Mazda 3 and Toyota Corolla Altis: Clash of the Japanese sedans

Shoppers for family rides today have more options than ever before.

Despite this, the humble Japanese family sedan remains the popular choice for bread-and-butter transport. Except they are not so humble anymore.

Mazda has acquired a taste for luxury and begun a push upmarket – the new 3 cuts a sultry silhouette – while the Toyota Corolla’s statement-making trapezoidal grille throws beige and boring out of the window.

The Corolla is nothing if not striking, and looks memorable while taking cues from its larger Camry brother.

Mazda’s new 3 brings forth a fresh interpretation of the firm’s “Soul of Motion” design language. Conveying a quiet, inner strength via a flowing silhouette, it is poetry rendered in metal.

Inside, both cars have adopted a minimalist philosophy.

A two-tier dashboard design is employed in the Corolla by way of a robust base propping up a slimmer element.

Separating them is a silver line that terminates in a delightful trapezoidal arc around the outboard air-conditioning vents – a styling flourish in line with the car’s chiselled exterior.

Squidgy materials abound. Here is a dash that is interesting to the eye and very satisfying to the touch.

However, the Corolla comes with an unremarkable steering wheel with dull-looking buttons, and a gearshift that fails to disguise the less-than-luxurious clacking sensation of plastic on plastic.

The infotainment system, festooned with cartoonish graphics, also depends on a third-party app for smartphone mirroring rather than the excellent Android Auto and Apple CarPlay found in the Mazda 3.

SPECS /TOYOTA COROLLA ALTIS ELEGANCE; MAZDA 3 ASTINA

Price: $99,888; $103,888 with COE

Engine: 1,598 16-valve inline-4; 1,496cc 16-valve inline-4

Transmission: Continuously variable with paddle shift; six-speed automatic with manual select

Power: 129bhp at 6,400rpm; 118bhp at 6,000rpm

Torque: 159Nm at 4,200rpm; 153Nm at 4,000rpm

0-100kmh: 12.9 seconds; 11.9 seconds

Top speed: 190kmh; 200kmh

Fuel consumption: 6.4 litres/100km; 5.5 litres/100km

Agent: Borneo Motors; Trans Eurokars Mazda

Overall, it is the Mazda 3 that better executes beauty in simplicity.

The level of artistry and quality here outshines those even from cars costing tens of thousands more. From the muted ticks of the indicators to the satisfying whump of the doors, every element exudes class.

Move to the back seat and it is the Corolla that comes up trumps, with its more generous legroom. It also feels brighter and airier despite not having a sunroof like the Mazda.

On the road, the Mazda presses home the subjective advantage. Armed with small naturally aspirated engines, neither car will blur the scenery dramatically.

The Corolla’s continuously variable transmission, however, makes the perceived effort of enthusiastic acceleration a whiny affair.

Mazda’s expertly tuned and invitingly alert six-speed torque converter automatic does a more dignified job of managing the engine’s modest output, to the extent that you can even call it entertaining.

The Mazda strides down the road with the secure gait that brings German sports sedans to mind. Throwing it through a series of bends or between lanes reveal a stoic ability to gather up its body motions expertly.

The Corolla is less fun through a slalom, despite its double-wishbone independent rear suspension being technically superior to the Mazda’s less sophisticated torsion beam set-up.

At a cruise, a marginally more pliant ride should be the upshot, but both cars ride similarly on the clomp down an uneven Balestier Road.

Toyota has entered a worthy vehicle in the segment and the Corolla is a meaningful improvement over its predecessor. Certainly, it will not leave anyone disappointed in his or her daily commute.

Some 44 million units of sales and counting bear testimony to its reliability and durability. Indeed, it checks all the right boxes for a practical ride.

As for the Mazda 3, it feels like a car from a segment or even two above, and goes the furthest of any car in memory to decimate the myth that entry-level luxury cars are worth the premium. Its top-of-the-line Astina variant costs a bit more than the Corolla. Yet, it is a car that might be worth what you would fork out for an Audi.

The Corolla is very good indeed, but the Mazda 3 is a game-changer.

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