Finding out who makes the superior all-around compact sedan
Compact cars are a diverse group, ranging from sporty and fun to comfortable and practical. Some entries even offer hatchback and wagon variants for consumers wanting maximum space in a small package. The 2020 Toyota Corolla and 2019 Mazda3 are the newest entries in an important (but dwindling) segment–we got our hands on both in sedan guise to see how well they stack up.
The Heart and Bones
Both the 2019 Mazda3 and 2020 Toyota Corolla ride on new architectures that are stiffer and more rigid than their predecessors. In a stunning turn of events, they traded rear suspensions; the Mazda3 now has a torsion beam, and the Corolla sports a multilink setup. In SE and XSE flavors, the Corolla also comes with wider tires than the Mazda3, further hinting at a sportier direction for Toyota’s venerable compact car.
The 2019 Mazda3 comes exclusively with a 2.5-liter I-4 with 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque paired to a six-speed automatic. In addition to the carryover 1.8-liter I-4, Toyota offers a 2.0-liter unit with 169 hp and 151 lb-ft coupled to a CVT, like in our XSE tester. The Mazda3’s extra power comes at the cost of fuel economy, though; it’s EPA-rated at 27/36 mpg (8.7/6.5 L/100 km) city/highway, trailing the Corolla’s 31/38 mpg (7.6/6.2 L/100 km). Both cars are available with a six-speed manual, but only on the Mazda3 Premium hatchback and Corolla SE.
Now that we’ve gone over what’s under the skin, let’s hit the road.
On the Daily Grind
When subjected to the rigors of the daily commute and ever-changing road conditions, the 2019 Mazda3 and 2020 Toyota Corolla show their true colors. With its multilink rear suspension, the Corolla handily dispatches road imperfections and doesn’t get upset unless you go over something sizable. The Mazda3 does the opposite. “It doesn’t really absorb the bumps like it used to,” MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said. “There’s a bit more roll, and a few times I felt like the rear end was dancing a bit on the twisty roads whenever I ran into a small bump.” On the worst streets in Los Angeles, the Mazda3’s suspension crashes violently, sending a nasty jolt into the cabin and causing a loud bang upon contact.
The Toyota Corolla’s handling has improved significantly; it takes corners confidently and has good high-speed stability. Light and balanced steering makes maneuvering the Corolla through tight spaces a cinch. In comparison, the Mazda3’s steering is stiff and accurate, which is great on the highway but tiresome in gridlock. Although the Mazda3 possesses better body control than the Corolla, it behaves like a comfort-oriented sedan; it understeers excessively, plows into corners when you ask it to hustle, and lacks the liveliness of its predecessors. Shockingly, the Mazda3’s brakes didn’t inspire confidence. “The pedal feel is so off that I almost had an ‘oh s***’ moment while trying to brake downhill,” Cortina said. “You really have to press the pedal hard to stop.”
Although the Mazda3 has more power than the Corolla, it’s let down by a poorly calibrated transmission. “What’s going on with this six-speed tranny?” Cortina asked. “It feels very jerky at low speeds, especially when starting from a stop.” Shift times are also behind competitors, even in Sport mode when the gearbox responds quicker. Cortina also criticized the 2.5-liter I-4 for feeling like the 155-hp 2.0-liter unit from his previous-generation Mazda3.
In the Corolla, Toyota’s 2.0-liter I-4 pairs well with the CVT, which makes good use of the available power. “The engine and transmission offered in higher trims makes such a huge difference,” senior production editor Zach Gale said. “The CVT is responsive in the city and on the highway. I’m really impressed.” Downsides? It’s loud at full throttle, and some may notice the transitions between the physical first gear and the belt and pulleys.
In addition to a comfortable drive, compact sedans must have usable interior and be a nice place to spend time during your commute. Squishy surfaces everywhere, a two-tone color scheme, and tactile buttons give the 2019 Mazda3’s cabin a premium ambience. The Toyota Corolla feels nice, too—if you’re sitting up front. Once you move to the back, the cost cutting becomes evident. “The door cards aren’t bad, with blue stitching, silver trim, and piano black trim, but it still looks cheap compared to the Mazda,” Gale said. Additionally, the Corolla also has more tire noise than the Mazda3 at highway speeds, likely due to its wider rubber and lack of sound deadening.
