Manual Hatchback Quick Take: Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf?


It’s a rare treat when any vehicle arrives in the MotorTrend press fleet with its driver’s footwell crowded with three pedals, so when VW sent us a 2020 Volkswagen Golf TSI with a stick, we couldn’t resist comparing it with another manual “warm hatch” in our fleet: our Machine Grey long-term 2020 Mazda3 hatchback. Yes, we’ve all seen the eighth-generation Golf, which is on sale in Europe already, but it looks like it’s not coming here until the 2022 model year, so for now, our updated 2015 Car of the Year soldiers on. How competitive is it, in its most elemental stick-shifted form?

How Do the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf TSI Prices Compare?

This is the Borneo pygmy elephant in the garage: Major pruning of the model lines and options availability at both Mazda and VW means the manual versions of these two now come pretty much as mono-spec cars—the Mazda, available in 2018 with a stick in 2.0-liter Sport and 2.5 liter Touring trims priced from $20,240 to $21,735, now only comes loaded with the 2.5-liter engine, the premium package, and no factory options aside from paint colors (which can add between $200 and $595), plus the choice of black or red leather seats.

As recently as last year, VW sold manual Golf TSIs in S or SE trim and offered a $1,295 driver-assistance package that included adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, auto high-beams, and other goodies that would have better matched our loaded Mazda’s price and equipment level. But for 2020, Golf stick options are similarly limited to color and a handful of port-installed doodads at a spec level that’s somewhere between the former S and SE grades. So, at $24,115 our Vee-Dub is $4,330 cheaper than the current going rate for our Mazda3, whereas last year’s more comparably equipped Golf TSI would have been just $1,775 cheaper, and they could have been at parity in 2018 (with a 1.8-liter turbo in the VW). The more ideal head-to-head might be with a base Golf GTI manual (with plaid cloth seats!), but if you can find a stripper S model, the GTI manual starts at $29,515 and can top $37 grand.

Which Is faster, the Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf TSI?

It’ll come as no surprise to read that the 1.4-liter turbo in the Golf, hitching 3.3 more pounds up to each of its 147 horses ran 0.8 second slower to 60 mph (7.7 versus 6.9 seconds) and 0.9 slower through the quarter mile (16.1 seconds at 88.1 mph versus 15.2 seconds at 93.0 mph). That would surprise you more had you been behind the wheel of each, because the torque curves are so different. The little turbo’s 184 lb-ft of peak boost arrives at just 1,400 rpm while the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter doesn’t achieve its 186 lb-ft until 4,000 revs, which forces you to wring that engine out more and deprives the driver of that rush of turbo torque we’re getting pretty used to. The bigger-lunged Mazda engine is also slightly coarser in its delivery than the wee Golf’s four. For the record, that fully loaded $37,415 GTI manual hits those marks in 6.2 seconds and 14.7 seconds at 98.6 mph.

Which Stick Is More Fun to Row, Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf?

As someone whose right wrist, elbow, and shoulder muscle memory stretches back to E34 and E39 BMW 5 Series, the Honda S600 and S2000, not to mention myriad Mazda MX-5 Miatas, let’s just say that neither of these transverse front-drive cable-operated shifters conjures words like “sublime” or “delightful mechanical precision” the way the above longitudinal rear-drive sticks used to. That having been said, while pressing each car equally hard over the same lovely set of local hilly twists, the Mazda3’s shifter presented some difficulty on quick 3-2 downshifts more than once, and the Golf’s did not. It’s also our sad duty to report that there’s no golf-ball shift knob in the TSI; you must spring for the GTI (or troll the aftermarket) to get that treat.

Which One Handles Better, Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf?

Here again, the Golf TSI competes with two tire/wheel sizes tied behind its back. The Mazda3’s wider, lower-profile V speed-rated 215/45R18 TOYO Proxes A40 tires are stickier and more aggressive than the Golf’s fuel-efficiency and tread-wear optimized H-rated 205/55R16 Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 Plus shoes. Still, the measurable difference is less than 3 percent in lateral g cornering grip (0.85 to 0.83 g), and 5 percent in a straight-line braking from 60 mph (118 feet for the Mazda, 124 for the VW). Figure-eight performance is also closer than expected, and out on the road, both deliver a reasonably sporting feel, with admirably linear steering response. Neither is a paragon of road feel, however. As a journalist, I’m supposed to sense some deficiency in the Mazda3’s new twist-beam suspension relative to the multilink rear setups in the Golf and the previous 3, and OK, if you pay super close attention on certain cross-car bump events that hit both rear wheels in a turn, maybe there’s a hint of discombobulation or sideways skitter. Maybe. And maybe the mysterious G-Vectoring control that trims power slightly on corner entry to load the front tires serves to mask potential bad behavior. By and large, they both scooted around our backroad ring pretty darned well.

Mazda3 vs. Volkswagen Golf: How Does the Ride Compare?

