Audi advertises its A3 as starting at $29,900. Throw every option you can at a Mazda3 and it will top out around $29,500. Both are small, 5-passenger sedans built on a front-drive platform with 4-cylinder engines. Both have excellent and surprisingly similar interiors. That is where the obvious comparisons end and the contrasts start. So which to buy? A base A3 or a fully loaded Mazda3?
2015 Audi A3 Sedan 2.0T Quattro S tronic Premium
My test A3 was a bit more than a base Audi A3. It came with the optional 220 horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, Quattro all-wheel drive, the cold weather package (and summer tires, which was weird), the aluminum style package, $550 silver paint, and a credit back of $350 for single-zone manual climate control. In total, the car costs $35,745. What the car did not come with was navigation. Booo! To add insult to injury, the Nav screen was there, but displays “Nav – No Nav” on the screen if you hit the button or select that menu. Why not just display a photo of the owner with an “L” on his forehead for passengers to see?
When equipped wit the base 1.8-liter turbo engine, front-wheel drive, and with navigation and the other features the Mazda3 s Grand Touring has the Audi A3 has an MSRP of $32,650.
The S tronic transmission and torquey turbocharged engine was the car’s highlight. However, like all Volkswagen/Audi products I have ever tested, there was a slight delay on take-off as turbo lag and the transmission decide what to do. It was minor but remember the car’s price point. When pushed, the A3 proved to be a fast car.
The A3’s handling did not impress me. It seemed to shimmy to the side in back over rough pavement, and any car with a cold weather package and AWD better be ready for some pot holes. It was stiff, but not dramatically so. Brakes were solid, steering direct and light.
The A3’s style is a strong point. It looks just like the A4 unless parked next to one. That is a good thing. Classy-conservative done right is the theme. Inside, the A3 shines as well. The materials are all very nice, and the infotainment screen (no Nav) is mounted on the dash in that aftermarket look some love and others don’t. In this comparison it cannot be an advantage or disadvantage since the Mazda3 has exactly the same setup. The controller for the infotainment is also exactly like the Mazda3’s. A multi-function rotary knob that does most of the work and a smaller knob to the right that controls volume. This is an excellent setup, and it works great in both cars. The Audi I tested had a huge panoramic glass roof with a shade that seemed to disappear when opened. A plus for the Audi.
All-wheel drive is fine, but does it come at a cost? Not that I could find. In mixed driving, I recorded 35.1 mpg on premium unleaded. The EPA estimates you will see 24 mpg city/ 33 highway/ and 27 combined.
Mazda3 s Grand Touring 2.5 Manual
My test Mazda3 came with a manual 6-speed transmission. An automatic is optional. Having driven both I can say that I like the automatic better, but many prefer to shift for themselves. It is nice to have a choice. The 184 horsepower engine is plenty in this under 3,000 pound car. Rev the engine and drop the clutch and the car will burn out. Continue to redline and speed shift to second and the car will again break the tires free. The Mazda3 with the larger 2.5 liter engine is a fast car.
Handling is pretty much perfect in this sporty front-drive car. So good that makes you forget it is front-drive. My test vehicle had Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires. In wet, icy conditions it was flawless. Given the choice of either AWD or winter tires I would always pick the winter tires. Having both is the ultimate winter setup of course, and you can have that in the Audi if your wallet is fat enough. The Mazda3 steered very directly, stoped on a dime with great brake pedal feel and it wanted to be tossed around. It was the sports car in this comparison.
Inside, the Mazda3 looks a lot like the Audi. Same infotainment screen setup as the Audi, except that my Mazda3 tester’s $ $24,635 price included Nav and also full Pandora integration. The Mazda3 has leather seats that are a lot like the Audi’s, and the nearly identical Mazda MMI infotainment controller works just as well as Audi’s. My Mazda3 had a cool heads-up display that gave it the win in the interior contest. This Mazda3 also had a moon-roof, but just a regular one. The Audi’s was huge and extends to the rear seating area. Both the Mazda and Audi had heated front seats. My Mazda3 had a smart key, the Audi a regular key that you insert into the ignition and then turn.
My Mazda returned 29 mpg on regular unleaded (winter blend) in mixed driving and the EPA rates the car at 25 mpg city/ 37 highway/ and 29 mpg combined.
Is it fair to compare an Audi to a Mazda? I say yes. Audi and other German automakers are now building cars that are reaching down-market to pick up volume and leverage their mainstream brands' parts. They picked this fight. At the same time, the Asian automakers have continued their never-ending move up-market. It's about time reviewers start holding them up side by side for buyers to consider.
If you have your heart set on a premium brand, Audi can satisfy that. With no smart key and no Nav it is hard to call the $35K Audi A3 a premium vehicle. However, the look of the Audi is more upscale. Both are IIHS Top Safety Pick + rated cars.
The Mazda3 comes with everything a well-equipped premium car should. The Mazda is sportier and handles better, but the Audi is faster since it can put more power down with its AWD. At the end of the day these two cars are very close, but there is one huge difference, and that is the price. Equally equipped, these cars are about $3k to $10K apart in price depending upon which drivetrain one chooses for the Audi. If cost is an important factor for you, the Mazda is your car for sure. If owning a brand that people perceive as premium is your priority, the Audi is your choice. Either way, you take home a safe, fun, compact sedan that is fun to drive and looks great.
Full Review - 2015 Mazda3 s Grand Touring
Photos by John Goreham