The Mazda3 makes most sense in Skyactiv-X petrol form. Jonathan Crouch explains why.
Ten Second Review
Mazda's unconventional approach to automotive design has born real fruit when it comes to the engineering of this Mazda3 Skyactiv-X model. What we're served up here is a family hatch-style model that offers fairly potent 180PS power, yet can deliver the kinds of efficiency returns you'd expect from a diesel in this class. As a bonus, you also get the nicest handling and arguably the best cabin in the segment. What's not to like?
The MK4 Mazda3 claims to be a family hatch that's as good to drive as a Ford Focus, as good inside as a Volkswagen Golf and as good to look at as an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The fact that its usual 2.0-litre 'Skyactive-G' petrol engine ignores turbocharging is another break with current convention, though Mazda has followed the current trend towards part-electrified mild hybrid technology for it. And created a more powerful supercharged 'Skyactive-X' version of this unit that uses 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' to deliver petrol response allied to diesel economy. That's what we're going to look at here.
All of this engineering's bolted to a brand new very stiff platform. And, the trend with previous Mazdas for slinky styling to clothe rather dull cabin design has been broken here with what might just be the nicest interior in the segment. Add in standard equipment features you'd have to pay extra for on rivals and plenty of camera-driven safety kit and you've a promising-sounding package offered either in this hatch form or as a smartly styled saloon. Time to check it out.
When we first tried this fourth generation Mazda3, we loved the way it handled and its lovely steering and gear change. But to be frank, we thought the standard Skyactiv-G petrol and Skyactiv-D diesel engines were a bit of a weak link in the car's armoury. But don't despair if you love everything else about this car because the third of the three engine options - the Skyactiv-X - makes up for everything. It's a development of the Skyactiv-G 2.0-litre petrol unit but is very different, developing 180PS and using what the brand calls 'Spark Controlled Compressed Ignition' or 'SPCCI', a patented lean burn process that delivers exceptional efficiency. Interestingly, it incorporates a supercharger, not for extra performance (though torque is increased by up to 30% over the Skyactiv-G unit) but instead to ensure that there's enough air in the engine for the compression ignition to work properly.
Rest to 62mph takes 8.2s en route to 134mph. Another reason for choosing the Skyactiv-X powerplant is that it's the only engine offered in this car that can be mated with the brand's i-Activ AWD all-wheel-drive system, an option with the hatch body style.
Design and Build
The fourth generation Mazda3 borrows its sensual shaping from the evolved version of the brand's 'KODO' design language first showcased on the company's recent 'RX Vision' and 'Vision Coupe' motor show concept cars. And at a stroke, makes almost everything else in the segment look either uninspired, stodgy or over-styled, thanks to clean surfacing and coupe-like lines that are almost startlingly effective in the way that light and shade plays upon the sculpted panels. Choose between hatch or Saloon body styles.
At the wheel, it's certainly different, thanks to a minimalistic design that has seen almost every unnecessary ancillary control removed. Only the essentials are left, all of which have a satisfying look and feel and are designed within an elegantly slender dashboard swathed in lovely soft-touch surfaces. Also breaking with convention is Mazda's decision not to use touchscreen functionality for the 8.8-inch centre-dash touchscreen; we agree with them that using the provided 'Comand Control' rotary dial is less distracting for the driver. Less impressive is rear seat accommodation, which can feel a bit claustrophobic thanks to the swept-back styling. And the boot size ids only average by class standards, offering 351-litres of capacity in the hatch; there's 450-litres in the Saloon.
Market and Model
There's not a huge premium to pay to get the Skyactiv-X engine over the less powerful and less efficient Skyactiv-G petrol unit. Prices for the 'X' start at around £23,500 and the cost is the same, whether you want a hatch or a saloon body style. There are four trim levels - 'Sport', 'Sport Lux', 'GT Sport' and 'GT Sport Tech'. There's a choice of automatic or manual transmission available on all models. And if you go for the top 'GT Sport Tech' version with the hatch body and you can have Mazda's i-Activ all-wheel drive system.
Standard kit across the range includes high-end technology such as a windscreen projecting colour head-up display with Traffic Sign Recognition, Mazda Radar Cruise Control and LED headlights across the range. Every model in the line-up also features navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and an advanced eight speaker audio system.
