For nearly half of a century the Golf GTI has been the king of the hot hatch segment and it’s never left production. Can the Mazda3 steal the crown?
When the Volkswagen Golf GTI originally debuted it gave the company a whole new facet of fans that had never before even considered buying a Volkswagen – driving enthusiasts. Now, some 45 years later, those three little letters have gathered a following of die-hard fans that simply can’t imagine a better hot hatch. Many other brands have built similar cars, but none of them have had the sticking power of the GTI. Today, Mazda aims to change that with the new Mazda3. Unlike the Fast & Furious fanboy that the old MazdaSpeed3 was, this new car is all about grown-up performance both inside and out. Let’s dig into the details of these practical powerhouses and see if the 2021 VW GTI can keep its crown against the 2021 Mazda3.
Both the GTI and the Mazda3 come in multiple different trim levels, but to make our comparison a reasonable one let’s define which ones we’re actually testing. After all it would be completely unfair to test the GTI Autobahn edition with a starting price of a whopping $37,940 against a base Mazda3 at just $22,650. So, we’ve chosen the Mazda3 2.5 turbo to run up against the Golf GTI SE. Both of these are considered middle-of-the-pack in their individual ranges and both are priced similarly. Now without further ado, let’s dig into what makes each one special and which is the better modern day hot hatch.
The VW GTI SE comes with the same drivetrain as every other GTI SE, a 228 horsepower 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that makes 258 lb-ft of torque. Power is routed through a 6-speed manual transmission or buyers can opt for a 7-speed DSG for another $800. Either way, that power is routed to the front wheels only regardless of trim level. The GTI gets 24 mpg city and 32 mpg on the highway; the point of these hatchbacks is that they offer some practicality after all. With no additional options, the GTI SE comes in at $33,660.
The Mazda3 costs a bit less at just $32,045 and features a turbocharged 2.5-liter engine making 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque. Sadly, the only transmission available is a 6-speed autobox that’s certainly no DSG. Nevertheless, a major point in favor of the Mazda3 on the other side of the coin is that the 2.5 Turbo comes standard with all-wheel-drive. Pushing power to two more wheels would normally result in a major penalty over a front-driven application, but the Mazda3 actually manages 1mpg better in the city (25 mpg) and just 1 lower on the highway (31 mpg).
These two hatchbacks attack the market in completely different ways. Much in the same manner that Porsche has slowly softly massaged the 911 into the brute that it is today, Volkswagen has never really changed the GTI in some shocking and abhorrent way. It’s certainly improved and the overall quality of the car has taken to incremental steps forward over 45 years too, but the changes haven’t been made in haste.
The problem is that, unlike the 911, the GTI is built to be a compromise from the very beginning. It’s built to both be sporty and smart, the brains and the brawn. The steering is well-weighted and overall the car is well balanced. The 6-speed transmission is buttery smooth and the notchy feeling of each change is wonderful. The only time that you notice the compromise is when driving the car hard. The front wheels struggle to do all of the accelerating, braking, and turning… so it wants to understeer more often than most enthusiasts will appreciate. The bigger problem is that if you get in the GTI after driving the Mazda3 you’ll feel like it’s down on power. And that’s because it is.
Stab the throttle in either of these cars and you’ll be shot forward, but after about 40 mph the VW gives up the ghost losing in the battle to 60 by nearly half a second. It does a bit better in a sprint to 100 only losing by .02 seconds, but as the Mazda3’s predecessor might remind us “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, a win’s a win”.
That performance continues in every other avenue too. The all-wheel-drive system works tirelessly behind the scenes allowing the Mazda3 to avoid the abundance of oversteer seen in the GTI. Where the GTI might be considered more comfortable, the Mazda is sharper. The electrically assisted steering isn’t as nice as the VW, but it’s close. And the way this thing brakes is surprising considering that the rotors are more than an inch smaller than its rival here. Perhaps the lighter unsprung mass is contributing to the handling prowess. Despite the Mazda3 also being a compromise, it feels far less like one.
If we were comparing the old MazdaSpeed3 to its Volkswagen equivalent of the time, there simply wouldn’t be a discussion. Unlike Volkswagen though, Mazda has seen fit to make those leaps and bounds forward towards what is a shocking improvement. The inside of both of these cars will feel high-quality, comfortable, and downright luxurious to most.
One area where Mazda clearly could learn from Volkswagen is the personality of the interior. Volkswagen has seen fit to make the car feel sort of like an old friend with quirky interior choices like plaid seats and outstanding ergonomics.
They’ve also created the better infotainment system (thanks to Audi for that) and despite some lag at least it’s a touchscreen, unlike the Mazda unit. Still, there’s lots to love in the Mazda including the soft-touch materials, excellent seat bolstering, and a 12-speaker Bose sound system that is fantastic.
In back is where the practicality that really matters happens. The GTI takes the cake with a total cargo capacity volume of 53.7 cubic feet with the seats laid down. The Mazda only manages 47.1 cubic feet, but once you have rear passengers it takes the lead back with 20.1 cubic feet whereas the VW only has 17.4 at that point.
The GTI is always going to maintain a large following of die-hard fans that will go to bat for it regardless of whatever wrongs Volkswagen may do. That’s completely understandable considering that no other brand has been able to reliably release a tried and true hot hatch year after year for nearly half of a century. It has a better transmission (either one really) and a better interior full stop.
Nevertheless, when you drive these cars you have to remove the badges in your mind and drive them as they were meant to be without preconceived inclination. None of us can be completely unbiased, but the honest truth is that the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo is simply a better car for the money. For less money, it has a better engine, all-wheel-drive that actually works, outstanding handling, and a high-quality fit and finish. Nobody is going to drive away from a Mazda or Volkswagen dealership feeling like they’re in a bad car. But in the end, the person in the Mazda3 is going to get a better bang from their buck.