Italy takes on the world as we turn up the heat on four popular hatchbacks.
First published in the November 2014 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
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THEY’RE the Claytons of performance five-doors – the hot hatches you have when you’re not having a hot hatch. But unlike the non-alcoholic spirit famously spruiked by actor Jack Thompson, ordering a ‘warm’ hatch for yourself shouldn’t result in laughter and ridicule.
Instead, if the formula is just right, you should bag yourself fun and function in equivalent doses – balancing strong performance with liveability, efficiency and visual subtlety, combined with a snappier insurance premium. All for an accessible $26-28K if you don’t mind shifting gears yourself, which you shouldn’t.
Plus, you get choice. I don’t think an Alfa Romeo, a Holden, a Hyundai and a Mazda have ever starred in a Wheels comparison together, yet here we have a Giulietta Progression ($27,450), a Cruze SRi Z-series ($26,490), an i30 SR ($27,990) and a Mazda 3 SP25 ($25,890) in a direct face-off for warm-hatch honours.
In a perfect world, we’d also have had a Ford Focus Sport ($25,890) and a Nissan Pulsar ST-S ($25,490) along for the ride, but what we’ve ended up with is the sweet spot of warm hatchness.
Four bright sparks
Igniting this medium-heat debate is the newest car here – Mazda’s third-generation 3 in base SP25 guise. Outwardly, it misses out on the trick headlights and LED tail-lights of the GT and Astina versions, but given Mazda Australia doesn’t badge its cars with trim-level designations, most punters would never know you bought the cheap one with the same effervescent drivetrain and saved thousands.
Six hundred dollars more buys you Holden’s top-spec Cruze – the new-for-2014 SRi Z-series – sporting a no-options (besides premium paint) policy and a kit list that includes 18s, keyless entry, alloy pedals, leather-faced seats, front seat heaters and height adjustment, touchscreen sat-nav, rear parking sensors, a reversing camera and connectivity stuff aplenty.
The Mazda matches the Holden on almost every count, and includes an idle-stop system, but it has cloth trim, no seat heaters and height adjustment only for the driver, though it uniquely offers a $1500 safety pack with blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, city auto-brake and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
The Alfa adds another grand to the Holden’s tally, but for many the allure of an Alfa Romeo badge and the Giulietta’s arresting styling may be something you can’t put a price on. The Progression-spec Giulietta wears fairly unsporting 16-inch alloys, lacks navigation of any kind (until an updated model arrives in the first quarter of 2015) and demands extra for rear parking sensors, but it does get height-adjustable front seats with electric lumbar support, four auto up/down windows, Bluetooth and an idle-stop system.
If you want greater kit for your coin, another $500 gets you Hyundai’s i30 SR, complete with 17s, xenon headlights, LED tail-lights, an electric driver’s seat and electric folding side mirrors, plus a spec-for-spec match with the Cruze. But the front passenger misses out on height adjustment, neither front seat is heated, and rear passengers miss out on air vents (i30 Premium only), which, given the plumbing is already there, smacks of stingy penny-pinching. The same applies to the Giulietta.
Warm and warmer
The i30 SR does get its own model-specific engine though – a 129kW/209Nm direct-injection 2.0-litre – and it’s a highlight. Rev-obsessed and rewarding of a committed right foot, it really delivers beyond 5000rpm and will comfortably extend to 7000rpm if you don’t mind a bit of noise, stirred by a reasonably slick six-speed gearshift. But bottom-end urge is not this engine’s forte. When the tacho needle drops below 4000rpm, acceleration fades, as demonstrated by the i30’s rolling-start languor in taller gears. It takes nearly twice as long as the turbocharged Giulietta to accelerate from 80-120km/h in sixth.
Having a turbo is no cure-all, though, as the Cruze SRi proves. Chief problem with Holden’s warm hatch is its weight – at 1474kg, it’s at least 150 more than it should be – and no amount of sporty engine and throttle calibration can entirely compensate for it.
Cruze’s 132kW/230Nm 1.6-litre turbo four is reasonably refined and revs keenly from 5000-6500rpm, but it’s far from inspiring and has no perceptible area of genuine urge. It works best in town, where keen throttle response and a slightly notchy but generally likeable gearchange make the Cruze feel quite muscular. But the higher the speed, the bigger the hill or the taller the gear ratio, the greater your wish that the Cruze offered more grunt. Or weighed less.
