► Slick new Mazda 3 review
► We've driven the new hatch
► Skyactiv-X 2.0-litre driven
The MX-5 is well established as A Good Thing, and that’s all well and good. But it’s cars like the Mazda 3 that actually shift units. While the brand’s SUVs such as the CX-5, CX-3 and CX-30 have been booming, the 3 hatch has been a quiet sales success – shifting more than 6m units globally since 2003.
It ‘marks the beginning of a new generation of cars’ from Mazda, according to the new 3’s project manager, Kota Beppu, as inspired by the likes of the RX-Vision concept of 2015 and Vision Coupe from 2017. And while the previous three generations of 3 have all been decent alternatives, Europeans after a sensible front-wheel drive family hatchback flock instead to the Ford Focus, the Volkswagen Golf or even the Honda Civic.
This fourth-generation model wants to be more than a half-arsed afterthought, though it takes a different approach than most of its competition. In typical Mazda fashion, the standard engine is a naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre, with 120bhp – about what most rivals pull from a 1.0 turbo. There’s also a pared-down interior, and frankly gorgeous styling at the expense of practicality.
The 3 is also where you’ll be able to experience the brand’s new engine technology. Named SkyActiv-X, it’s both mildly supercharged and mild-hybrid, but the big news is how it seamlessly mixes traditional petrol spark ignition with compression ignition, more typical of a diesel engine. It’s fiendishly complex but aims to offer petrol dynamics with diesel running costs. More on that further down.
Crikey, would you just look at it…
You can’t deny it’s a gorgeous looking thing – there hasn’t been such a stylish looking regular family hatch since the original Ford Focus or Alfa Romeo 147. Design Director, Jo Stenuit, says the hatch is ‘condensed and emotional’, with Beppu adding that the brand ‘wanted to create an exterior design that provokes longing’. All of the designer bumf aside, it’s certainly up there as a truly handsome car – much more attractive than the current Focus, Golf or A-Class. ‘Longing’ is only for the hardcore Mazda fans.
Inside, it’s a similar story. The cockpit very minimalist but properly screwed together - a welcome change from the glitzy and OTT (by contrast) screens, ambient lighting and tech overload of the likes of Merc’s hatch or tinny plastics of a Ford Focus. It’s clean in here and designed to be driver-focused. Unusually, Mazda has bucked the current trend for touchscreens, actually removing it, and adding buttons. There’s no widescreen digital instrument cluster – just a display mounted inside the central speedo; the dials to the sides are physical and manual. A head-up display is standard on all trim levels in Europe, with Beppu adding ‘we want people to keep their eyes on the road as long as possible’.
Stenuit says the plan was to make sure that the 3 had no ‘unnnecessary design elements to distract.’ While that’s true, when your eyes drift, it’ll be to the crisp and easy-to-use infotainment system complete with a welcome rotary controller on the centre console, or the fact that gigantic list of standard equipment includes a huge amount assistance tech; adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, lane keep assist, Mazda’s G-Vectoring and intelligent speed assist are all standard across the UK range.
Still, your eyes are drifting, because some of it becomes inconsistently intrusive to the point of the (ahem) driver becoming aggressive at being mollycoddled so much. Since when was Mazda so involved in driver safety tech and not just allowing folk to drive its cars? Ah yes, when it needed to pass the latest EuroNCAP crash tests. Duh.
How does the new 2019 Mazda 3 drive?
Usually, the more manufacturers talk about handling dynamics the more sceptical we get, but on the road the Mazda 3 delivers.
Quite simply, the Mazda 3 drives beautifully. The technically minded might spot torsion beam rear suspension instead of the old car’s multi-link rear axle, but you’ll not notice it on the road. The ride comfort is perfectly judged, that achieved, too, with the sort of precise agility that’s become something of a Mazda signature.
What else? A stubby and satisfying manual gearbox, precise steering and genuinely relaxing refinement at speed. Handling-wise, it’s as fun to throw around asThese thoughts were echoed when we got to drive the Skyactiv-X variant in mid-2019 near Frankfurt. it is just to bask in how quiet it is on a motorway. Mazda’s work on refinement is clear when wringing the conventional 2.0-litre engine out as is required. It’s quiet. Elsewhere that work on NVH pays dividends: the cabin isolating noise beautifully, be it wind, or road - the latter doubly impressive on the difficult combed concrete and expansion jointed surfaces that make up a good proportion of America’s highway network, or the huge suspension bridges of the European launch location – Lisbon. These thoughts were echoed when we got to drive the Skyactiv-X variant in mid-2019 near Frankfurt.
