If you’re in the market for a compact sedan but want to go beyond the predictable, safe choices of a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, have I got a review for you.
There are two other strong candidates, both brand new for 2019, that just happened to end up in my driveway at the same time: the Jetta 1.4T SEL and the Mazda 3 Sedan with Premium Package AWD.
The Jetta is 187.1 inches long, 70.8 inches wide and stands 57.4 inches tall. It rides on a wheelbase (the length between the front and rear wheels) of 105.7 inches.
The Mazda 3 is a bit shorter at 183.5 inches, is only a fraction narrower at 70.7 inches and is a half-inch less tall at 56.9 inches. Despite being shorter, the Mazda has a longer wheelbase at 107.3 inches. Longer wheelbase tends to equal smoother ride (a longer time span between the front wheels hitting an imperfection and the rears hitting the same thing) and at least the potential for greater passenger volume.
So let’s see what Mazda did with the extra interior room. It would show up in legroom for either the front or rear.
• Jetta front/rear legroom: 41.1 inches/37.4
• Mazda 3 front/rear legroom: 42.3 inches/35.1
So while the Mazda 3 has 1.2 inches more front legroom than the Jetta, it offers rear-seat passengers 2.3 inches less.
Let’s check headroom, where the Jetta, a half-inch taller, would appear to have the edge.
• Jetta headroom: 38.5 inches
• Mazda 3 headroom: 37.6 inches
Again, it’s the Jetta by a slim margin. It also has a larger trunk at 14.1 cubic feet to the Mazda 3’s 13.2.
Where the Mazda begins to pull away (literally) is performance.
The Jetta’s 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes 147 horsepower, while the Mazda 3’s 2.5-liter, nonturbo Skyactiv-G four-cylinder engine generates 186. VW tries to get around that by using the turbo to beef up the torque early in the rev curve – delivering the same 186 pounds per foot of torque at just 1,400 rpm that the Mazda does at 4,000 – but it can’t overcome the power deficit. A test by Motor Trend found that the VW goes from 0-60 mph in 7.8 seconds and the Mazda does it in 7.2. In the quarter-mile, the power gap really showed, with the Jetta at 16 seconds and 86.5 miles per hour and the Mazda 3 at 15.4 seconds and 91.2 mph.
The Jetta’s lower power and more gears (an eight-speed automatic transmission versus the Mazda’s six) buys it an advantage in fuel economy (a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-estimated 30 city/40 highway to the Mazda’s 25/33).
And the Jetta is less expensive. The top-of-the-line SEL has a base price of $24,415, and being well equipped, had no extra-cost options. The price with $850 destination charge was $25,265. Our similarly top-spec Mazda 3’s base price was $27,900. In fairness, the Mazda had all-wheel drive and the VW didn’t, so an apples-to-apples price for the four-wheel-drive Mazda 3 would be $26,500. That’s still $2,000 more than the Jetta.
Where’d that money go?
Well, the performance certainly, but Mazda has also gone to a much more premium look and feel for its interior. Everything in the Mazda 3’s new cockpit seems like it belongs in a much more expensive vehicle (such as leather instead of leatherette). It matches the new exterior, which I find simply gorgeous. The sleek, sensuous single-line approach to the Mazda 3’s styling is a knockout. It rides on 18-inch wheels instead of the VW’s 16s. And the Mazda packs standard equipment in the premium package (head-up display, adaptive front lighting, paddle shifters) that the VW doesn’t even offer in the Jetta.
While direct competitors, these two compact sedans are really suited for different buyers. The practical compact sedan owner seeking space, efficiency and a remarkably low price will likely choose the 2019 VW Jetta. The driver who doesn’t want to be reminded he or she is driving an economy car will probably spend the extra money for the extra-special look and feel of the Mazda 3.
Mike Hagerty has been writing about cars since 1997 and is vice president of membership for Western Automotive Journalists. Read more of his reviews on his website (tirekicker.blogspot.com) or follow him on Twitter (twitter.com/mikehagertycars) and Facebook (facebook.com/mikehagertywritesaboutcars). He is also the co-anchor of the KFBK Afternoon News in Sacramento.