Jumping into the Giulietta is like turning up the heat from toasty to almost hot. The 125kW MultiAir version of Alfa’s robust 1.4-litre turbo four lacks the exceptional bottom-end flexibility of the 88kW base unit, but besides a small amount of turbo lag below 1500rpm, it feels much stronger, especially when revving hard.
Surprisingly for an Alfa, it doesn’t have the throatiest induction note here (the Mazda does), though that takes nothing away from its all-round strength and brilliant in-gear performance. The Giulietta is almost as quick from 80-120km/h in fourth gear as the Cruze and i30 are in third, and its six-speed gearshift is a snickety-snick delight.
But the Mazda’s shift is even better. Arguably the finest asset to the SP25’s mechanical skill set is its six-speed SkyActiv-MT transmission. Precise, oiled and wonderfully fluent, it’s a delight to use in all driving environments, backed by a strong and fizzy 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre four that’s equally at home pottering or pouncing.
Pouring on fuel
You don’t quite get that impression from looking at the SP25’s acceleration figures, however. Unlike the almost over-tyred Cruze, the Mazda struggles for grip off the line, axle-tramping its way to a less than spectacular 0-60km/h time of 3.8sec, hampered by a curious lull in engine response after quickly snatching second gear, not the helpful chirp of its front tyres necessary to keep the engine singing.
In the upper ratios, the SP25 flexes its muscles and quickly surges ahead of the Giulietta, but there’s often a sense that Mazda’s SkyActiv-G 2.5 has been restricted from giving its best. The zingy engine’s premature rev limit – just 6200rpm – seems to encroach all too quickly when pushing on.
Of far greater importance is the SP25’s fuel efficiency, averaging an impressive 9.9L/100km on our hard-driven 550km drive loop, compared to 10.2L/100km for the i30 and 10.3L/100km for the Giulietta. As expected, the chunky Cruze trailed the field for economy (12.3L/100km), though, to be fair, it completed four extra acceleration-test runs to 160km/h before we had to abort due to bad weather. But even at an estimated high-11 average, it’s still a drinker.
Some like it hot
Thanks to being extensively honed by Holden’s talented chassis engineers over a number of years, the Cruze SRi is also a handler. In terms of tyre grip and neatness of cornering line, the Cruze is the sportiest car here. Wearing fat, high-quality 235/45R18 Bridgestone Potenza RE050As, the it deserves big praise for its steering precision, poise and adjustability. It also manages to combine excellent body control with a surprisingly liveable ride for such a tightly suspended car on 18-inch wheels, even though you’re constantly aware of what’s going on underneath.
Riding on much more conservative 205/55R16 Bridgestone Turanzas, the Giulietta doesn’t have the Cruze’s supreme adhesion, but that’s somehow part of its charm. The Alfa’s steering is instantly reactive and feels more naturally connected than the Cruze’s, combined with an inherent sense of chassis balance that’s just so encouraging.
The Alfa’s involvement and eagerness more than make up for its relative softness because the 125kW Progression runs the same comfort-biased suspension tune as the base version. To get sports suspension in a non-QV Giulietta, you need to start with a $31,350 Giulietta Distinctive and option an extensive Sportiva pack for $3500.
Because the Giulietta is so goddamn keen and up for some fun, you tend to forgive its ultimate lack of dynamic polish. It transmits a fair amount of tyre rumble on coarse-chip roads, its body rocks around through really lumpy corners and its tail does the odd skip over bumps, despite the fact it’s a proper multi-link IRS set-up. But it allows its rear end to progressively oversteer without snagging the non-switchable stability control, and its electronic ‘Q2’ front diff does a fine job putting power to the ground. As you’d hope from a car wearing an Alfa badge, the Giulietta is unashamedly a driver’s car.
Much the same applies to the Mazda 3 SP25, though its steering lacks the Giulietta’s instant connection. Get stuck into it and the SP25’s broad grip, excellent balance and effective power-down all demonstrate the impressive dynamic talent of its new-generation platform. The Mazda’s tight body control and rewarding rear-end balance harmonise nicely with its steering feel and response when loaded up, and the alacrity of its drivetrain. But it transmits a fair amount of tyre noise (a long-time Mazda weakness) and its jittery initial ride compliance is less forgiving than the Cruze’s.