Even the 'Sport' trim entry point to the Skyactiv-X range has a cabin enhanced with chrome detailing, a frameless rear view mirror and rear privacy glass, while 'Sport Lux' models feature a reversing camera, smart keyless entry and heated front seats. 'GT Sport' sees the introduction of black leather seats with power adjustment, a heated steering wheel and Bose audio, while the range-topping 'GT Sport Tech' features a suite of additional active safety equipment, including a 360o camera and Driver Monitoring System with interior camera.
Cost of Ownership
If you found yourself slightly disappointed by the efficiency returns of the 122PS Syactiv-G petrol-powered Mazda3 model (up to 45.6mpg on the combined cycle and up to 117g/km of CO2) you should be much happier with the potential of this Skyactiv-X variant. Think up to 52.3mpg and 100g/km. From a more powerful 180PS engine; have cake - eat it. It's as simple as that. This comes courtesy of the ground-breaking 'SPCCI' 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' system used by the Skyactiv-X petrol unit.
This engine is based on the 2.0-litre normally aspirated mild hybrid Skyactiv-G unit. But it can run far leaner than any ordinary petrol powerplant ever could, improving efficiency by up to 30% over the Skyactiv-G, helped by a supercharger which ensures that there's enough air for the clever 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' system to function. The result is a set of fuel and CO2 readings that should better those of the alternative conventional 1.8-litre turbocharged Skyactiv-D diesel in regular use. For reference, a Mazda3 Skyactiv-D model manages up to 56.5mpg on the WLTP combined cycle and up to 107g/km of NEDC-rated CO2. But why would you choose it over the more potent, quieter, cheaper to fuel and comparably-priced Mazda3 Skyactiv-X petrol model? Answers on a postcard please.
Mazda's Skyactiv engine technology is a bit of a mixed bag. The standard Mazda3 petrol model's Skyactiv-G petrol unit isn't particularly noteworthy in terms of either performance or efficiency. And we can't really see why anyone would choose that base petrol unit when not much more money buys the innovative Skyactiv-X 'Spark Controlled Compressed Ignition' supercharged petrol powerplant we've been looking at here, which delivers better efficiency and offers greater refinement and more acceleration.
If you can stretch to Skyactiv-X power, you'll apply the finishing touch to a very complete family hatchback indeed. There are some times when looking beyond convention pays great dividends. And we'd suggest that this might well be one of them.
The Mazda3 is a car that has underachieved. The latest version looks set to comprehensively rectify that issue. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
You need real talent to succeed in the family hatchback sector these days, particularly if you want to make up ground on cars as good as Ford's Focus and Volkswagen's Golf. Does the fourth generation Mazda3 have exactly that? The signs are good: eye-catching looks, cutting-edge engines and one of the best cabins in the segment number amongst the highlights.
The development engineer who led up the project to create this car, Kota Beppu, says the MK4 version of this Mazda3 will appeal to 'free spirits'. The sort of person perhaps who might want something stylish and interesting in this class but doesn't want quality or engineering compromises.
Think of a car of this type as good to drive as a Ford Focus, as good inside as a Volkswagen Golf and as good to look at as an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. That's what Mazda was aiming at. So many other brands have started out in this sector with similar objectives but we can't help wondering whether this Mazda hasn't nailed them here.
Mazda has put a great deal of effort in developing the sharp driving dynamics that characterised the previous generation model, though a relatively porky kerb weight - 1,439kgs even in the base petrol version, doesn't help here, nor does it really fit with the whole 'Skyactiv' 'less-is-more' ethos. Overall, we think the Mazda3 in any form is one of the best handling family hatch sector cars you could choose. We'd take it over a Ford Focus; it's that good. And it has the slickest manual gearbox of any car of this kind you could choose. Automatic transmission is optional, but for goodness sake try the stick shifter before you stump up for a self-shifter.
Mazda is offering a choice of two petrol engines. Most sales will be based around either a 122PS 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol unit (now a mild hybrid). The second option is the brand's more advanced Skyactiv-X Spark Controlled Compression Ignition engine, a 180PS supercharged unit which runs on petrol but uses a combination of spark ignition and compression ignition to deliver, Mazda claims, the driver appeal of a petrol unit along with the fuel efficiency and torque of a diesel. This Skyactiv-X powerplant is able to switch from compression ignition, which best suits day-to-day driving, to a form of spark ignition, generally when the engine is started from cold or the driver demands maximum power at high revs. The 'X' engine comes paired with four wheel drive for our market, but as you might expect, the cost of all this technology makes it a pricey choice.
