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Mazda3 vs Mercedes-Benz A220: Which is Better?

Perhaps an unfair match-up—but an entirely appropriate one.

Aaron GoldWriterWilliam WalkerPhotographer

As far as we know, Mazda and Mercedes-Benz have never pitched the 3 and the A-Class as competitors, and we doubt many people are cross-shopping them. And yet all throughout our All-Stars testing, comparisons between these two cars kept coming up.

The reasoning makes perfect sense: Mazda has been moving its compact Mazda3 upmarket while Mercedes-Benz is looking to the A220 to catch entry-level buyers closer to the entrance. The two cars were effectively on a marketing collision course. Both are compact sedans of roughly similar dimensions, and both offer engines of similar horsepower with a choice of front- or all-wheel-drive. And they just barely overlap on price: The cheapest A220 and the most-expensive Mazda3 both list for right around $33,000.

The fact that we even thought to compare these two might say more good about the Mazda than about the Mercedes. All through our All-Stars testing, editors praised the Mazda3's upscale demeanor. "Quiet and refined," said social media editor Billy Rehbock. "I love the design, both inside and out. Excels at being a premium front-wheel-drive vehicle." "Clean, simple interior is classy and would be right at home in an Alfa," said senior editor Rory Jurnecka.

Still, the A-Class drew similar praise for its ability to bring the class of high-price Mercedes-Benz vehicles to a lower price point. "Interior is really upscale for the segment," noted Rehbock, who added that the A220 establishes that "Luxury doesn't have to be big." "Techy, efficiently laid out, and forward thinking in every way," noted contributing editor Basem Wasef. At no point did anyone accuse Mercedes of cheaping out on the interior; we mostly agreed that the A-Class cabin has the look and feel of a proper Mercedes-Benz. It also edged out the Mazda for practicality: Editors noted the A's roomy back seat, with easier egress compared to the CLA-class four-door coupe, while the Mazda3's back seat is notoriously tight.

That said, both cars drew criticism for their overly complicated infotainment systems. Detroit bureau chief Todd Lassa wielded his pen like a sword at the Mazda's "inscrutable dial-operated infotainment [system] which usually takes two or three driver-distracting screens just to change the radio station. Like too many of these new systems, the Mazda's is distracting to the point of being dangerous." He was no kinder to the Mercedes: "Its MBUX information/entertainment system is a bit of a mess; in a new second-generation CLA I drove a few weeks earlier, turning a corner could automatically trigger its voice command."

Though the two cars offer similar horsepower ratings, they produce that horsepower in completely different ways. The Mercedes uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 188 horsepower and a strong 221 lb-ft of torque, delivering it through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. That gives the A220 a 35 lb-ft advantage over the Mazda, but it also weighs more; as with the Mazda, most editors called the acceleration "adequate". Lassa found the Mercedes to have "a peaky, laggy turbo engine and a dual-clutch transmission that gives it the feel of a $25,000 compact."

The Mazda3, which actually is a $25,000 compact, has a naturally aspirated 2.5 liter four-cylinder that produces 186 hp but only 186 lb-ft of torque. As with the Mercedes, most labeled the powertrain merely adequate. "Add a turbo to the 2.5-liter four," said Arthur St. Antoine, "and this new compact would have me doing handstands."

The Mazda offers a six-speed manual (yay manual!) and, rather than the Mercedes' dual-clutch, a rather intriguing take on the conventional automatic transmission. Most automatics use a torque converter to pass power between the engine and transmission, and at steady speeds the torque converter locks up to eliminate slip and improve economy. The automatic Mazda3 uses its torque converter only to get the car rolling, quickly engaging the lockup clutch and keeping it locked. This not only improves economy to dual-clutch levels, but also gives a nice firm shift feel and a less "slushy" feeling to the powertrain. Back off the throttle in both cars and the revs stay up, making it easier to stay in the powerband when driving aggressively in the curves.

The suspension of the Mazda drew almost universal praise for its sportiness and refinement. "Surprisingly engaging," noted Wasef. "Sweet-driving, refined, light on its feet," said St. Antoine. "On track I can rotate it and point it anywhere," said resident racer Andy Pilgrim, who added "Stays on line over bumpy pavement very well." "More fun than the A-Class on the track," wrote senior editor Rory Jurnecka. Only Rehbock registered disappointment: "Not as sporty as I'd hoped." Surprisingly, fewer editors commented on the Mercedes' handling, good or bad. "Handles with great nimbleness," said Rehbock. Perhaps the A-Class was more in line with our expectations, while the Mazda exceeded them.

Now, some might object to a direct comparison between these cars, and we agree that if you go on price, it's a ridiculous match-up. While the Mercedes' low-end price tag might overlap with the high-end Mazda, the A220 doesn't stay at the low end for long. Our A220 listed for $45,200, whereas our front-wheel-drive Mazda3 manual hatch listed for $30,665. The last all-wheel-drive A220 4Matic we tested had a list price of $51,950. For that, you could buy a pair of mid-level Mazda3 sedans. As St. Antoine pointed out, "Why would you buy a Mercedes A-Class when you could drive this for, oh, $10k less?"

To be fair to the A220, there's a very good reason to buy it: It's a Mercedes. The whole purpose of the A-Class was to bring younger, less-affluent buyers to the Mercedes brand in the hopes of keeping them there indefinitely, and we can think of few entry-level models that do a better job as brand ambassador. The A220 doesn't merely give one a taste of Mercedes-Benz; it's the full experience, in a practical, usable, approachable and (relatively) affordable package, and yet it leaves enough on the table that buyers will have good reason to eventually move up to a bigger and nicer Mercedes sedan like the C- or E-Class or a family-friendly Mercedes SUV like the GLC or GLE. We're sure that if you took a survey of A-Class buyers, most would say they loved their cars.

But we also know that Mazda owners love their Threes, and for compact-car buyers who like to drive but aren't lured by the prestige of a fancy German brand, it's hard to find a car much better than this. As long-time fans ourselves, we love that Mazda has preserved the basic fun-to-drive nature that has been their trademark for decades. Thanks to extensive research in how the human body reacts to motion, they've been able to preserve that fun factor while making the cars more comfortable and refined. Combined with the high quality of the cabin materials and switchgear, you have an entry-level luxury car without the entry-level luxury prestige—or the entry-level luxury price.

It's a close competition, and perhaps not an entirely fair one, but the Mazda emerges as our favorite.

2020 Mazda3 Premium Package Specifications
PRICE $28,420 (base)/$30,665 (as tested)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/186 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback
EPA MILEAGE 25/35 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 183.5 x 70.7 x 56.9 in
WHEELBASE 107.3 in
WEIGHT 3,022 lb
0-60 MPH 7.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 130 mph

 

2020 Mercedes-Benz A220 Specifications
PRICE $33,495 (base)/$45,200 (as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/188 hp @ 5,500-6,100 rpm, 221 lb-ft @ 1,250-4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSIONS 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 24/35 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 179.1 x 70.7 x 56.9 in
WHEELBASE 107.4 in
WEIGHT 3,600 lb
0-60 MPH 7.1 sec
TOP SPEED 130 mph (electronically limited)