Economy battle: 2019 Toyota Corolla XSE Hatchback vs. 2019 Kia Forte EX vs. 2019 Mazda3 Premium AWD Sedan.

Prices: The Corolla is the bargain at $24,325; the Mazda3 the priciest at $30,635; and the Kia splits the difference at $26,415.

This week: We sit down inside and discuss features and comfort.

Conventional wisdom: Motor Trend likes the Forte’s “sharp interior and exterior design” but not the “underwhelming CVT, lazy handling.” About the Corolla it likes the “driving dynamics, the upscale interior,” but not the “small rear seats, tiny cargo area.” And for the Mazda3, Consumer Reports likes the “fit and finish and quietness for class, braking, and fuel economy,” but not the “controls.”

What’s new: All three cars are new for 2019. The Forte looks the newest of the three; the Mazda3 has AWD, a potential game-changer; and the Corolla is as sporty as a hatchback from Toyota can get.

Fuel economy: Because there’s no sense starting this column with “Up to speed.” If you want speed, or at least all-out acceleration, you don’t want any of these.

The Corolla Hatchback averaged 29.2 mpg. The Mazda3 disappointed at 26.9. The Kia Forte led the group at a pretty astounding 33. Advantage, Kia.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is pretty much a rolling tepee, but it offers the most space of the three.
The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is pretty much a rolling tepee, but it offers the most space of the three.

Driver’s Seat: It’s a long way down into the cockpit of the Corolla Hatchback; just parallel-park it and watch your aging friends try to fold their knees to get themselves inside from the curb. Ouch. The front seats also have a claustrophobic feel, as if the windshield and steering wheel are up way close, no matter how far back the seat is.

But I felt comfortable driving the car for a week, and I borrowed Sturgis Kid 1.0’s Scion iM (the previous version of the Corolla hatchback) where the seats were also a delight.

The Forte also offered a fairly comfortable spot for Mr. Driver’s Seat. We enjoyed the upgraded seating with leather, and front-seat heating and cooling — Kia does offer it throughout its lineup.

One complaint — lining up the steering wheel with my arms meant losing sight of a good chunk of the speedometer. The message center can be changed to offer a digital speed readout, but I like to keep fuel economy listed there.

Mazda3? Yeowch. The heated power driver’s seat with lumbar control just left me with lumbar soreness the whole week I had the car. The Mazda3 is right up there with the Civic sedan for memorable seat discomfort. Note that the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat did not feel my pain, so maybe you won’t, either. Still, strong disadvantage, Mazda.

Friends and stuff: Rear-seat passengers are actually better served by the Corolla than the folks up front, a comment Sturgis Kid 4.0 has long made about 1.0’s Scion iM. The headroom is surprisingly minimized, although it’s by no means snug, while foot room and legroom are surprisingly good. Shoulder room in back becomes a problem, as the Corolla Hatchback is pretty much a rolling tepee. Cargo space is 17.8 cubic feet, though a hatchback pushes that up to 23.1.

The Kia Forte gets a new look for 2019.
The Kia Forte gets a new look for 2019.

Stuffed-in friends: The Kia and the Mazda3 share the dubious honor of terrible rear-seat discomfort. Headroom, legroom, and foot room are all snug in the Forte. Cargo space is 15.3 cubic feet, and a sedan is the only offering. The Mazda crushes the legs and feet, and only squeezes the heads of the folks in back. Cargo space there is 13.2, but a hatchback version offers 20.1.

Play some tunes: All three feature roughly 8-inch screens. In the Kia, clear access to the functions of the stereo and map rule. Dials control volume and tuning, and buttons across the bottom get you from radio to map and everything in between, although the touchscreen must be used to switch between radio sources, he said in his old-geezer voice.

The sound from the Harman Kardon Premium Audio was awesome, an A-. Clarity was excellent, but it lacks a real soulful sound most of the premiums offer. This is part of the $3,210 EX Launch Edition package, which also added sunroof, wireless phone charger, and accident-avoidance features.

The Corolla offers some good sound, maybe even a B+, but there’s still a disembodied, minor-key quality to it, as if every song were intended to be an Echo and the Bunnymen or Morrissey tune.

Operation of the large touchscreen was half and half. Buttons allow for some versatility in getting from point to point, but so many functions require two or three taps of the touchscreen that in other cars would be only one. And changing the equalizer is an insurer’s nightmare.

The Mazda3 keeps its console dial-and-button setup a la BMW, but its functionality is the most difficult. Switching sources is easy from the steering-wheel button, but switching among half a dozen favorite stations seems challenging — start on the Sirius screen, click, dial down to Favorites from the list and click, then dial to your chosen station and click. Don’t like that song? Repeat.

The price list boasts an 8.5-inch infotainment screen, but that screen appears to be 7 inches wide by 2 inches high. This makes map reading fairly useless if you like to see what’s up ahead.

Sound from the unit is good, maybe a B+, but actually loses its phonic edge as it gets louder. Advantage, Kia.

Next week: Let’s hit the road.