In such accomplished company, the i30 SR needed to bring its sporting A-game. Unfortunately, no amount of Australian suspension tuning can overcome the inappropriateness of its mushy steering or the inadequacy of its Hankook Ventus 225/45R17 tyres. Drive the Hyundai how it wants to be driven – trailing brakes into corners to pin its nose and transfer weight onto its outside rear tyre – and it’s nicely balanced, but you have to set it up to get the best from it.
Cornering in the wet is another matter. The i30 SR’s tyres turn to skates when asked to corner on a moist surface, inducing understeer on turn-in and oversteer when you back off to bring it into line. Yet even in the dry, its tyres lack adhesion. Look no further than the SR’s mediocre 100km/h-0 braking distance of 39.4m, which is some way behind the slightly fade-prone Mazda (37.5m) and slightly over-assisted Alfa (36.4m), and well off the Cruze’s excellent 35.4m.
A seat by the fire
Not helping matters is the i30’s multi-setting electric steering which feels gluggy and vague around straight ahead, yet even muddier and more artificial in ‘Sport’ mode. Switching to Comfort around town delivers some improvement in weighting crispness, but even then you’re left holding a wheel that is too big, wrapped in artificial-feeling leather, and sitting on a seat that’s mounted too high.
In comparison, its rivals feel much sportier, with relatively low-set driving positions and, in the Alfa and Mazda, terrific three-spoke steering wheels.
Being the oldest of this crew, the Cruze’s circa-2008 cabin feels the most dated, with a budget-GM ambience exacerbated by its excessive silver embellishments and chintzy neon-blue instrument lighting. But it’s all quite functional, with big front door bins housing 1.5-litre water-bottle holders and good front seat support.
There’s a solid back seat in the Cruze, too, offering a slightly elevated view, but its cushion could use more under-thigh support, and the only rear cupholders are on top of the armrest. Rear passengers also sense the Cruze SRi’s busy ride, though it handles really big hits with aplomb. And its nicely trimmed 413-litre boot is brilliant, easily the biggest here.
The Alfa’s interior design is almost as aged (2010) and only months away from receiving an update (centred around a dashboard multimedia touchscreen), but at least it has personality. Its front seats are the most adjustable and the most comfortable, and while its ribbed cloth trim is obviously designed to be durable, it also has a dose of Italian cool. However, there’s frustration ahead if you happen to be lugging more than one takeaway coffee or want somewhere to put a drink bottle.
Giulietta’s rear seat cushion curves away at the edges and doesn’t have much under-thigh support, forcing rear passengers to sit with their legs splayed. But they also get a theatre-style raised view, a comfortable backrest and centre armrest, and competitive space. And let’s not forget the Giulietta’s supple, yet controlled ride, which offers plenty of travel but bottomed out over a hump-back bridge that failed to shake its firmer rivals.
If its room you want, nothing beats the well-packaged Hyundai. Rear-seat passengers sit deep into this group’s best seat, though it trades the superior forward vision of the Cruze and Giulietta for greater under-thigh support. Its centre armrest will hold coffees and its doors house 600ml water bottles, but that’s where the i30’s niceties end.
Up front, the centre armrest won’t slide, making it useless for resting limbs on, and despite sporting leather trim, the front passenger seat has the most basic adjustment possible, in contrast to the eight-way electric driver’s pew.
Spend a few hours seated on its high-mounted, broad buckets and you may question their long-distance comfort – something not helped by the i30 SR’s ride, which is harsher than the Cruze’s, while lacking its overall control. But on the showroom floor, it’s the i30’s more modern, better-integrated dashboard design and more cohesive plastics that will sway punters.
The Mazda goes one better than the Hyundai with an even higher level of finish quality and classier graphics for its centre touchscreen. There’s a refreshing minimalism to the new 3’s interior, though it mixes some great pieces of design with some duff elements, like its lack of adequate front-seat adjustment, delivering a driving position that’s never quite ideal. And the base SP25’s instrument design is style-driven tat. Cue a squinty digital tacho and massive analogue speedo in lieu of two equal-sized, clear dials.
Rear passengers don’t get much love, either, with a low-set bench lacking under-thigh support, backrest comfort and vision in all directions. There’s plenty of headroom, but compared to the airy i30, you definitely feel a little hemmed in. Then there’s the SP25’s road noise, which is all too obvious in the back, and its firm initial ride, though to the Mazda’s credit, it feels supple over bigger bumps and demonstrates excellent control when driven hard.
So which burns brightest?
