VOLKSWAGEN has been doing it for 40 years and seven generations, and doing it consistently well. Each successive Golf improves on the one before just at that moment when the rest of the segment catches up. And the biggest leap forward came with the launch of the current generation.
Built on the VW Group’s Modular Transverse Matrix platform, the Golf 7 is leaner, quieter, comfier and safer than ever before. We’ve heaped praise on every iteration we’ve so far tested, and long-term exposure to this Pacific Blue 1,4 TSI Comfortline DSG that forms part of CAR 20 000 km test fleet has done nothing to dent our impression of its brilliance.
Earlier in the year, Mazda invited us to Hiroshima to drive its new Mazda3, a vehicle that showed great promise on the brief launch drive. Deputy editor Mike Fourie proclaimed it “a resolved, sophisticated product that should be a delight to drive in everyday conditions”. Just like the Golf…
Fast-forward a couple of months and a Soul Red 2,0 Astina AT arrived at our offices. Perusal of its spec sheet soon allowed a plan to form. It costs R11 900 more than the Golf, which it handsomely makes up for with luxuries aplenty and 31 kW extra. It would make for an intriguing showdown.
Design, outside and in
Round one unanimously goes to the Mazda. Shod with 18-inch wheels, it looks dynamic and tautly contoured thanks to the company’s Kodo design language, which stands in sharp contrast to the Golf’s geometric shapes and dearth of varied surfacing. A fender line rises from the upswept headlamps before elegantly disappearing along the front door, only to be replaced by another graceful sweep that flows into the rear lamps. Meanwhile, the hemline rises towards the rear wheel before wispily fading into the rear wheelarch. The de rigueur modern-car touches are there – faux rear diffuser, oversized grille interrupted by an even more prominent badge – but they’re subtle enough not to harm the overall effect.
The Golf, by comparison, is bland. It trades on timelessness and functionality, but there’s no escaping the fact that it happily disappears into the crowd. There are some delightful bits, though, including the horseshoe-shaped daytime-running lamps on this xenon-equipped model and tasteful brightwork striping.
From behind the wheel, the Mazda maintains its aesthetic advantage, managing through its design and material application to feel like a more youthful product than the staid, conservative Wolfsburgian.
A deep-set rev counter is flanked by two display screens (there’s no analogue speedo-meter), the steering-wheel rim is chunky and the transmission tunnel high and wide – it immediately feels sporty. There are elegant finishes, too, including chromework around the airvents, climate-control knobs and the scroller for the infotainment system, while tasteful leather trim on this Astina grade is included in the price.
However, start scratching beneath the surface and chinks in the Mazda’s armour are unearthed. The upper dashboard is trimmed in a lush, soft-touch material, as are the front-door tops, but look below your eyeline and the plastics feel hollow when rapped and give when prodded. What’s more, the infotainment system is clunky in operation when compared with the best German systems, Japanese-car idiosyncrasies prevail in aspects such as the doors that don’t auto-lock on pull-away, and the head-up display unit, although a welcome addition in this segment, uses clunky graphics and the readout disappears as soon as sunlight catches the wiper behind it. It also doesn’t have as much rear leg- or headroom as the Golf despite having the longer wheelbase – that sloping roofline and long bonnet must shoulder most of the blame – and overall utility space is tighter (though its boot is bigger than the VW’s).
Spec-wise, there’s no competition, however. Where the Golf in Comfortline grade has auto lights, wipers and rear-view mirror, the Mazda counters with a Bose sound system, electrically adjustable driver’s seat (though, curiously, no height adjustment on the passenger chair), sunroof, climate control, keyless entry and drive, and a rear-view camera coupled with PDC. Even the 2,0 Individual bests the Golf’s spec while being a whole R14 800 cheaper.
But then you climb into the Golf and you immediately realise where the development money was spent. Yes, it may not match the Mazda’s flair or toys, but it boasts impeccable fit and finish, a driver’s chair and steering wheel that offer huge adjustment in all directions, controls that slide and twirl with pinpoint precision and welcome additions such as storage trays under the seats, carpeting in the door pockets to stop odds and ends from sliding about, and ventilation outlets for rear passengers.
Under their hoods
As much as the 3 and Golf differ in terms of design and cabin executions, nothing could distinguish them further than what’s under the hoods. The Mazda uses a naturally aspirated 2,0-litre engine that employs the company’s SkyActiv range of technologies. This umbrella term describes a raft of measures and systems that are used to reduce harmful exhaust-gas emissions. These include lightweight construction principles and, in the case of this petrol engine, a high compression ratio of 14:1 with the aim of producing high torque and fully utilising the energy potential of the fuel.
