Mazda3 Maxx (from $22,990 plus on road costs)

The Mazda3 Maxx, although not the cheapest from the Mazda3 line, is certainly the most popular model. The Maxx sits in a tough and hotly contested segment of the market, sharing this space with the Corolla and the Hyundai i30.

It comes in at almost $2000 more than the basic Mazda3 Neo, but it’s easy to see why so many new car buyers are making the choice to upgrade to the Maxx. Unlike the Neo, the Maxx gets a standard reversing camera, comprehensive safety package (ideal for families), sat-nav, seven-inch infotainment screen, and a leather-bound interior.

The highlights of the Mazda3 Maxx, at least at this price range, are its styling, sporty drive, fuel efficiency, technology, and powerful engine, which all work together to pitch it as the best option out of its pool of rivals.

Tim Beissmann from Car Advice is one top name vouching for the Maxx, explaining that the Mazda3 is the best value car in this segment, compared with the Corolla and i30. He concludes that the Mazda3, ‘strikes the best balance of comfort, composure and driving enjoyment’, crowning the Maxx the ‘indisputable champ’ of the popular hatchback world.

Richard Blackburn of Cars Guide concurs with this overall sentiment, however is less convinced of the Mazda’s complete dominance over the highly-popular Corolla, concluding that it wins the race 'by a whisker.’

So, when it comes to Mazda’s native mid-range territory, it leads the pack – not an easy feat, considering the hot competition. However, when it comes to the upper bounds of Mazda’s price range, the ‘3’ begins to have an identity crisis. When the price range for a car pushes $40k, many conspicuous consumers start looking away from Japanese manufactures and towards European badges, seen to be more prestigious.

Does the Mazda hold its own in this unfamiliar territory? The answer is less convincing, but still compelling.

The interior of a Mazda3 Astina 2015

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Astina (price from $36,190)

The step up into the world of luxury comes into play in the Astina line. The Astina is the top range Mazda3, available in two broad variants; the petrol SP25, and the ($4000 dearer) diesel XT model. The Astina builds on the Mazda3's offering, maxing out technology and luxury features, such as a premium BOSE stereo, heads-up dash display, quality leather interior and sunroof.

Paul Maric from Car Advice expresses his endorsement of Mazda3 styling efforts in his review, writing that the ‘fit and finish, along with layout of instruments, offers a perception of luxury and value often missing in some of its competitors’. Part of this appeal, explains Maric, is Mazda’s infotainment system – dubbed MZD connect – and the head’s up display. These systems are ‘dead easy to use’ and ‘impressive’ in a vehicle of this segment.

Along with these commendable features is the Mazda3’s smooth ride, great suspension, and excellent driver leg and headroom. However, these features are more-or-less a constant theme throughout the entire Mazda3 range. The real highlight of the Astina is, according to Tony O’Kane from The Motor Report, is the engine.

‘Tactile, responsive, direct,’ explains O’Kane, ‘the Mazda3 is a delight at the wheel’. O'Kane is particularly chuffed with the diesel model's engine, commending the large amount of torque that is readily available at low revs. The entire experience is ‘sporty’ and ‘performance’ orientated; terms which are rarely associated with diesel hatchbacks. This sentiment is mirrored by Craig Duff from Cars Guide, who notes the design cues as giving the ‘Mazda a sporty stance from all directions.’

The overall verdict is that the Mazda3 SP25 is worthy and pleasing ride. However, at that price tag, there are plenty of premium alternatives to think about, including models from Audi, BMW and VW.

The front view of a Mazda3 Astina 2015

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The Mazda3 – across the board – is a solid offering from Mazda. This is no secret; Mazda has been shouldering its way into the Australian best-seller list for new cars for years, particularly with the mid-range Mazda3 Maxx. The premium model, the Astina, takes the product line to new, luxurious heights. Although the Astina manages to hold its own, at those prices the competition for luxury heats up with models from premium manufacturers and their prestigious badges.

Our final verdict? The Mazda3 is a modern, comfortable and highly appealing city driver, excellent for small families looking for an appealing and practical second car.