Mazda 3's petrol and diesel engines
Given it’ll be the bigger seller, we spent most of our time in the 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol engine. In the case of the 3, it has 120bhp, which has tech that comprises a 24V ‘M Hybrid’ system that uses an integrated starter motor for quick restarts and smooth start/stop activation, stretching the phrase ‘mild hybrid’ to similar limits like that of Suzuki’s Boosterjet SHVS kit.
It's perfectly fine around town, bumbling around quietly and minding its own business. It’s when you demand almost anything of it does it not comply. That stubby gearshift is key here; the flat power band demands to be revved out through long gearing, as the juiciest bit of the powerplant is reserved for those comfortable reaching the top shelf.
Even so, the sweetest bit isn’t all that sweet; the petrol feels gutless, sounds strained and just isn’t all that satisfying. And while some car fans may still hold a valiant candle out for brands like Mazda that still stoically build naturally-aspirated engines despite changing trends, those whom have been weaned onto small capacity, turbocharged (and more powerful) units from Ford, VW Group and PSA et al. will wonder how on earth Mazda has only managed to squeeze out 120bhp out of two whole litres – especially given the brand itself already sells a 2.0-litre with 181bhp in the updated MX-5 now.
It’s a little bit of a shame, then, that Mazda’s UK division only expects the diesel variant to make up less than 5% of total sales in Blighty, as it’s arguably the better car out of the two initially available. The engine itself is no more intrusive than the petrol while revving and there’s a useful bit of extra torque in the low-to-mid rev range, egging you on to use that satisfying stubby and snappy manual shifter much more. There’s a 25kg weight penalty over the petrol (1299kg kerb weight instead of 1274kg) but you don’t notice the difference getting out of one and into the other, and the diesel manages the 0-62mph sprint 0.1sec quicker than the petrol when both are equipped with a manual ‘box.
What about the Skyactiv-X...
It uses a new SPCCI Spark Controlled Compression Ignition, with the idea being that it blends diesel combustion technology and petrol to enable a super lean burn. The development started in 2013 not long after Mazda had put the finishing touches to the Skyactiv-G engine currently in service here. Heiko Strietzel, Mazda’s manager of the powertrain department at the brand’s European R&D centre, told us the technology was also designed to be scaleable.
The fuel burn is two to three times leaner than a conventional petrol combustion engine, and allows for the ability to switch between spark ignition and compression ignition. Mazda claims up to 20% better fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions. It’s also coupled to Mazda’s mild hybrid system, too. The engine will arrive in autumn 2019 in the UK, with pricing coming in at roughly £1500 to £2000 more expensive than an equivalent Skyactiv-G model. You can see it actively working via an animation on the centre infotainment screen, glowing green when the SPCCI system is active.
In practice, it’s a little underwhelming. The torque difference feels negligible compared to the G engine and despite the 8.2sec 0-62mph claim (a Skyactiv-G manual is rated at 10.4sec) progress doesn’t give you the impression that this is a car with 178bhp and just eight more lb ft of torque available 1000rpm earlier in the rev range. The gear ratios for the manual have also been tweaked, too, with first, second and sixth being long and third, fourth and fifth being spaced much closer together.
It’s clever technology, no doubt about that, but the effects in practice don’t really seem to truly outweigh the mammoth development efforts involved. Our test run on motorway, country roads and urban streets translated to a real-world economy figure of 43.5mpg – around 5mpg down on the claimed figure on 18-inch wheels.
Any practicality comments?
Rear seat space is far from accommodating; the huge C-pillar and low roof makes it difficult for adults to get comfortable. And while the 3’s striking looks are hugely appealing; the trade-off is pretty poor over the shoulder visibility.
The boot’s a bit stingy, too, indeed, it’s not much bigger than the loadbay of its Mazda 2 relation. In fact, there's 6 fewer litres of boot volume here than a Mini Clubman - a car usually lambasted for its naff boot space.
New Mazda 3: verdict
Less packhorse, though not exactly a racehorse either. Even after the introduction of Skyactiv-X, the Mazda 3 still feels like it’s crying out for a punchier petrol engine to make use of that truly fantastic chassis. Don’t discount the flexible diesel.
Still, you can be confident that your choice of mainstream hatch is a jaw-dropping, great-handling tech fest. The entry-level price is much easier to swallow than if you’re planning on getting a Focus (in outright cash, at least) due to all of the kit but if you can, wait for the best engine – the one that’s still to come.
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