► 184bhp e-Skyactiv X mild-hybrid driven
► Good blend of handling and comfort
► Impressive tech and well-built interior
Mazda is best-known for sports cars like the RX-7 and the MX-5 – but what’s really great about the brand is that it also knows how to distil the essence of its halo projects and inject it into its more everyday vehicles. The Mazda 3 hatchback is a perfect case in point.
It’s designed to compete with practical family runabouts like the Volkswagen Golf and the Ford Focus, but it’s considerably better to drive and arguably better to look at than either of its key rivals. It also comes with one of the best manual gearboxes in the segment.
The sales figures speak for themselves. Mazda’s SUV models (in particular, the recently updated CX-5 and the pure-electric CX-30) have been grabbing headlines of late, but the Mazda 3 has been a quiet commercial success with more than six million examples sold worldwide since the hatchback was first introduced in 2003.
We’re currently on the fourth-generation version of the Mazda 3. The company’s engineers have made some serious improvements over the previous model, although they have taken a slightly different approach to the hatchback template than the competition.
In typical Mazda fashion, the standard engine is a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol. But it only produces 120bhp, which is the same sort of power Ford can extract from a turbocharged 1.0-litre three-pot. The brand makes up for this with its mild-hybrid assisted and supercharged e-Skyactiv X unit – but more on that later.
Why not tell us about the engine now?
Because I need to point out how good-looking the Mazda 3 is first. We haven’t had such a stylish family hatchback since the launch of the original Ford Focus or the Alfa Romeo 147. It’s certainly more striking than the current Volkswagen Golf or Mercedes A-Class.
Inside, it’s a similar story. The cabin is minimalist, but it’s made from high-quality materials that have been screwed together properly. It’s a welcome change from the technology-laden Mercedes A-Class or the cheap rattly plastics of the Ford Focus, making it one of the most impressive interiors of any family hatchback on sale today.
The Mazda 3 was designed to be a driver’s car – a point made immediately obvious by the cabin layout. Mazda has bucked the touchscreen trend and added a rotary controller for the infotainment system, so you barely need to divert your attention from the road to operate it.
There’s no widescreen digital instrument cluster, either – just a display inside the central speedo. The dials to the sides are physical and analogue. A head-up display is standard on all trim levels in Europe, which is almost an exclusive bragging right for Mazda. The driving position is excellent, too, and the seats are both supportive and comfortable.
CAR lives with a Madza 3 Skyactiv-X
Enough waffle about the interior. How does the Mazda 3 drive?
In a word – excellently. The technically minded might lament the fact that the old car’s multi- link rear suspension has been swapped for a torsion beam setup, but we’re here to tell you that you’ll never notice the difference on the road. The ride comfort is perfectly judged, too, managing to be sporty without being uncomfortable.
What else? Well, the steering is precise and offers plenty of feedback, the cabin stays quiet at speed and the six-speed manual gearbox is up there with the best in the business. There’s also more grip than most drivers will know what to do with, which makes the Mazda 3 tremendously good fun to hustle along a B-road.
What’s so special about this e-Skyactiv-X engine, then?
Basically, it’s a petrol engine that burns fuel more like a diesel engine. For the technically minded, that means mixing spark ignition with compression ignition – and this is a difficult thing to do with a petrol engine, as it requires a very lean fuel-air mixture. We’re talking mixtures that are lean enough to kick the rods out of your common-or-garden petrol engine.
The fuel burn is between two and three times leaner than a conventional petrol engine, and the unit can swap between spark ignition and compression ignition on the fly (for example, when the cylinder temperatures are high enough to ignite the mixture without a spark). Mazda says the system offers up to 20% better fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions.
We first tested the technology on a 2019 Mazda 3 and, at the time, we weren’t all that convinced. However, Mazda made some improvements to the engine in 2021, swapping in some new pistons, adding some fresh software for the mild-hybrid system and lowering the compression ratio from 16.3:1 to 15:1.
The updates increased the engine’s power output from 176bhp to 184bhp, while torque climbed by 12lb/ft to a new maximum of 177lb/ft. So, the results aren’t earth shattering by any means – but the minor gains are still welcome.
Why? Because you have to change your driving style to get the best out of the engine. Compared to smaller-capacity turbocharged engines, Mazda’s engine feels limp – simply because all the torque is right at the top of the rev-range and you need to wring the engine out to the redline to make significant progress. The 2021 update’s torque increase certainly alleviates this, but it still doesn’t have the low-down shove of a Ford EcoBoost unit.
The engine also makes a whole orchestra of oddball noises – but, rest assured, they’re completely normal. On cold starts, for example, it sounds like a diesel with gruff grumbles and gargles at low revs. Only when you push the engine north of 4,000rpm does it start to sound more like a conventional petrol engine.
Are there any other engines?
One more, called e-Skyactiv G. It, too, is a 2.0-litre petrol, but it does without the fancy Spark Controlled Compression Ignition technology. In the case of the 3, it has 120bhp with mild-hybrid assistance.
It’s perfectly fine for pottering around town. But, when you demand any sort of performance, it throws the toys out of the cot. That stubby gearshift is key here – the flat power band needs to be revved out through long gearing, as the juiciest bit of the powerplant is reserved for those comfortable reaching the top shelf.
Any practicality comments?
It’s not a class leader, but does the job. Rear legroom is fine, but the massive C-pillar and sloping roofline mean you’ll have to make a compromise on headroom. At 334 litres, the boot is a tad stingey, too. It’s big enough for most families, but smaller than a VW Golf.
Mazda 3: verdict
Less packhorse, though not exactly a racehorse either. But that’s not the 3’s point – what really sells it is the jaw-dropping looks, fantastic chassis and the technology on offer (even if all that tech isn’t obvious). Its interior quality is arguably the best in the class, it’s refined and good value for money.
The engines are weak – even after the updated e-Skyactiv X hit the market – but of the two choices, we’d pick the e-Skyactiv X every time. At least with that, you have a much better chance of hitting the fuel economy figures than a turbocharged three-cylinder found in rivals.
Specs are for a Mazda 3 e-Skyactiv X GT Sport
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