The Mazda3 Neo hatch: It packs in the gear, for not a lot of cash.

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Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the 2017 Mazda3 Neo hatch with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.

Remember when bargain basement meant skinny steel wheels, an AM radio and a vinyl interior? And a couple of car-makers tried to bring all that back in tiny cars, had a few minutes in the sun, then everyone realised how awful those things were and stopped buying them?

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Mazda knows how awful they are, so when you lay down your hard-earned for its entry-level Mazda3, the Neo, you get a car with a finely-judged spec list that keeps the price down and your spirits up.

The 3 had a mild midlife tech-and-design touch-up at the beginning of August 2016, adding auto emergency braking (AEB) and Mazda’s new G-Vector chassis control tech for all models. While the rest of the range had at least a thousand bucks knocked out of the price, the Neo remained where it was, starting at a pretty sharp $20,490 for the six-speed manual.

Price and features

The MY17 collection of 3s is one variant down from the line-up launched back in 2014, the diesel-powered XD having quietly slipped out of the brochures. From the Maxx up, an electric parking brake is now standard, as is rear autonomous braking, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert.

The range stretches from the Neo to the SP25 Astina, a total of seven distinct models before you count in the transmissions.

Our car was the Neo hatch with the six-speed auto, adding $2000 to the base price, arriving at $22,490. It kicks off the range with electric folding mirrors, reversing sensors, air-conditioning, cruise control, remote central locking, keyless start, cloth trim, hill holder, auto headlights, space-saver spare and 16-inch alloys.

The 3 feels huge when compared with other cars in its class, but it isn't that much bigger than any of them.

The four speaker stereo misses out on the excellent MZD Connect touchscreen-and-rotary dial arrangement, instead going with a very basic dashtop head unit that is affixed to the gap where the screen normally goes. It does the job in a very adequate, efficient and slightly tinny manner and you can connect your phone via USB or Bluetooth.

It's worth noting that arch-rival Hyundai i30 Active ($23,750 for the auto) has a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple Carplay and Android Auto, meaning you can use your iPhone/Android for navigation. Corolla ($22,230 for the Ascent auto) has a similar-sized screen to the i30 but no CarPlay. Both ride on steel wheels and both have reversing cameras. By contrast, the Mazda has the AEB and alloy wheels.

The $250 Soul Red metallic paint is the sole factory option on the Neo. Special mention should be made of the headlights - they're excellent, especially when you discover they're halogens.

Practicality

The 3 feels huge when compared with other cars in its class, but it isn't that much bigger than any of them. Interior space is barely different in the hatch versus the sedan but it all changes behind the rear seats.

Boot space weighs in at a reasonable 308 litres, 100 fewer than the sedan. Oddly enough, it's a whopping 132 litres down on the tiny Mazda2 sedan and only 58 more than the 2 hatchback.

This 3 is the most resolved and well-proportioned since its inception.

The front doors will each hold a small bottle and cupholders are available front and rear for a total of four. Rear seat passengers also have access to pockets in the front seatbacks.

The lack of both MZD Connect and electric park brake means the Neo scores a little oddments tray behind the gear selector in addition to a bin under the air-con controls and another in the central console.

Design

The new 3 is hardly different from the old one, which isn't a bad thing. Mazda's Kodo design language has resulted in some fine looking cars and this 3 is the most resolved and well-proportioned since its inception.

People tend to glaze over when we start talking about surfacing and character lines, but the 3 really does look a lot more expensive than its price tag suggests, only let down by the expanses of black plastic around the windows and doors. The nip and tuck for the headlights and grille barely change the appearance at all. If it ain't broke, etc, etc.

Inside is still a bit colourless. The design itself is good apart from the ridiculous instrument layout that, weirdly, puts one in mind of the nose of Subaru's Tribeca. It's fiddly and small and doesn't look anywhere near as good as the two dial layout in the upper reaches of the range.

Apart from the lack of colour - it's a bit of a mine shaft in there - and the dashboard, it's a very comfortable cabin. The front seats come in for special mention for being both supportive and comfortable in all directions, something not every manufacturer can manage in their entry level models.