Both the Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 seat five, but if you regularly carry passengers, skip the latter. “The second row doesn’t have enough legroom for my seating position, and I have less than an inch of free headroom,” Cortina said. There’s more space in the Corolla, especially in the rear, making it the superior carpooling sedan. Front passengers will feel more intimate because of the Corolla’s dash cutting into your personal space. Trunk space is evenly matched, with the Corolla’s measuring at 13.1 cubic feet versus the Mazda3’s 13.2 cubic feet. The Mazda3 takes the cake for small item storage because of its large door pockets, center console bin, and deep mobile phone tray, all of which the Corolla lacks.
Neither Toyota nor Mazda have class-leading multimedia systems, and that remains true for the latest Corolla and Mazda3. Toyota’s Entune 3.0 is new in name only; Cortina complained about the slow response times and graphics that looked a decade old. Gale liked how close the 8.0-inch touchscreen is to the driver because it’s easier to see and reach. Unfortunately, it only comes with Apple CarPlay, forcing Android users to deal with the dated interface.
Mazda’s new infotainment system gets brownie points for the standard 8.8-inch screen. However, its insistence on using a knob to control the interface drew mixed opinions. Gale didn’t mind it as much because he got used to a similar setup in his old long-term Audi A4. Everyone else disliked how long it took to execute simple tasks. “Although it’s easy to control, changing a radio station can take forever,” Cortina said. “If you want to go from channel 53 to 54, it takes a while unless you have both saved on your favorite presets.” Having to control Android Auto and Apple CarPlay via a knob also makes them just as distracting as the native interface.
The Corolla beats the Mazda3 when it comes to active driver assistance technologies. Its lane keeping assist gently centers you and even takes mild turns at highway speeds. Mazda’s version reacts so late that you’ve already crossed into the lane next to you before it realizes what’s happened and jerks you back. Both cars’ adaptive cruise control systems work in traffic; however, their distancing veers on the conservative side because there’s enough space for someone to cut in between you and the vehicle ahead.
Did a Soul Swap Just Happen?
After a hard-fought battle, we declared our winner: the 2020 Toyota Corolla. How? Competitors have caught up to Mazda’s once class-leading compact car. The Mazda3 has a plush interior and better build quality than the Toyota Corolla, but a finicky infotainment system, clunky powertrain, unrefined chassis, inconsistent active driver assistance tech, and a cramped interior let it down. The 2020 Toyota Corolla’s fuel efficiency advantage, superior ride and handling balance, additional interior space, and a simpler multimedia interface make it the better all-around compact sedan. Extra power and a snazzy interior are nice, but they’re not worth it if the rest of the vehicle doesn’t deliver. Frankly, we’ll take tire noise over a choppy ride and muted handling. Mazda, the most unlikely of rivals has put you on notice.
|2019 Mazda Mazda3 (Premium) Sedan||2020 Toyota Corolla XSE Sedan|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, alum block/head||I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||151.8 cu in/2,488 cc||121.3 cu in/1,987 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||186 hp @ 6,000 rpm||169 hp @ 6,600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm||151 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,800 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||16.7 lb/hp||18.4 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||1-speed + Cont variable auto|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||11.0-in vented disc; 10.4-in disc, ABS||10.8-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.0 x 18-in cast aluminum||8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||215/45R18 89V (M+S) Toyo Proxes A40||225/40R18 Yokohama Avid GT|
|WHEELBASE||107.3 in||106.3 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.7/62.2 in||60.3/60.4 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||183.5 x 70.7 x 56.9 in||182.3 x 70.1 x 56.5 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||34.8 ft||35.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,110 lb||3,114 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||62/38%||61/39%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.6/36.7 in||NA in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.3/35.1 in||42.0/34.8 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.7/53.5 in||54.0/51.7 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||13.2 cu ft||13.1 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.6 sec||2.9 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.9||4.2|
|QUARTER MILE||15.7 sec @ 90.3 mph||16.3 sec @ 86.4 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||117 ft||119 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.86 g (avg)||0.83 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.7 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)||27.8 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,800 rpm||1,400 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$29,415||$29,168|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee, front passenger thigh|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 miles||2 yrs/Unlimited miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||13.2 gal||13.2 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||26.3/40.2/31.2 mpg||29.7/44.3/34.9 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||27/36/30 mpg||31/38/34 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||125/94 kW-hrs/100 miles||109/89 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.64 lb/mile||0.57 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|