Johannesburg - The robot apocalypse is happening; right here, right now.
While it’s nothing as dramatic as a Terminator or Matrix-style armageddon with humans getting wasted (or harvested) by unfeeling machines, the for-now-benevolent machines are unburdening us of some of our more prosaic tasks so that we can attend to important matters such as playing Angry Birds on our smartphones.
Prosaic tasks such as driving, for instance. It seems like only the other day that expensive luxury limos first acquired the ability to check their blind spots and partially drive themselves, but it hasn’t taken long for some of these features to filter down into cars that many of us can actually afford.
The Mazda3 is the latest to enter the robot age with new assistance features that throw yet more new abbreviations into the motoring mix and help prevent inattentive drivers from wreaking havoc on the roads.
The newly introduced top-of-the-range Mazda3, the Astina 2.0 Plus selling for R408 400, comes with several of these new driver-assist gadgets, including the ability for the car to stay in its lane, monitor its blind spots, and keep tabs on whether the driver’s awake.
The Smart City Brake Support system (SCBS) helps prevent or lessen low-speed impacts (between 4 and 80km/h) by issuing visual and audible warnings when it detects you’re about to smack into the back of another vehicle. It primes the brakes for a faster response when the driver does decide to brake.
The Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS) detects line marking on the road surface and audibly warns the driver of unintentional lane departures. If even this is insufficient to prod a driver from his or her reverie, the Lane Keep Assist (LKA) adds a slight amount of torque to steer the vehicle back into the lane at speeds over 65km/h.
Night safety is improved by Adaptive LED Headlights (ALH) which automatically turn off selected LEDs to avoid dazzling other drivers.
All this high-tech stuff is available only in range-topping Astina Plus. Picture: Mazda
In the rest of the Mazda3 range the driver still has to do all the thinking. The regular Astina 2.0 model, priced at R378 500, does, however, have a feature that automatically checks your blind spot.
The range-topping Astina Plus gets plenty of other standard fare including cruise control, daytime running lights, leather seats, navigation, an electrically-adjustable driver’s seat, and a rear parking sensor.
A three year or unlimited distance warranty and service plan is included in the price.
Available for the same price in four and five door versions, the new Astina Plus gets tugged along by the familiar 121kW/210Nm two-litre petrol engine. As long as Mazda continues to avoid turbocharging like the plague the Astina will never be used in the same sentence as ‘hot hatch’, but its real-world performance isn’t too shabby. The normally-aspirated engine feels alert and has a nice linear power spread, with the ability to cruise easily.
The six-speed auto gearbox (there’s no manual option for the Astina Plus) does a decently smooth job of managing the engine power, and there are flappy paddles on the steering wheel for drivers who prefer more interaction.
Mazda3 retains its smart, neat interior. Picture: Mazda
The handling is clean and predictable, enhanced by yet another form of microchip-controlled trickery, namely G-Vectoring control. While this sounds very ‘Top Gun’ it’s really just an upgraded stability control programme. When it senses the driver’s enthusiasm has exceeded their talent when driving around a corner, it doesn’t just use braking to get the car back in line but also reduces engine torque based on the steering and acceleration.
In terms of driving comfort the Astina glides around comfortably enough, and the relatively low-profile 215/45 R18 tyres do a good job of filtering out bumps.
As part of a recent facelift the Mazda3’s fog lights, alloy wheels and side skirts have been redesigned, along with a sleeker-looking back end for the hatchback.
Nothing’s changed on the inside and the car retains its smart, neat interior. There’s a colour touchscreen for the infotainment system which is intuitive and simple to operate, and I like that the climate control still uses actual knobs instead of the more finicky-to-use touchscreen icons.
The new flagship of the Mazda3 range gets some welcome safety aids but at a not-necessarily welcome price. As likeable a package as it is, at over 400 grand the Astina Plus is expensive compared to its rivals, particularly the Ford Focus and Opel Astra which come with similar driver-assistance features and also more power.
Mazda3, the Astina 2.0 Plus
Engine: 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder petrol
Gearbox: Six-speed automatic
Power: 121kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 210Nm @ 4000rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 8.9 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 195km/h
Price: R408 400
Warranty: Three-year / unlimited distance
Service plan: Three-year / unlimited distance
MAZDA3 VS ITS RIVALS
Mazda Astina 2.0 Plus AT (121kW/210Nm) - R408 400
Ford Focus 1.5T Trend AT (132kW/240Nm) - R335 840 (includes driver assistance package worth R11 940)
Kia Cerato hatch 2.0 EX AT (118kW/194Nm) - R353 995
Opel Astra hatch 1.6T Sport (147kW/300Nm) - R394 800
VW Golf 1.4 TSI Highline (110kW/250Nm) - R374 700
Honda Civic hatch 1.8 Executive AT (104kW/174Nm) - R370 200Star Motoring
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