The perfect car for anybody meets the best car for everyone. It is difficult to argue against a hatchback Mazda 3 or a Volkswagen Golf. Either works well enough at enough tasks that it can be safely recommended, always and to anyone. Which, of course, we do. The current generations of the Mazda 3 and the Golf have won spots on our list since their inceptions, thanks to excellent combinations of performance, utility, and value. Liked by all, loved by some, these are known quantities, as familiar as our own children.

In fact, examples of each have been demanding our time and attention for months now, with a pair of long-term test cars parked here at Eisenhower Place. We even pressed one of them, the website’s Tornado Red Golf, into service for this comparison, matching it with a Mazda 3 in Soul Red. Both cars are equipped with conventional automatic transmissions and carry window stickers within a thousand bucks and change of each other.

We wanted manual gearboxes for this test, but Volkswagen offers the Golf with a five-speed only and then only in lower trim levels. We actually tried doing it this way, but it felt unfair: The Mazda cost about 40 percent more, and its six-speed manual was slick enough to make shifting in the VW feel like digging a hole with a gardening spade.

Sitting atop the basic Golf range is the well-equipped SEL trim. You can spend more on a VW hatchback, but it will have a GTI badge or an R decorating its rump. VW raised the price by $430 since we took delivery of our 2015 model, but it also upgraded the Golfs woeful infotainment system with a new 6.5-inch touchscreen that’s compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Buying an identical 2016 would set you back $29,240. That makes the Mazda 3 s Grand Touring’s $30,285 sticker still the more expensive one, but a $1750 appearance package and a $300 charge for its metallic paint were among its options. In terms of pricing, at least, the advantage could easily have swung toward either car depending on the add-ons.

That theme, of alternating advantages, would dominate this test. Like the others in this section, the focus was on what’s under the hood. We knew we liked the linearity of the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four in the Mazda 3, but jumping behind the wheel of the Golf would have us praising the swollen torque curve of its turbo-charged 1.8-liter four. The specifications and test numbers for most metrics were close enough that math would not be the overriding factor here. Yet the longer we drove, the more we went in figurative, if not literal, circles. Even as we sought to focus on the relative merits of their engines, we kept getting distracted. Each of these vehicles hews consistently to a philosophy, and in each case it makes the car seem fully realized and at peace with itself.
The Mazda feels light, yet at times, particularly on bad roads, that translated to an impression of inexpensiveness. The VW seems forged out of a single piece, and it looks it, too. The car resembles nothingless than a solid block of metal—or an older Golf. The Mazda 3, on the other hand, which was bedecked with aero pieces, is all outre style, a J-pop star. Both cars handle well; the Mazda leans more and has quicker steering, while the VW has better body control and trumps the Mazda 3 in feedback. I nside, the 3 is flashy while the Golf is correspondingly somber and serious. These are their two tropes; the biggest challenge is decidingwhich one best represents you.


Volkswagen Golf
The Volkswagen Golf turbo four delivers a rush of torque, 199 pound-feet of it, between 1600 and 4400 rpm. It is as exhilarating as it is deceptive, producing the sort of endorphin release that consistently makes usforgetwhat happened immediately prior, which was, well, nothing. If you want to know why the Golf finishes second, blame its throttle response, which has all the urgency of Wolfsburg answering its mail from the EPA.

From a standing stop, the VW is at its worst. The transmission is as dimwitted as the throttle is recalcitrant. After depressing the accelerator, the driver (and the turbo) is left waiting far too long for either one to respond. Once that single-scroll turbocharger spools, however, the Golf feels quick, and in traffic it surges ahead for confident passing. Use the small, steering-wheel-mounted paddles to short-shift the six-speed automatic at the engine’s 4500-rpm power peak rather than its 7000-rpm rev cutoff and you’d never suspect that the Volkswagen, at 170 horsepower, is down 14 to the Mazda.

Get the Volkswagen Golf up to speed and the turbo barely lags, though the throttle still feels damped compared with that of the Mazda. Even though we recorded identical 3.6-second 30-to-50-mph acceleration runs at the proving ground, the Volkswagen felt like the rabbit of the pair in around-town driving. The Golf revs quickly while riding that wave of midrange torque, and—unlike the 3—it does so without drama.

