Small car sales are booming, and it’s not hard to see why. The quality and ability continue to improve across the class, and buyers are spoilt for choice.
Mazda3 and Kia Cerato had minor refreshes in 2016. The changes were not massive but have been well directed and delivered noticeable improvements.
Each is available as a five-door hatch or four-door sedan. As the second level in their respective line-ups, our test cars, the Mazda3 Maxx and Cerato S Premium – both in hatchback form – provide a good blend of affordability and features and in both cases are a significant step up from the base models.
Kia lands the first blow with a price advantage; the S Premium is $24,990 drive-away, and the extra dollars above the base S version get you auto headlights and a seven-inch LCD touch-screen incorporating satellite navigation and reversing camera.
Another Kia value advantage is its standard seven-year warranty and seven-year capped-price servicing program.
Mazda3 Maxx drives away at approximately $28,466 but that includes a highly desirable active safety package, including Smart City Braking, now standard across the range, plus an enhanced MZD Connect infotainment system which was already one of the best.
For small cars, both are very roomy. The dimensions have not changed with the upgrade but the presentation has been smartened up and more standard equipment added. New trim materials, with a high standard of fit and finish, give the Cerato cabin a quality appearance but it doesn’t quite match the Mazda’s premium look and feel.
Cerato’s open cabin design and flatter seats give greater useable space if you need to carry five, whereas the Mazda’s more cockpit-style layout and sculptured seat shaping provide a touch better comfort and support when accommodating up to four.
Kia has gone with a 2.0-litre petrol engine in all models, while Mazda uses a 2.0-litre engine in the first three grades and a more powerful 2.5-litre version in the higher levels. Mazda has manual or auto across the range, whereas the only manual Cerato is the S model.
Both 2.0-litre engines match up almost identically on power and torque figures, and each employs a six-speed automatic driving the front wheels. But with different engine characteristics and gearing, the performance delivery of each has a distinctly different feel. Off the mark and under acceleration around town, Cerato is very lively and the automatic responds quickly.
Kia’s new Drive Mode Select system (with Normal, Eco and Sport settings) allows drivers to fine-tune the transmission response and steering load to suit their driving.