Engine and transmission

The 3 range has two engine choices, but down here in the cheap seats, you're restricted to the 2.0-litre SkyActiv-branded four cylinder. The naturally aspirated engine produces 114kW and a round 200Nm.

The auto is Mazda's six-speed, delivering power to the ground via the front wheels. The 2.0 litre 3 is rated to tow 500kg unbraked and 900kg braked.

Fuel consumption

Mazda claims the 1296kg Neo auto will use fuel at the rate of 5.7L/100km. Our time with the 3, almost exclusively in city driving, yielded an average of 8.2L/100km.

Consumption is held in check by stop-start. Mazda calls it i-Stop and it has also improved - previously you used to have to almost put the brake pedal through the carpet but now just a little extra pressure shuts the engine off.

Driving

I have been a harsh critic of the 3 over the years, particularly in the area of suspension noise. The first 3 - a car I actually owned - really did sound like it was shedding parts when traversing level crossings or decent-sized bumps. It couldn't handle the torque of the four-cylinder engine, which was absurdly thirsty in SP23 form. And don't get me started on the general refinement or quality of the plastics, or the drivability of that first engine. I do not have fond memories of that car, apart from the startlingly good resale.

A decade on and the third generation of the 3 has erased many of these vices. The front suspension noise issue was common across much of the Mazda passenger range and one by one, the noise has been dampened. It's still not completely eradicated and the mid-life update takes another step towards relative silence.

The only real racket left is the engine. Mazda isn't exactly famous for rich, fruity exhaust notes or inspiring induction noise. It's also unlikely the 3's target audience cares, but even so, the drone of the SkyActiv might get on your nerves if you like a peaceful cabin. Again, neither of the 3's obvious competitors have sonorous engines, but instead of the noise reaching the cabin, it is rather more effectively stopped at the firewall.

The new G Vectoring chassis control system gives the chassis a much more assured feel, quelling torque steer and creating more confidence-inspiring behaviour in the corners.

On the subject of steering, the feel isn't at all bad, through the electric rack and the rest of the controls are light and easy to live with.

The six-speed automatic is a good one, almost on par with the super-smooth unit in the Hyundai i30, shifting smartly through the gears for maximum economy when not in sport mode. Sport mode is one of those afterthoughts that just holds the gear longer, with the unfortunate side effect of filling the cabin with the slightly coarse engine drone.

All is forgiven, though, because the ride and handling combination is excellent, something I thought I'd never say about a 3. Despite the modest engine power and the cheap tyres, the 3 is a polished traffic warrior and a reasonable amount of fun when unleashed into a couple of corners. Build up some momentum and the tweaked chassis makes the most of the numbers while the G Vector system unobtrusively delivers a noticeable improvement in the car's stability.

Safety

Standard safety tech runs to six airbags, ABS, brake assist, low speed autonomous braking, traction and stability controls, and brake force distribution.

The 3 was awarded the maximum available rating of five stars by ANCAP in August 2016.

Ownership

Mazda's standard warranty runs for three years/unlimited kilometres and roadside assist starts at $68.10 per year or $83.50 for a few more inclusions.

Mazda offers fixed price servicing for the first five services. Visits to the dealer come every 10,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first. Prices alternate between $297 and $324 for a total cost of $1539.

Added to that will be brake fluid at two years/40,000km for $64, and a cabin air filter at 40,000km for $65. If you need oil, Mazda will charge a very reasonable $15. All prices are available on the website.

The 3 Neo is light years ahead of that car I hated so much and continues to improve with this mild update. This third-generation 3 was already much better than either of its predecessors. The Mazda of 2016 is also a very different, braver company with a decade of making some pretty good cars behind it.

The 3 Neo is hardly a bare bones entry level model and it can't be. We expect a lot from our cars now and don't want to have to pay for little luxuries. While Australians don't buy bargain basement cars en masse - we have a bit more to spend these days - we won't stand for stinginess when we do.

Luckily, the 3 is one of many cars that pack in the gear for not a lot of cash. At this level, you just have to decide what's important - the 3 handles well, is reasonably cheap to run and has a stand out safety feature in AEB. It's a tough choice, but Neo buyers aren't being short-changed.

Does Mazda's bargain basement 3 stack up for you? Let us know in the comments below.

This story originally appeared on CarsGuide

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