No doubt many of us have had pleasant flashbacks to 1995 in the past few weeks, while witnessing Springboks’ resilient rise to stardom once again.
But I also had another unexpected revisit to that year when driving the Mazda3 2.0 Astina recently.
The Mazda3 flagship takes its nomenclature from the sporty and coupe-inspired Astina hatch that was introduced alongside the more sober Etude sedan range back in ‘95. If I recall correctly they were even advertised during that final Ellis Park needlematch against the Kiwis.
Overseas they were still called the 323 and 323F, but the local manufacturer at the time, Samcor, wanted to position the new models a notch above the bread-and-butter 323s, which soldiered on as the curiously named Midge range.
A lot has changed since then, with the 323s and Etudes having been replaced by the more upscale Mazda3, which is now in its fourth generation, and the Japanese brand, now divorced from Ford, is now an independent importer.
But driving the Mazda3 2.0 Astina recently felt like a breath of fresh air in a world polluted by SUVs. Although hardly any different from the model introduced in 2019, the hatchback was recently given a few minor spec enhancements for 2023.
Even four years on from launch, the fourth-gen Mazda3, with its low-slung proportions and sweeping C-pillar, looks really striking in hatch form - which is the only form available nowadays following the sedan’s local discontinuation.
Stepping inside, you sit low and snug, and there’s an immediate feeling of intimacy with this car. You’re not bombarded with huge screens, and in your immediate line of sight is a traditional analogue instrument cowl.
There is a screen perched deep into the dash top but it doesn’t detract from the traditional feel of the cockpit.
I won’t give it top marks for user friendliness though.
For starters its not a touchscreen, and you have to control it via a rotary dial and buttons on the centre console. A bit like the old BMW iDrive set-up. Although the menus are easy enough to navigate and figure out, certain functions like switching between radio stations can feel a bit cumbersome at times.
On the upside, the 2023 upgrades brought wireless CarPlay and Android Auto to the party along with a wireless phone charger and USB-C ports.
As for practicality, passenger room at the rear is adequate but not exactly ample and that elaborate C-pillar design does limit visibility a bit - although there is a whole barrage of active safety systems in this range-topping Astina that aim to keep you out of harm’s way, including Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.
But that’s enough of the practical stuff, let’s take a drive.
Sadly, while the Mazda3 Astina might look like a hot hatch - more so than even a Golf GTI in my opinion - what you find under the hood is somewhat middle-of-the-road. By that we mean a 2.0-litre normally aspirated petrol engine with 121kW and 213Nm, paired with a six-speed automatic gearbox.
Floor the right pedal and its sounds raspy, but not in an altogether pleasant way, and you soon notice that it’s making more noise than speed.
Granted, the performance on offer is adequate for your everyday needs and for overtaking. It’s comfortably powered, for sure, but in no way is it exciting. And neither is the gear shifting process. Perhaps Mazda should offer a manual gearbox option, given how uniquely this vehicle is already positioned?
But some additional sparkle would do this car the world of good because you can feel it was engineered for truly dynamic driving, and not only does it handle really neatly, the steering feels communicative and involving too.
That whole “Jinba Ittai” thing that Mazda likes to brag about in its press releases - inspired by the analogy of a horse and rider communicating through tactile responses - is very much alive in this car.
Bottom line though - while the Mazda3 Astina might rival Cheslin Kolbe’s agility, it really needs to work on its sprinting ability.
But as much as I feel this car deserves a turbo engine, even one in a relatively low state of tune, I’m probably being a bit unfair expecting this car to be a hot hatch. Honestly though, I just can’t help making that association, given how good it looks!
Among a sea of SUVs in that price range, the 3 is very much a breath of fresh air, and its superior aerodynamics make it more efficient too, with our car averaging just below 10 litres per 100km during a few days of often spirited urban driving.
The Astina is really well stocked too, with standard features including a 12-speaker BOSE sound system, black leather seats, with 10-way power adjustment for the driver, dual-zone climate control, powered sunroof and built-in navigation, to name just a few of the features.
If you’re not insisting on something ferociously fast, or fast at all for that matter, the Mazda3 2.0 Astina hatch is an interesting option.