Developing 121 kW and 210 N.m of torque, the Mazda has the advantage on paper. The Golf’s 1,4-litre turbocharged engine musters 90 kW, but despite forced induction, its torque figure of 200 N.m still falls short of that of the Japanese vehicle. The difference, however, is where that maximum force is delivered. The Mazda3 needs 4 000 r/min, while the Golf gives you the full 200 N.m all the way from 1 500 to 4 000 r/min.
Coupled with a quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the Golf matched the Mazda on the run from zero to 100 km/h, only giving away 0,04 seconds. Were we to conduct this test at Highveld altitudes instead of at the coast, the Golf would have undoubtedly put a few car lengths between it and the 3.
The Mazda’s power advantage does start to yield results at higher speeds, however; it hit 140 km/h 1,21 seconds sooner. Conversely, the Golf was slightly quicker across all in-gear increments.
Leave the test strip to hit the road and the Volkswagen surges ahead. In day-to-day running, its torque advantage at lower engine speeds means the powertrain labours infrequently, while the DSG ‘box hooks the right gear at the right time (only feeling slightly sluggish in its response on pull-away). The Mazda’s engine is gruff in its upper reaches, where it spends a large portion of its time because the six-speed torque-converter auto is somewhat erratic in its response to throttle applications. We’d like to see Mazda add either a sport mode to the transmission tuning (currently it offers only a default setting and a manual option), or paddles behind the wheel (the Golf has these, but they’re a smidgeon too small).
Lastly, although the Mazda’s consumption is good by general standards, in most conditions it used at least a litre of unleaded more than the Golf for every 100 km completed.
On the road
We praised the Volkswagen’s ride in our first test (March 2013) and other Golf models have solidified the impression that there isn’t a vehicle in the C-segment that’s as composed in as many varied scenarios.
It might have met its match though, but for one caveat: the Mazda3 Astina is equipped with 18-inch wheels wrapped in low-profile rubber that let through a touch too much bump-thump at town speeds. Lesser versions sport 16-inch wheels and tall 60-profile tyres that should remove this niggle and allow the suspension room to breathe.
This is a world-class chassis. Supple at speed yet tied down in bends (with a spot of lift-off oversteer if you’re gunning it), Mazda’s suspension engineers have done a great job. The steering is equally good – not nervous, but quick – and the brakes provide strong, consistent stopping power through a firm, easily modulated pedal.
The Golf is a different prospect altogether. It lacks that final bit of body control – there’s a slight sensation of floatiness at high speeds across compressions – but counters with that excellent ride (although the rear suspension thumps a little too loudly – other models have displayed this characteristic, too), as well as refinement that would shame more expensive cars. It braked even better than the Mazda, posting an average 100-to-zero km/h time of just 2,89 seconds.
Safety and aftersales
Both vehicles have front, side and curtain airbags – the Golf adds a kneebag for the driver – ABS plus EBD and brake assist, as well as ESP and hill-start assist. The Mazda trumps the Golf with blind-spot monitoring as standard (not even an option on the latter).
In terms of service plans and warranties, Mazda offers a three-year/unlimited km version for both. Volkswagen caps the warranty at 120 000 km over the same timeframe, but lifts the service plan to five years/90 000 km.
Halfway through its two-week test tenure, it looked as if the Mazda might take it. Every CAR test-team member who drove it came back impressed with its dynamic repertoire, styling flair and generous spec.
But all it took was a brief reacquaintance with the Golf before sanity prevailed. It’s the better car here because it excels at most disciplines that objectively distance a good vehicle from a great one. The VW undoubtedly falls in the latter camp. Sure, the spec is somewhat sparse considering the premium pricing, and yes, its boot should be larger, and, well, it would have been nicer to have a wider infotainment screen… Nit-picking becomes a necessity when assessing the German car.
There’s no shame in bending a knee to the Golf. The Mazda3 has come closest to dethroning the perennial class-leader. Were it in cheaper Individual spec and fitted with (what’s reportedly) the best manual ‘box in the segment, the outcome might have been different. But, following the result of this comparative test, it remains a mere pretender to the throne. We eagerly anticipate both Ford and Peugeot’s claims early next year when the revised Focus and the new 308 are launched…
Test SummaryThe Golf 7 has sat unopposed at the head of the compact-hatch segment since its launch, but now it faces its biggest challenger yet - the Mazda3.
Road test score