Volkswagen Golf vs. Mazda 3: Compare Cars

November 29, 2016
2017 Mazda 3

2017 Mazda 3

Among the growing plethora of compact hatchbacks, the Volkswagen Golf is the endurance champ, now more than 40 years old over seven generations. While the Mazda 3 is only on its third generation, Mazda has sold other small hatchbacks, so both are contenders of long standing on the sporty end of the small-car scale.

You'll immediately recognize the VW Golf, whose shape remains true to its upright origins as the 1974 VW Rabbit. It's a handsome, rectilinear hatchback, slightly larger than previous generations and better integrated than the model it succeeded. The Mazda 3 is far swoopier, with a long hood and a "cab-back" style that truncates the cabin and makes its proportions distinct from any other small car.

MORE: Read our latest reviews of the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda 3.

There's also a Mazda 3 sedan, but it competes with the Volkswagen Jetta; the Golf is offered as a hatchback or a wagon (including a new-for-2017 Golf Alltrack that's basically a wagon with a lift kit and all-wheel drive). Although the Jetta and Golf used to be essentially the same car, aside from the way they carried cargo. Today, however, the Jetta is a distinctly different vehicle with its own interior and suspensions. The Jetta is designed primarily for Americans, while the Golf is a global vehicle sold in just about every corner of the globe. 

We've rated the 2017 Golf a 6.7 on our new scale, but the 2017 Mazda 3 a 7.6. The Mazda may be a clear winner, but the contest is closer than the numbers may indicate.(Read more about how we rate cars.)

2017 Volkswagen Golf

2017 Volkswagen Golf

2017 Volkswagen Golf

2017 Volkswagen Golf

2017 Volkswagen Golf

2017 Volkswagen Golf

2017 Volkswagen Golf

2017 Volkswagen Golf

Inside, the Volkswagen is evolutionary, with the addition of a touchscreen display in the upper center of its dashboard. It's brighter looking and more airy, and silver accents make it less grim than previous base models' largely black interiors. The Mazda's interior is businesslike but slightly more stylish, with a large, colorful, high-contrast freestanding screen protruding from the top of the dash, a la Mercedes-Benz.

The main challenge for Mazda buyers is cabin space. It's spacious in front, and the seats are supportive and comfortable. But back-seat room is among the tightest, with little leg room or head room. The Volkswagen Golf, on the other hand, can accommodate four adults in relative comfort. Mazda may feel that the 3 will only be used by couples, or couples with small children, but it's impractical if you need to carry four adults for any distance.

The Mazda 3 comes with either a 2.0-liter version of its engine rated at 155 horsepower, or a more powerful 2.5-liter version that puts out 184 hp. Each is available with a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automatic transmission. The entire structure of the Mazda 3 has been designed around these engines, with more length from the front wheels to the firewall housing a complex exhaust system that vastly improves efficiency. EPA combined ratings are 29 to 33 mpg, depending on powertrain, both laudable for a sporty compact hatchback and likely to be confirmed by real-world use.

The base engine in the Golf TSI and Golf SportWagen is a 1.8-liter turbocharged, direct-injection inline-4 rated at 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque that doesn't delay its power delivery.

Stepping up to the Golf GTI nets a 40 hp (or 50 hp) boost from a 2.0-liter turbo-4 that makes 258 lb-ft of torque. It's hard to catch this engine flat-footed, and both the 6-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch gearboxes are fine choices. Acceleration to 60 mph takes around six seconds—very quick considering the practicality here—while a "progressive" steering system and a suspension that's tuned for performance make the GTI more satisfying to drive fast than the Golf.

2016 Mazda 3

2016 Mazda 3

2016 Mazda 3

2016 Mazda 3

2016 Mazda 3

2016 Mazda 3

2017 Mazda 3 (Japanese spec)

2017 Mazda 3 (Japanese spec)

After admitting to cheating on the EPA's emissions testing, the Golf is no longer offered with the automaker's turbodiesel (TDI in VW-speak) engine range. And that's a shame, not only because of the black mark on VW's cheating but also because those engines were thrifty and strong. 

The Mazda is largely a joy to drive. It's far more athletic than your most compact cars, with excellent suspension and dynamics. The downside is less on-center stability in highway driving, plus a fair amount of ride harshness (and noise) making its way into the cabin. The Golf is competent, and handles very well, although it feels shy of genuinely sporty unless you opt for the GTI. Golfs have some of the best electric power steering and road-noise isolation in the category.

On the safety front, both cars are about on par with one another; top marks from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS. Both models come standard with a high degree of safety tech and both offer features like automatic emergency braking on almost every trim level. 

The sprawling VW Golf range also includes the Golf SportWagen (which was the Jetta SportWagen in prior generations) and an all-electric Volkswagen e-Golf. The SportWagen drives just like a Golf but with far more interior volume; VW notes that it has more cargo space than some compact SUVs. An all-wheel-drive SportWagen is newly available with either 6-speed manual or the automatic, while the new Golf Alltrack takes a Subaru-like approach by offering a small degree of off-road ability. The low-volume e-Golf drives like a somewhat heavier and very quiet Golf; it's the most inconspicuous integration of battery-electric power we know.

There's also the classic Volkswagen GTI model derived from the Golf, with an even more powerful 220-hp 2.0 TFSI engine. GTI buyers get a choice between 6-speed manual and 6-speed dual-clutch (DSG) gearboxes.

Which one's better for you? This one's likely to come down to driving habits. If you envision a sporty ride to work, the GTI is the road to go down. However, if you just need a simple, efficient commuter with plenty of value, the Mazda 3 is our winner for most buyers.

Summary

6.5
Expert Rating
There's a Golf for nearly every taste and need—Golf, Golf GTI, Golf SportWagen— and don't forget about the EV eGolf, which is very balanced and fun to drive.
7.3
Expert Rating
The 2017 Mazda 3 is near the top of our favorite compact cars on sale today. Its good performance, good fuel economy, and good value make for a very good car.

Styling

5.0
Expert Rating
The Volkswagen Golf is straight-laced and serious; far more conservative than most in its class.
Read More
8.0
Expert Rating
Put simply, the 2017 Mazda 3 is an attractive car at an attractive price.
Read More

Performance

7.0
Expert Rating
The Golf can be as powerful and as quick as you like, but base versions are practical and competent.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
The little things in the 2017 Mazda 3 make a big difference when it comes to drivability.
Read More

Comfort & Quality

7.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Golf is one of the most refined compact cars on the road today.
Read More
6.0
Expert Rating
Considering the price, the Mazda 3 isn't a bad pick—we were just hoping for more.
Read More

Safety

8.0
Expert Rating
The entire Golf range has earned near-perfect scores from the IIHS, and very good scores from federal testers.
Read More
9.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Mazda 3 boasts an impressive safety score thanks to good crash-test data and available safety features.
Read More

Features

5.0
Expert Rating
Base Volkswagens aren't lavishly equipped, but a good infotainment system helps.
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6.0
Expert Rating
Very well equipped in base models, the Mazda 3 is a good deal regardless of trim—we just wish for a better infotainment system.
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Fuel Economy

7.0
Expert Rating
Regardless of body style or engine, the 2017 Volkswagen Golf is fairly fuel-efficient.
Read More
8.0
Expert Rating
The Mazda 3 is fuel efficient in nearly every configuration, which is impressive considering its engine choices.
Read More

MSRP

from $19,895
from N/A

Invoice

from $19,099
from N/A

Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway

29

Engine

Intercooled Turbo Regular Unleaded I-4, 1.8 L

Drivetrain

Front Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
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