For the first time since 2013, Mazda is offering a hopped-up version of its compact hatchback and sedan, the Mazda3. But instead of the rip-snorting “wild child” of yore, this new 2021 Mazda3 Turbo is designed to provide impressive performance while being mature and livable. That sounds rather like the philosophy behind the ur-hot hatch, the 2021 Volkswagen GTI. Not only that, but they have similar performance at similar prices. And having driven both fairly recently, we figured there was no better time to have a look at their specs, talk about our impressions, and show you how they compare.
Performance and Driving Impressions
Both the Mazda and the VW come packing turbocharged four-cylinder engines, but going deeper reveals quite a few differences. The Mazda, with an extra 500 cc of displacement, makes the most power, and far and away the most torque. Its engine has a very different character to the VW’s, though. The Mazda builds boost and power in an incredibly smooth and linear manner, so much so that it almost feels like a naturally aspirated engine. It’s precise and predictable, though it does lack a certain exhilaration. The GTI has that missing exhilaration thanks to a more noticeable rush of boost once the turbo is spooled up. It’s a stronger-feeling engine than the numbers suggest, too. If you don’t keep the revs up, though, you’ll find the GTI feeling a little slow at first until you have full boost.
Both cars have very different drivetrains. The Volkswagen has the transmission advantage with your choice of either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. The manual is one of the better VW units with solid, snickety gates and reasonably short throws. The dual-clutch transmission offers incredibly smooth and wickedly quick shifts, but there's obviously less driver involvement. Both are a step up from the Mazda’s more conventional six-speed automatic, the only option available. While it has decent shift logic, it’s sluggish, particularly compared with the VW automatic.
The advantage shifts when getting to the drive wheels. The Mazda features all-wheel drive, and it actively changes its torque split. It makes it easy for all that torque to get to the ground, mitigates torque steer, and helps give the car a neutral balance even under hard throttle. The GTI is only available with front-wheel drive. That's not necessarily a bad thing and it even includes a mechanical limited-slip differential, but it’s not quite as effective at putting the power down as the Mazda’s all-wheel drive. Plus, the front-driving GTI still exhibits some understeer when powering through corners.
As for ride and handling, the Mazda leans toward comfort, and the VW toward performance. But the GTI has an optional feature that lets it do both extremely well. The base and mid-grade GTIs get a fixed suspension, but the top-spec model gets adaptive shocks, which is what our test car featured. It lets you choose between a firm-but-comfortable “comfort” mode, and a “sport” mode that lives up to its name by being stiffer and bumpier. It provides the best of both worlds. The GTI also has quick, weighty steering and a neutral, communicative chassis.
The Mazda is only available with a fixed suspension, and it’s tuned a bit softer. It makes it more comfortable, but you do end up with a bit more body roll than the VW. It’s steering is a bit slower and lighter, but still very precise and with enough feedback to be enjoyable. And, as previously mentioned, the all-wheel drive lets you use the throttle more in corners, which is fun. Both cars are fairly quiet and their engines have a bit of growl.
Interior and Exterior Design and Dimensions
Both the Mazda and VW have clean and subtly sporty exterior designs. They eschew giant wings and vents for small spoilers and splitters, and clean sheet metal. The Mazda is swoopy and curvy, though, whereas the VW is straight-edged and upright. The Mazda is also notably larger than the GTI. The hatchback, which is shorter than the also-available sedan, is still nearly 8 inches longer than the VW. The wheelbase is a little over 3 inches longer than that of the GTI, too. Height and width of both are within an inch of each other.
Strangely, the Mazda’s extra size doesn’t quite translate to the interior. Both cars have nearly the same space for passengers both front and rear. In practice, the GTI actually feels more spacious, particularly for rear passengers where there’s much more headroom, and a smidgen more legroom. It’s also easier to get into the VW thanks to its taller roofline. The Mazda does make up for this somewhat by offering more cargo space in the hatchback than the VW GTI. The Mazda3 sedan has less, but that’s to be expected with a trunk rather than a hatch.
While similarly sized inside, the Mazda and VW have very different interior designs and driving positions. The Mazda feels far more premium with upholstery-covered dash panels, a modern, minimalist design, and expensive-feeling controls. It also has a low, car-like driving position. The GTI, while put together well and featuring decent plastics, still has a bland dashboard. The driving position is also unusual, as you sit quite high, closer to a crossover than a car. The GTI does have nicer, more supportive seats, and they’re available in a charming plaid cloth. Both cars have simple, responsive infotainment systems, though the Mazda’s is entirely controlled from a physical control wheel in the center console, and the VW’s is a touchscreen system. The latter in particular makes it a better match for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
Judging by base prices, the VW GTI has an advantage with a price about $1,000 less than the cheapest Mazda3 Turbo, and even with the automatic, it’s about $350 less. But the Mazda includes more features as standard. It comes with a sunroof, adaptive LED headlights, power adjustable driver’s seat, head-up display, adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist. Most of these features area available on the GTI, but you have to choose more expensive trim levels. The mid-level SE starts at $33,660, and the top-level Autobahn starts at $37,940. The Mazda has only one other trim level, the Premium Plus, which starts at $33,395 on the sedan, and $34,695 for the hatchback.
Both of these turbocharged compacts are excellent choices offering great driving dynamics and subtle sporty styling. And the better of the two depends on what you’re looking for. If you prioritize sporty driving, the VW is a more engaging and rewarding vehicle. But if you want a bit more comfort, value and premium feel, the Mazda is the way to go.