Design and Build
The Japanese have finally realised that a car of this kind really has to visually stand out - or Mazda has anyway. And sure enough, the hatch and saloon versions of this fourth generation Mazda3 will certainly make an impression in a car park full of Focuses, Astras and Golfs. The company's ridiculously-named 'Kodo' design language has been evolved into something really elegant here, with a low nose, elegant panel shaping and a sloping roof line that flows neatly into the rear screen. It's quite different from the angular styling of a comparable Ford or Volkswagen and could be almost said to have a 'premium' feel.
The interior is even better. There are smart materials crafted with interesting design and button clutter has been well and truly banished. Does any car in the class have a better cabin that this? That's a bold statement but the Mazda designers have set an impressive standard here. It certainly makes the cabin of a Ford Focus feel pretty low-rent. One of the brand's problems in recent years has been the provision of rather small centre-dash screens but in this case, there's a big, clear 8.8-inch display on top of the dash nicely angled towards the driver. And there's a lower rotary controller for it so you don't have to stab away at inexact touchscreen functionality in the kind of way that's necessary with many rival set-ups. We're not quite so impressed by the level of interior space. There are much bigger rear seats in this class and the boot is smaller than before, offering just 351-litres of space in the hatch (or 450-litres in the Saloon) - not much for a car in this class.
Market and Model
Pricing is pitched from just under £22,000 to around £30,000. You can talk to your dealer about either a five-door hatchback body style or a Saloon variant and there are five trim levels - 'SE-L', 'SE-L Lux', 'Sport Lux', 'GT Sport' and 'GT Sport Tech'. All are generously equipped, with features like a windscreen projecting colour head-up display with Traffic Sign Recognition, Mazda Radar Cruise Control and LED headlights. Every model in the line-up also features navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and an eight speaker audio system.
From 'SE-L Lux' trim onwards, highlights include a reversing camera, smart keyless entry and heated front seats, while 'Sport Lux'-spec sees the cabin enhanced with additional chrome detailing, a frameless rear view mirror and rear privacy glass. 'GT Sport' trim sees the introduction of black leather seats with power adjustment, a heated steering wheel and a Bose audio set-up, while the range-topping 'GT Sport Tech' variants feature a suite of additional active safety equipment, including a 360o camera and Driver Attention Alert with an interior camera.
Offered exclusively on the hatchback, Mazda's newest paint colour 'Polymetal Grey' makes its debut with this car. 'SE-L' and SE-L Lux cars feature 16-inch silver wheels, while from 'Sport Lux' trim onwards, 18-inch Grey Metallic wheels, rear privacy glass and piano black window garnish distinguish higher grade models.
Cost of Ownership
The 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol unit has cylinder deactivation which switches the car to a couple of cylinders under light-to-mid throttle loads. Plus the 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G variant incorporates Mazda's 'M Hybrid 24V' system. This mild-hybrid set-up improves fuel economy by recycling recovered kinetic energy. A belt-driven integrated starter generator (ISG) converts the energy in the 600kJ lithium-ion battery, while the DC-DC converter supplies it to the car's electrical equipment. As a result, this mainstream petrol unit manages decent WLTP figures - 45.6mpg on the combined cycle and 136g/km of CO2.
The alternative 180PS Skyactiv-X unit is based on the same 2.0-litre normally aspirated mild hybrid Skyactiv-G powertrain. But it can run far leaner than any ordinary petrol powerplant ever could, improving efficiency by up to 30% over the Skyactiv-G, helped by a supercharger which ensures that there's enough air for the clever 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' system to function. The result is a set of WLTP fuel and CO2 readings that should better those of many conventional diesel models in this segment. Think up to 52.3mpg and 122g/km. From a powerful 180PS engine; have cake - eat it. It's as simple as that. This comes courtesy of a ground-breaking 'SPCCI' 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' system.
Mazda's been bold with this car and we can't help hoping that this strategy will pay off. This is a model that's never achieved the success it really ought to have had - but deserves to now. True, it may not be one of those family hatchbacks that grab you on first acquaintance, but the longer you spend with one, the more you appreciate the depth of thought that's clearly been put into the design of the things that matter; like the classy cabin, the exemplary infotainment system and the hi-tech equipment.
True, it's not the car you'd choose if family practicality was a priority. Aesthetics have clearly been prioritised here; that sloping roof does affect rear seat room and boot space. But the stylised lines that come with that swept-back silhouette will probably make you feel good about switching to a Mazda3. And that could matter more.