The VW’s taller tires cushion bigger bumps a bit better, but road textures read through this older chassis a bit more noticeably than in the new Mazda. That having been said, a few of the same bumps excited some dash trim vibration on the Mazda3 that was absent in the VW. The seats are similarly cosseting, though the Mazda leather feels nicer than the VW’s perforated leatherette.

Mazda3 vs. Volkswagen Golf: Which Cockpit Is Nicer?

No question—the Mazda3’s interior looks $8,000 richer at half that price premium. Mazda has been trying to cast itself as the Japanese Audi where interior design and execution are concerned, and the company is making great progress along those lines. Every major surface above the armrests is soft to the touch, and much of it looks hand sewn with contrast stitching. There’s a tasteful chrome strip running the width of the dash, a fancy head-up display, an 8.8-inch color display with rotary push-knob control (just like on an Audi!), and rich red leather. Oh, and the cover for the standard glass sunroof is opaque, whereas the VW’s lets light in.

Our VW featured a beige and black contrasting interior that is generally pleasing to look at, but way more of it is composed of hard plastic, the seats make no secret of their “leatherette” vinyl composition, and the instrument cluster is basically two needle gauges framing a prehistoric low-res two-color driver-information display that now seems as jarring as the Golf’s lack of a three-flash-to-pass function on the turn signal. Naturally, there’s no HUD. One interesting Volkswagen “advancement” is the presence of a USB-C port. Just one. For the whole car. And no old-fashioned USB-A ports into which we all have a million plugs that fit.

Mazda3 vs. Volkswagen Golf: How Do the Back Seats and Cargo Areas Compare?

This average-height (5-foot-10) body fits behind itself easily in both, but there’s a good fist’s worth of surplus head space overhead in the VW (perhaps in part because its sunroof panel slides back outside the roof, not underneath it as in the Mazda). The big rear side windows and lower, level beltline pay off in way better outward visibility in the VW, but a lower cushion provides less thigh support. Both offer 60/40 split rear seat backs, fold-down armrests, and each conveniently attaches the middle passenger’s shoulder belt to the seatback, rather than offering a detachable roof-mounted one. Here again, the ambiance is vastly richer in the Mazda, with the same contrast-stitched soft material and all hard plastics relegated to hip level and below. The VW’s rear seat is bigger, though, offering 1.6 inches more headroom and a half-inch each of leg- and shoulder room relative to the Mazda. Cargo wise, the VW fits a bit more (2.7 cubes with the seats up, 6.6 with them down) and offers a two-position load floor for a bit of bonus space. You also get four cargo tie-down loops and two bag hooks, and a 12-volt power outlet—none of which Mazda provides.

So Which Should You Buy, the Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf?

How much do you love cars, and to what extent do you follow your head or your heart when purchasing one? If you’re a hard-nosed pragmatist researcher looking to stretch the dollars farthest, the VW clearly makes the most sense. It gets better gas mileage, has a bigger back seat and trunk, and costs less. You probably won’t mind much that it’ll start to look seven years old late next year. If you love cars and you’re not in a position to spend the extra to stretch to a GTI manual, you’ll surely relish looking back at the infinitely sexier Mazda. You’ll also delight in its posh interior and relish utilizing the Mazda’s many advanced electronic features like that head-up display and the Audi-like user interface. So if you subscribe to us and/or check in with our web site daily or even weekly, grab the Mazda. If you only interface with us when your lease is up for renewal, go VW.

2020 Mazda Mazda3 (hatch) Skyactive G 2020 Volkswagen Golf TSI 2020 Volkswagen Golf GTI*
BASE PRICE $24,645 $24,115 $29,515
PRICE AS TESTED $28,445 $24,115 $37,415
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback
ENGINE 2.5L/186-hp/186-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4 1.4L/147-hp/184-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4 2.0L/220-hp/258-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual 6-speed manual 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,010 lb (62/38%) 2,869 lb (59/41%) 3,197 lb (60/40%)
WHEELBASE 107.3 in 103.8 in 103.6 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 175.6 x 70.7 x 56.7 in 167.6 x 70.8 x 58.2 in 168.0 x 70.8 x 57.8 in
0-60 MPH 6.9 sec 7.7 sec 6.2 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.2 sec @ 93.0 mph 16.1 sec @ 88.1 mph 14.7 sec @ 98.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 118 ft 124 ft 124 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.85 g (avg) 0.83 g (avg) 0.90 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.0 sec @ 0.63 g (avg) 27.3 sec @ 0.62 g (avg) 26.0 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 25/35/29 mpg 28/36/31 mpg 25/33/28 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 135/96 kW-hrs/100 miles 120/94 kW-hrs/100 miles 135/102 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.68 lb/mile 0.62 lb/mile 0.69 lb/mile

*Test figures from mechanically identical 2018 Golf GTI with Autobahn package



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