2015 Mazda3 vs 2015 Volkswagen Golf

Can the Golf Beat our 2014 Car of the Year?

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2015 Mazda3 vs 2015 Volkswagen Golf

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.

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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.

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Compact Driving

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Compare Specs

2015 Mazda3
vs
2015 Volkswagen Golf
Vehicle 2015 Mazda3 Advantage 2015 Volkswagen Golf
Engine 2.5L 4cyl 1.8L Turbo 4cyl
Transmission 6-speed automatic Golf 6-speed DSG
Horsepower 184 Mazda3 170
Torque 185 Golf 200
City MPGs 27 Mazda3 26
Highway MPGs 37 Mazda3 36
Average MPGs 31 Mazda3 25
Rear Seat Headroom 37.5 inches Golf 38.4 inches
Cargo capacity 20.2 cubic feet Golf 22.8 cubic feet
Base Price $19,740 Golf $18,815
As-Tested Price $29,990 Golf $27,815

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.

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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.

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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.

The Verdict:

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

2015 Mazda3

  • Isend2C

    I’d much rather take the feature-laden and more powerful Mazda3. I test drove one a month or so ago, and while it didn’t feel too fast to me I wasn’t pushing it on the test drive. I agree that it felt small too.
    The Golf though? I’ve seen on in the showroom and it list for $28k and doesn’t have nav, backup camera, keyless go, or leather (has vinyl). I think that’s pretty awful when competitors offer all that and more for less.

  • Jerry Baustian

    It sounds like they really loaded up that showroom Golf with stuff you didn’t want and didn’t pay for.

    The Mazda3 is what it is. The Golf is just one iteration of the same chassis, along with the GTI, the Golf R, and the Golf TDI.

  • Prez

    VW has been stuck in the 90’s with its design. It is quite basic and very uninspiring. The so called German engineering is NOT and should NOT be the selling point. It’s a marketing gimmick as it really isn’t any better than the Japanese. I own the new 2014 Mazda6 and it has to be the best car I owned so far. Not a single NON luxury D segment vehicle comes close. I test drove the new Mazda3 and I have the same exact feeling. It is not rough to drive, on the contrary it is very comfortable. It’s amazingly well put together, designed with driver in mind, near perfect quality of materials even in the lower trims and extremely good looking.

  • Joe

    This is an interesting statement seeing as how I just got a 2015 Golf TSI SE that listed for $24k and has a backup camera, Fender premium audio with subwoofer, leatherette (not pure leather but certainly not vinyl), lighting package (gives you xenon headlamps with adaptive turning and some pretty cool interior accent lighting), wide sunroof (panoramic IS definitely an incorrect term, but it is still wider than you normally find), and a really smooth quick shifting automatic transmission. The Mazda 3 and Golf were my two finalists and though I did really like the Mazda, the 2.5L in manual wasn’t available yet and the automatic was pretty uninspiring. I’m also not really wowed by the center console infotainment control or the fighter pilot style targeting speedo up on the dash that you can’t close. I think those are very gimmicky and unnecessary. So for my money, the Golf was the close winner.

  • Mark S

    Second article I have read where the Golf has done well in the segment.

  • Rick

    Good review, fellas. One note: the 2015 Golf TSI does not have a DSG automatic transmission…the TDI and GTI do, however. Otherwise, great comparison.

  • Mark S

    Got both a VW GTI and a 2014 Mazda 3 on the drive way. My GTI has a sport suspension, but honestly the 3 is just as tight. I am no complaining, I like cornering, but if you want a floaty ride, would not recommend Mazda, try a Corolla, KIA etc. 🙂

  • Mark S

    New Golf’s are feature loaded, but sadly the manual is only available in the base Golf.

  • Mark S

    Good point. The reviewers still seem to like the non-DSG box, which was a surprise. Wish they offered the manual in all trim levels.

  • Gavin Varitech

    I have a 2015 Mazda6 Grand Touring and LOVE IT but to say that “not a single D Segment vehicle comes close” is crazy! You trying to say that not only is the GJ Mazda 6 better than cars like an Audi A4 or a BMW 3 Series but that they don’t come close? Even as a long time Mazda-only consumer that loves his new 6 there is no way I’d take it over an A4 if someone was going to give me one.

  • Prez

    Perhaps I should have said in “non luxury D segment”. However I drove the Audi A4 not that long ago and in all honesty I was not wowed on bit. Uncomfortable seats and rather bland interior don’t convince me that it is a better vehicle. I won’t even go into fuel economy and price. My friend had a 2012 Audi S4 and got rid off it after roughly 7 months. Several trips to the dealership convinced him that it wasn’t worth the money. BMW has an intriguing tendency to break soon after the warranty runs out too. I heard numerous stories about that. I’d take it with a grain of salt but the most recent CS reliability scores paint an interesting picture.
    To each it’s own I guess.

