► Mazda 3 updated for 2021
► New e-Skyactiv X version driven
► Style, tech and a great chassis - what's missing?
The MX-5 is well established as A Good Thing. But it's cars like the 3 hatchback that really shift units for Mazda. 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.
This fourth-generation model wants to be more than a half-baked 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. But there's also a new engine innovation called e-Skyactiv X we'll get into later on.
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.
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 A-Class 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 by 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 analogue. A head-up display is standard on all trim levels in Europe – an almost exclusive bragging right for Mazda.
It's one of the most impressive interiors of any family hatchback. Neat, no-nonsense, with a great driving position and a build quality that far surpasses that of Mercedes' A-Class, BMW's 1-series and VW's Golf.
CAR lives with a Madza 3 Skyactiv-X
How does the updated 2021 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 tremendously fun to throw around.
So what's special about this e-Skyactiv X engine?
In short, the engine 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. It uses what Mazda calls 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' (SPCCI), with the idea being that it blends both diesel and petrol combustion technologies to enable a super lean burn.
That 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 on the fly. Mazda claims up to 20% better fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions.
We tested the technology on a 2019 Mazda 3 first, and weren't all that convinced at first. But, since then, the tech has been upgraded. It was revised in 2021 with a new name (it was just named Skyactiv-X before but has been renamed e-Skyactiv X to better highlight its mild-hybridness). Power is up by six bhp (184bhp compared to 176bhp) and torque climbs by 12lb ft with the revision, through changing the compression ratio from 16.3:1 to 15:1, modified pistons, and a software update for the mild hybrid system. Not earth-shattering changes by any means, compared to before, but still welcome.
Why? Because you have to change your driving style to some degree to get the best out of it. Compared to smaller-capacity, turbocharged engines, the Mazda's engine feels limp – simply because Mazda still carries the torch for naturally aspirated engines, meaning you feel the need to wring the engine out to really make significant progress. The 2021 update's torque increase certainly helps take the edge off here, but it's still a far cry from the boostyness of a VW Group TSI engine or Ford EcoBoost unit.
There's also a whole suite of oddball noises it makes, but they're completely normal. On cold starts, it sounds like a diesel with gruff grumbles and gargles at low revs. Only until 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: e-Skyactiv G. It, too, is a 2.0-litre petrol but does without the fancy SPCCI technology. In the case of the 3, it has 120bhp with mild hybrid assistance.
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.
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 don't make for massive amounts of headroom. The boot is a tad stingey, too – big enough, 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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