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2018 Mazda3 5-Door vs. 2018 Volkswagen Golf: Which Is Better?

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author photo by Chris O'Neill August 2018

Two of the best hatchbacks on the market today are the 2018 Mazda3 5-door and the Volkswagen Golf. Both offer refinement, style and driving performance beyond what one might expect from a mainstream compact hatchback. If you're looking for practicality, efficiency and driving enjoyment, we suggest you take a good, hard look at both of these models, as they represent two of the industry's most well-rounded vehicles. Below, we'll compare the two and highlight the main differences to help you determine which is right for you.

Basic Specs

Now in its third generation, the Mazda3 was last all-new for the 2014 model year and received an update for the 2017 model year. Engine options have remained the same since 2014, with lower-end models coming with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque and a more potent 2.5-liter 4-cylinder available in upper trim levels making 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque.

Fuel economy figures for each available configuration of the Mazda3 are below.

Mazda3 5-door 2.0 manual -- 27 miles per gallon in the city, 37 mpg on the highway and 31 mpg combined

Mazda3 5-door 2.0 auto -- 28 mpg city/37 mpg hwy/32 mpg combined

Mazda3 5-door 2.5 auto -- 26 mpg city/35 mpg hwy/30 mpg combined

The entry-level Mazda3 hatchback starts at just over $20,000 and reaches $30,000 in fully-loaded configuration.

The Volkswagen Golf was last all-new for the 2015 model year and was updated for 2018. Technically, only one engine is offered: A 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder making 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.

On top of the standard Golf, buyers can also opt for the legendary GTI, which offers a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine making 220 hp and an impressive 258 lb-ft of torque. The GTI also adds a bona fide sport suspension, an available fast-shifting dual clutch automatic transmission and a number of performance touches, making it perhaps the best performance value on the market today.

Below are the fuel economy figures for the 2018 Golf and the GTI.

Golf 1.8T manual -- 25 mpg city/34 mpg hwy/29 mpg combined

Golf 1.8T auto -- 24 mpg city/33 mpg hwy/28 mpg combined

GTI manual -- 25 mpg city/33 mpg hwy/28 mpg combined

GTI DSG -- 24 mpg city/32 mpg hwy/27 mpg combined

The Golf starts at around $21,000 and reaches almost $25,650 in its highest trim level. The GTI picks up where the Golf left off, starting at $25,595 and reaching about $37,000 in fully-loaded form. While buyers wanting even more Golf can look to the high-performance Golf R model, we'll be limiting this comparison to the regular Golf and the GTI, as only those two are most likely to be cross-shopped with the Mazda3 hatch.

Dimensions

The Mazda3 Hatchback is 175.6 inches long, 70.7 inches wide and 57.3 inches tall. Inside, it offers 38.6 inches of front-seat headroom and 42.2 inches of front-seat legroom. In the back, the Mazda3 offers 37.6 inches of headroom and 35.8 inches of legroom.

The Volkswagen Golf is smaller on the outside than the Mazda3, but offers very similar dimensions inside. The Golf is 167.5 inches long, 70.8 inches wide and 57.2 inches tall. Inside, the Golf offers 38.4 inches of front-seat headroom and 41.2 inches of front-seat legroom, while back seat passengers are offered 38.1 inches of headroom and 35.6 inches of legroom.

The Golf offers more cargo space than the Mazda3. Behind the second row, the Golf offers 23 cu ft. of space to the Mazda3's 20 cu ft. Fold their second rows, and the Golf offers 53 cu ft., and the Mazda offers 47.

Overall, while the Mazda3 offers more dramatic styling than the Golf, the Golf offers a more efficient usage of space.

Interior Design

The Golf and the Mazda3 employ drastically different design philosophies. The Mazda is all about curves and angles, while the Golf relies on conservative simplicity and minimalism. This is very evident in their interior designs.

The Golf's minimalist design employs a lot of right angles and cold industrial tones, but that isn't to say it's uninviting. The vehicle's center stack is tilted slightly toward the driver and features the HVAC vents, infotainment screen and HVAC controls on a rather flat plane. The GTI turns things up a notch, offering red accents and a thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel, along with aluminum look pedals and a golf-ball shift knob on manual transmission models. GTIs with fabric seats offer a fun plaid pattern, and many prefer them to the leather offered on higher-trim GTIs. Whether you're in the GTI or a regular Golf, feature design and functionality are top-notch.

