, but less than leisurely over cracked pavement and potholes. I personally feel that the trade-off is worthwhile, but it’s also significant enough to mention here.
As you can probably guess the Golf is softer to ride in. Despite that, it still handles hard turns better than most cars in its segment thanks in part to VW porting the old GTI’s torque vectoring braking system over to this car. In other words, the new Golf will actually apply braking to the front inside wheel to reduce understeer. The new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is also a spectacular engine. It makes 170 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque.
Despite that, it still doesn’t feel as engaging to drive as the Mazda3, but it also has more space to accommodate passengers and cargo. Perhaps most importantly of all, it can carry both in greater volume than the Mazda3 without sacrificing comfort.
And then there’s fuel economy. The Mazda3 is officially supposed to offer better gas mileage with 27 mpg city, 37 highway or 31 MPG overall compared to the Golf at 26, 36 highway and 29 on average. During a side-by-side drive loop based mostly in stop-and-go traffic, the two cars averaged the same mileage.
Equipment and Features
And that’s where the Golf will probably either win or lose you. The Mazda3 isn’t small enough to be unusable, but its more heavily sloped body design means passengers in the back seat are more cramped. It also doesn’t have as much cargo space.
Volkswagen has a reputation for executing particularly well-built interiors and that hasn’t changed. Even still, the top-trim Grand Touring Mazda3 makes the Golf feel cheap. The leather Mazda uses is spectacular, the seats are well bolstered and the interior borrows shamelessly from premium German brands like Audi and Mercedes-Benz. For example, the volume dial sits on the center console with a similar layout to what you would find in an Audi product. There’s also a rotating dial to control the infotainment system that look like a close relative to Mercedes’ outgoing COMAND infotainment controls.
|Vehicle||2015 Mazda3||Advantage||2015 Volkswagen Golf|
|Engine||2.5L 4cyl||–||1.8L Turbo 4cyl|
|Transmission||6-speed automatic||Golf||6-speed DSG|
|Rear Seat Headroom||37.5 inches||Golf||38.4 inches|
|Cargo capacity||20.2 cubic feet||Golf||22.8 cubic feet|
To a certain extent, Mazda probably has an advantage because it can build an especially premium interior without worrying about pirating sales from plusher product portfolios within a parent company as VW might from Audi.
Rather than flying too close to the Audi A3 that the new Golf shares its bones with, the company equips it with a regrettably small touch screen and materials that don’t always feel as good in person as they look in photos. Specifically, the V-Tex leatherette is a letdown as is the “panoramic” sunroof that really isn’t large enough to justify its name.
If you choose to pay for it, Mazda also offers a “Tech Package” for $2,600 that adds adaptive cruise control, adaptive lighting, a lane departure warning system and active grille shutters along with Mazda’s i-ELOOP regenerative braking system that saves fuel by serving as a replacement to a traditional alternator. None of that is available on the Golf, but it also pushes the Mazda’s MSRP beyond the top-trim Golf SEL by more than $2,000.
But there’s a catch. Even though most of the Mazda3’s materials are as good or better than what you get in the Golf, it’s still designed to look like a sporty car. The Golf looks and feels more reserved and, well, German.
Our scoring couldn’t have been any closer without putting the two at a tie. Despite that, the Volkswagen Golf squeezed out a win with one point to spare. It’s practically a coin toss, but the Golf is still the better overall daily driver if only by a tiny margin.
2015 VW Golf