Our measurements showed the Golf to be louder than the Mazda 3, but our ears told us differently. The turbo four emits a deeper tone that’s much less obtrusive in the cabin. You can listen to the radio at a reasonable volume in the Volkswagen and still carry on a conversation with a passenger; in the Mazda you’d need to have the stereo cranked and then shout over it to make yourself heard.

The comparatively rapid descent of the Golf’s gas gauge led us to believe that we might be paying a penalty for the turbo, yet that turned out not to be the case. Both cars got the same 29 mpg during our drive.
The Volkswagen Golf is a car for grown-ups. It is softer and more comfortable than the Mazda 3, especially when approaching the traction limit. The Volkswagen never really encourages you to go fast, responding merely with unperturbed grace when you do. We love living with it, perhaps even more than we enjoy driving it.


Mazda 3
We said in the introduction that the numbers wouldn’t be the deciding factor in this comparison test, although there’s one that we need to mention: 6.8. As in, seconds the 3 needs to reach 60 mph, or a half-second quicker than the Golf. That’s too large a difference to ignore, but don’t misunderstand us; the zero-to-60 is just one telltale of the engine’s capability, not the sole hook on which we hang the win.

Punch it in the Mazda 3 and you are rewarded with a corresponding reaction. Throttle response is immediate, and in sport mode the transmission is sharp enough that shifting is almost seamless. Keep your foot down and the rewards grow. Once you hit the torque peak of 185 pound-feet at 3250 rpm, the Mazda starts burying each big mark on the tachometer more rapidly than the one before it. Past 5000 rpm, the Mazda 3 comes alive at precisely the same place in the rev range where the Golf goes to sleep. At high revs, the Mazda’s right pedal feels like a hair-trigger, and the wailing intake and brassy exhaust make the Mazda 3 sound like a Miata hatchback.

The Mazda hits its 184-hp peak at 5700 rpm, but it still feels strong when it shifts abruptly at 6200 rpm. The first time it happens, you’ll swear the big 2.5-liter four has another thousand revs in it and a dozen ponies or so waiting there. But switching the six-speed into manual-shifting mode reveals that 6200 is the hard limit. Bounce the needle against itfor a few futile seconds and the transmission will shame you by upshifting.

The Mazda 3 requires more effort, more revs, and more noise to translate those test-track acceleration numbers into real-world performance. The VW was easier to keep in the meat of its powerband, allowing for a lazier driving style without dropping off the pace. It’s likely better suited to shuttling the kids and picking up the dry cleaning. But that’s ultimately the reason why the Mazda wins. It’s the car that asks for more effort— indeed, more driving—but pays out with more enjoyment.

The only info about electric supercharging in these pages was in the classified section next to a male-enhancement ad. Only one of those products actually worked. Electric supercharging, long rumored but never fully realized, is finally happening. Audi’s upcoming S07 TDI pairs an electric supercharger with sequential turbos on the SUV’s 4.0-liter diesel V-8. It’s a first for a production vehicle.

As with a conventional centrifugal supercharger, an e-supercharger uses a traditional compressor wheel but drives it with an electric motor rather than a crank-driven belt. E-superchargers draw their power from batteries or capacitors, which can be charged via regenerative braking or, in the case of the SQ7, a beefy generator and a 48-volt sub-system.

The biggest benefits of e-supercharging are power and response, particularly at low engine speeds. Because an e-supercharger’s ability to create boost is not coupled to exhaust energy or engine rpm, it offers flexibility not found in alternatives. Though traditional turbocharging remains a more efficient means of adding power, it has drawbacks such as lag.

As engines downsize and pressurize, e-supercharging offers the ability to size a compressor for a power target without sacrificing low-rpm drivability. It does so by filling in the torque-less void below the turbo’s threshold for creating boost. This is exactly how Audi is using the Valeo-supplied electric supercharger in the S07TDI.
Electric superchargers won’t replace turbos, but they allow for the optimization of turbos and other technologies. For example, deactivated cylinders can remain dormant longer when supported by e-supercharging. And in Miller-cycle engines, which have a longer-than-normal expansion ratio, an electric blower can replace a traditional supercharger to reduce parasitic losses. Vaieo describes its e-supercharger as an enabling technology, which gives it at least one thing in common with those male-enhancement products.