As mentioned before, the Mazda3 employs more curves. The infotainment screen is a floating design that sits atop the dashboard and is controlled by a touchscreen or a rotary dial on the center console. Like the Golf, the Mazda3 employs a number of different surfaces throughout the cabin, including aluminum and piano black, all of which coordinate well with the rest of the design. The gauge cluster places the tachometer in the center and relegates the speedometer to a digital readout. The Mazda3 also offers a unique optional white interior on upper trim levels.

Overall, while the interiors of the Golf and the Mazda3 differ significantly, both are well-built and attractive, which makes determining which is better a matter of personal taste.

Features

Available features of the Mazda3 include an available Bose sound system, a head-up display, heated front and rear seats and a heated steering wheel.

The Golf and the GTI both offer standard LED headlights and taillights, an available power passenger seat, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a few other delightful features like a rear logo that serves as the rear hatch release and houses the backup camera, which only protrudes when needed, helping to keep it clear of obstruction during rainy and snowy weather.

Both vehicles offer a standard tilt-telescopic steering wheel.

Infotainment

The Mazda3 offers an infotainment system that is intuitive and easy to use. A 7.0-in screen is standard, as are redundant rotary knob controls on the console that increase overall ease of use. While the Mazda Connect infotainment system is good enough, we'd like to see the Mazda3 incorporate Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, features that Mazda is just now starting to introduce throughout its lineup. While other 2018 Mazda models have the capability of being retrofitted with this technology, it has yet to be seen whether this will be the case with the Mazda3. Two USB ports and one 12-volt outlet are offered.

Entry-level Golfs and GTIs come with a 6.5-in infotainment screen, while upper trim levels get a large 8.0-in unit. While VW's native infotainment system is criticized for having long load times, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard on all Golfs and GTIs. The Golf offers one USB port and two 12-volt outlets, one of which is located in the cargo area.

Overall, both of these vehicles offer competent infotainment systems, but the Golf and the GTI's inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability give it a leg up.

Reliability

VW has had its issues with longevity in the past, but thanks to its excellent new fully transferable 6-year/70,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, you won't need to worry too much, at least from a financial standpoint, for quite awhile after buying a new VW.

Mazda offers a 3-year/36,000-mile basic and a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty, which are on par with the rest of the industry.

Overall, Mazda takes the lead when it comes to reliability, but VW's massive warranty makes it a close race.

Safety

Both the Mazda3 and the Volkswagen Golf score well in crash-testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Both vehicles also offer a comprehensive suite of driver-assistance safety features. Front automated emergency braking is standard on the 2018 Mazda3, while adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, blind spot monitoring, forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist and rear cross-traffic monitoring are all optional. Rear parking sensors are available as a dealer-installed option.

The Volkswagen Golf doesn't offer any of its driver-safety features as standard, but the Golf is available with adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, front automated emergency braking, automatic high beams, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic monitoring, front and rear parking sensors and lane-departure warning.

Relative to one another, the Mazda3's major omission is front parking sensors, while the Golf lacks lane-keeping assist. Overall, we prefer the Mazda's offering.

Autotrader's Advice

In the end, it's hard to say that one of these vehicles is objectively better than the other. Both offer practicality, efficiency, excellent feature design and a level of fit-and-finish unexpected in the segment. The Mazda3 offers a stylish, luxurious experience with high-end features like heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel and an infotainment system controlled by a rotary dial. The Golf, on the other hand, offers a conservative, but still attractive, design with a number of well-executed features, such as a rear hatch handle hidden behind the VW logo. And then we have the GTI, which offers excellent performance and comes well-equipped for the same price as a loaded Mazda3 hatchback. The Mazda3 offers sporty driving dynamics and great handling, but it doesn't offer a genuine performance variant, giving the GTI the edge when it comes to driving excitement. That said, the Mazda3 offers a great luxury experience with good performance, which will be enough for some buyers. To sum it all up, we think that buyers considering a basic Volkswagen Golf ought to take a look at the Mazda3 hatch, but that buyers tempted by a loaded Mazda3 should consider a comparably priced GTI.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2018 Mazda3 5-Door vs. 2018 Volkswagen Golf: Which Is Better? - Autotrader