  • Mark S

    By CS, you mean Consumer Reports, current Audi is the only no Japanese brand in the top 5 of reliability study. BMW is middling as always. Merc is nearer the bottom. Worth though buying the CR online membership, they go into model detail which helps alot. Mazda has done well and move up this year despite infotainment issues. Remember good reliability does not equate to good driving fun, life is too short to drive a Camry!

  • kolac

    A Mazda 3 does everything a golf can do;And for way less trouble.After seeing the endless problems !!! My VW has only 870KM and many problems (power-loss,DSG,pedal……..)and you can’t start the car.Sorry for trusting you VW ! I won’t make that mistake again.

  • Mark S

    Sorry to hear you had a problem car. Can say that my MkIV GTI has been very good for the 3 plus years of ownership and the only trips to the dealership was for the (free) maintenance. We also have a 2014 Mazda 3s and apart from the widely reported infotainment glitch which was fixed with a reboot, it is doing great.

  • bgdc

    Drove the Mazda6 too. Nice car. But cramped interior, poor sight-lines and sluggish engine performance though. The 6’s interior and engine were two reasons I would not pick one.

    Had a Mazda3 for a couple years too. Bulletproof but poor transmission and rough 2.5 liter engine.

    And yes Germans make some unreliable cars. We’ve had a few VWs, a couple Audis and 4 BMWs. All had engineering defects. But they were more fun to drive than my 2 Mazdas.

  • bgdc

    Consumer Reports and JD Power both include non-essential junk like infotainment on their reliability reports. The reports are worthless.

  • bgdc

    Yes, it’s vinyl. They can call it other things but it’s still vinyl.

    The TSI can be chipped – check out APR.

  • Mark S

    CR breaks down their reports by issue found, so you can see what caused the downscores. Interestingly infotainment alone while a frequent offender was not enough to dragged down Mazda (which had issues), it seem like you need more than one issue to drag down your ranking. That said while they do give a lot of detail on the CR site, they do not tell you how many responses they get per model (and hence per brand) and a few other population stats which would help work out the confidence in the data.

  • Here’s Johnny

    The Golf is Motortrend’s 2015 Car of the Year… I personally think you get a lot more for your money with the Golf, at least with the S model. To get the Mazda3 S (the 2.5L engine they tested), you pay $4,000 more, and the features are relatively even. VW offers more options standard than Mazda. The 1.8L turbo in the Golf is a speedy engine and you have to pay more to get the comparable one with Mazda. The 2.0L Mazda engine is downright sluggish… don’t even attempt driving that long distance with 4 people and cargo.

  • Here’s Johnny

    Isend2C,
    The Mazda3 is NOT more powerful… they are basically even. Look at the torque: 185 in Mazda, 200 in Golf. Torque is HUGE and greatly affects performance. Also the Golf is a Turbo – all models are… the Mazdas aren’t turbos. If you test drive both of these side by side you will find they are basically even in power.

  • Isend2C

    The thing is, I’ve never liked turbos. I don’t like the non-linear power, or the low torque. They’re nice to some people but I’m not one of them. Although the Golf does have German HP, which is superior to all others. The interior design of the Mazda is more to my taste too, although the VW is nice. But you can’t even get adaptive cruise on the Golf – you can on basically every car that is redesigned these days. The only VW that it is offered on is the Touareg, while Mazda has it on the 3 & 6.

  • Mark S

    The fully laden Mazda 3S Grand a Touring in hatchback does get up there, but it is loaded with tech and the I-ELOOP tech is cool. Features are not even, Golf does not offer USB, reversing can etc. A Mazda 3S Touring though at less than 25k gives you a great bargain, the sweet spot – full infotainment, blind spot monitor, reversing camera, nav are standouts. The 2.0l requires working but it is fun to rev a natural aspirated engine through the rev range, but 2.5l is better over all.

    The 1.8t is way better than the 2.5l 5 cylinder engine it replaced – it is competent and good for the segment, but try out any VAG with 2.0l turbo – the A3 offers the 1.8 as an entry level, but they will more of the 2.0l turbo (though admitted this gives you AWD as well). What I really like about the Golf is the packaging – great amount of space in the car and excellent visibility with the glasshouse. The Mazda 3 looks great, but that angled front window with think A pillars reduces the visibility.

  • Gwen

    I agree that these two cars are soooooo close. For me it came down to a tiny little detail. I did not go with the Mazda simply because I do not like that tacked on screen look, I know several cars now use this but I simply don’t care for it. I had a 2011 Mazda 3 and I am glad to see that the newer version is much much improved ! Either car is a good choice overall.

  • Shizuppy

    How about, instead of focusing on “fun” when you’re driving, you focus on safety? I have “fun” at my destination. If you’re having “fun” in your car rather than at your destination you’re doing life wrong.