Sadly, that’s one thing that ultimately betrays the i30’s Korean econocar origins – a DNA strand too deeply embedded for the Aussie-developed SR to fix. It’s quite handsome, with a roomy, inviting interior and what appears to be plenty of kit. Solid drivetrain, too, but there’s something superficial about the i30 that no amount of tuning or fancy trim can overcome. At least not without a new steering set-up and decent tyres.
Where the i30 SR lacks polish, the Cruze SRi has been honed to within an inch of its life. Its handling poise and pointy steering deserve praise, and Holden has done a fine job making 1474kg of lardy hatchback feel spritely. In fact, the Cruze’s best bits are all the Holden stuff – its chassis tune, its hatchback design and its colour (Fantale orange, just like an SS-V’s). But the rest lacks the design sizzle that gets a car like the i30 over the line at purchase time.
What’s guaranteed to shift Giuliettas into driveways is its gorgeous styling. And, once driven, its enthusiasm. From the moment you turn its grippy steering wheel, the Giulietta has personality, its front and rear ends talking to each other, goading its driver to push harder, or drive longer. It’s comfortable, too, with plenty of useable room, including the boot. But it doesn’t matter how long the Alfa’s warranty is, it still carries some baggage in the reliability department, as its 51 percent three-year resale attests.
In contrast, with resale at nearly 68 percent and a reliability record founded on years of near-faultless operation, the Mazda 3 SP25 has to emerge as the warm hatch to beat. Its sporty styling demands packaging compromises and it lacks the Alfa’s instant effervescence, but deep down there’s a fine driver’s car waiting to have its talents exploited.
The base SP25 isn’t perfect – in fact, we’d try and stretch to the GT version with its superior instrument arrangement and more comfortable electric seats – but as both the cheapest car here and arguably the most accomplished, warm has never felt so toasty.
NOT quite making it to the starting grid was Ford’s Focus Sport and Nissan’s turbocharged Pulsar ST-S. The Focus would’ve been a great benchmark for dynamics, but its torque-deprived 2.0-litre four would have been old news, given there’s a facelifted model due early next year with a 1.6-litre ‘Ecoboost’ turbo-petrol four in its armoury. And while Nissan’s 140kW Pulsar ST-S would’ve had no trouble making ground on the straights, we fear its underdone chassis may have left it floundering in the corners, some way short of warm-hatch greatness.
TOWARDS the lower end of Hyundai’s vast i30 line-up is arguably the budget warm hatch – simply called the i30 SE. Unlike the Korean-sourced five-door, the three-door SE comes from Slovakia and gets a proper multi-link rear end like the i30 SW wagon, not the five-door’s inferior torsion beam. The SE three-door also looks cooler, though you’ll have to settle for the same 98kW/163Nm direct-injection 1.6 used in top-spec Rios. It’s a good engine and, in six-speed manual form, only has to lug 1192kg, but swift progress demands frequent gear shifting.
Why no Golf?
VOLKSWAGEN does not at present offer a true warm Golf – only the plush $32K Highline DSG or the hot $41K GTI – but a solution is imminent. You can forget about the GTD because VW Australia has decided not to continue with a performance Golf diesel. Instead, a warmer Golf will be part of a future range-wide roll-out of VW’s R-Line.
MAZDA 3 SP25
Price as tested: $26,258 *Includes metallic paint ($200), floor mats ($168)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 9.9L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 7.9sec (tested)
Plus: Slick manual; strong economy and resale; rear-end balance
Minus: Road noise; lacks front seat adjustment; poor rear seat vision
ALFA ROMEO GIULIETTA
Price as tested: $27,950 * Includes metallic paint ($500)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Euro)
Fuel economy: 10.3L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 7.5sec (tested)
Plus: Connected steering; poised and involving chassis; distinctive styling
Minus: No sat-nav or rear air vents; lacks dynamic polish; road noise
HOLDEN CRUZE SRi Z-SERIES
Price as tested: $26,990 *Includes premium paint ($500)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 12.3L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 8.3sec (tested)
Plus: Sharp handling; well-damped ride; strong brakes; polished city manners
Minus: Needs to lose some weight or boost grunt; dated cabin; thirst
HYUNDAI i30 SR
Price as tested: $27,990
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 10.2L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 8.1sec (tested)
Plus: Rev-obsessed engine; solid packaging; handsome styling
Minus: Mushy, muddy steering; too-big steering wheel; poor tyres