The Mazda3 takes a big step forward in fourth generation form. Jonathan Crouch drives the Skyactiv-G petrol version.
Ten Second Review
Mazda has always been a bit unconventional in its approach to automotive design. Except, historically at least, when it's come to arguably its most conventional model, the Mazda3 family hatchback. But all that changes right here, right now with this fourth generation version. You can see at a glance that the styling's different from the norm and, as we discovered at the wheel of a Skyactiv-G petrol version, much else is too.
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. As for what we've got, well there's quite a lot. The fact that the 2.0-litre 'Skyactive-G' petrol engine we're going to try here ignores turbocharging is another break with current convention, though Mazda has followed the current trend towards part-electrified mild hybrid technology for it.
All of this engineering's bolted to a brand new much stiffer 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 put it to the test.
Keen drivers will know what we're talking about when we say that some family hatchbacks seem to want to fight your inputs and are a bit of a battle to drive, whereas others just work in harmony with you. This Mazda3 is one of the latter. In a manual version like the one we tried, you'll notice the lovely 'wrist-flick' feel of the stick shift change, which is complemented by feelsome steering, positive brakes - and decent ride quality too, despite this fourth generation model's shift away from independent rear suspension to a theoretically cruder torsion beam arrangement. The stiffer body also helps (contributing to exceptional cruising refinement). And in addition, there's also 'G-Vectoring Control Plus', a standard torque vectoring system that also takes steering inputs into account as it transfers traction to the wheels that can best use it at speed through the bends.
You'll want to know about engines. If you select the one we tried, the base Skyactiv-G petrol unit with light M Hybrid assistance that most Mazda3 buyers are expected to choose, the performance feels extremely modest. Which is surprising when you consider that it's 2.0-litres in size. This isn't really down to the 122PS output - that's about par for the course with a base petrol powerplant in a car of this kind. It's more about the fact that Mazda refuses to fit turbochargers to its petrol engines, so rather counter-intuitively you get less mid-range pulling power than a Ford or Volkswagen engine of half the capacity.
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
The Mazda3 range isn't too difficult to get your head around. Prices for this Skyactiv-G base 2.0-litre 122PS petrol model sit mainly in the £22,000 to £28,000 bracket common to better quality contenders in the volume-branded part of the family hatchback segment. And there are just two body styles - a five-door hatch or an alternative four-door Saloon. We wonder though, whether it's really necessary to have five different trim levels - 'SE-L', 'SE-L Lux', 'Sport Lux', the 'GT Sport' variant we tried and top 'GT Sport Tech' spec. Your dealer will offer you the choice between two 6-speed transmissions. We'd very much recommend the slick-shifting Skyactiv-MT manual 'box we sampled. Or for £1,300 more, you can have a Skyactiv-Drive automatic.
Equipment levels are generous. Even with base 'SE-L' trim, you can expect to find 16-inch 'Silver Metallic' alloy wheels, full-LED headlights with auto-levelling, LED rear lamps, rear parking sensors, heated mirrors, auto headlamps and wipers and a Thatcham Category 1 alarm. Interior features include elements you you'd normally have to pay extra for at the bottom of the range on a car of this kind - things like a Head-up display, power-folding functionality for the door mirrors and, for the driver's seat, lumbar support and cushion tilt adjustment. More expected inclusions run to air conditioning and leather for the steering wheel and gear knob, along with a trip computer.
Cost of Ownership
Originally, Mazda's Skyactiv technology was mostly about saving weight. It still is, but other brands have now overtaken this Japanese maker in that regard as the Hiroshima brand concentrates instead on more efficient under-bonnet engineering. Turbocharging, the company says, isn't a good route to high efficiency, but mild hybrid tech is, hence the introduction of 'M Hybrid' light electrification on the base 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol engine we tried.
This 24V mild hybrid system improves fuel economy by recycling recovered kinetic energy. A belt-driven integrated starter-generator stores the energy recovered under deceleration in a 600kJ lithium-ion battery, while a DC-DC converter supplies it to the car's electrical equipment features. Building further on this, the Skyactiv-G powerplant has reduced mechanical friction thanks to an upgraded piston skirt and an optimised oil ring profile. And there's a coolant control system for thermal management that promotes quick engine warm-up to reduce fuel consumption. More significantly, it also features cylinder deactivation, which shuts down cylinders one and four in light-load situations, such as when cruising at a constant speed.
The result of all that technological effort is a set of fuel economy and emissions figures a lot better than you'd normally expect from a 2.0-litre petrol engine - up to 45.6mpg on the combined cycle and up to 136g/km of CO2. Unfortunately for Mazda though, these readings aren't particularly special by the standards achieved by comparable petrol engines producing around 120PS in the family hatchback segment.
Like Volvo, Mazda has thrived since being released from the shackles of Ford ownership. To the point where the brand has almost pulled off the perfect package here: Golf-like quality, Focused driving dynamics and an almost Italianate sense of style. We've found it very difficult to fault this car in the first two of those areas. And its efforts to stand out are laudable, but they do severely compromise back seat space and rear passenger visibility. And to some extent boot capacity too.
The Skactiv engine technology is also a mixed bag. This test car's Skyactiv-G petrol unit isn't particularly noteworthy in terms of either performance or efficiency. If you can live with these few caveats, we have little doubt you'd live very happily with this Mazda3. Steering feel and handling match the finest in the segment, while manual gearbox response betters it, taking this car to the point where we'd pronounce it to be the best all-round choice in the class when it comes to driving dynamics.
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.