Thursday 14th November 2019
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First drive: Mazda3 Skyactiv-X. Image by Mazda UK.

First drive: Mazda3 Skyactiv-X
A petrol engine which runs like a diesel? What’s that like, then? We drive a new Mazda3 in the UK to find out.

 



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Mazda3 2.0 Skyactiv-X 180 AWD

4 4 4 4 4

Having driven the Mazda3 Skyactiv-X in prototype form almost two years ago, now it's time to try it in full production guise as we sample it in the latest version of the 3 hatchback. Is this the revolution in internal combustion engines we were hoping for?

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Mazda3 Skyactiv-X 2.0 180 AWD GT Sport Tech
Pricing: Mazda3 range from £20,595; Skyactiv-X 180 AWD GT Sport Tech from £29,775, car as tested £30,645
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder Spark-Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI) petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 109g/km (VED Band 101-110: £150 first 12 months, then £145 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 45.6mpg
Top speed: 133mph
0-62mph: 8.5 seconds
Power: 180hp at 6,000rpm
Torque: 224Nm at 3,000rpm
Boot space: 358-1,026 litres

What's this?

The Mazda3, now into its fourth generation. This striking-looking machine actually launched in May this year, with a choice of a mild-hybrid 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol, rated at 122hp, or Mazda's newest turbodiesel, a lovely little 1.8-litre lump with 116hp. Well, that diesel has been dropped - yes, already. And the reason for that is the car you're looking at here.

It's the Skyactiv-X, a Spark-Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI) petrol engine. Like the Skyactiv-G, it is 2.0 litres in capacity and is augmented by Mazda's M-Hybrid fuel-saving tech, but what it can also do is switch from standard spark-ignition running as a 'normal' petrol to a much leaner fuel-air mix and its SPCCI witchcraft trickery when it needs to. You can click on the Skyactiv-X review link in the intro to this piece for a comprehensive rundown on precisely how this engine works, but - in the basest and rather simplistic terms - it's a petrol that can run like a diesel when you're not working it hard. Hence combined fuel economy of a claimed 45.6mpg and CO2 emissions of just 109g/km; both enough to convince Mazda that it doesn't need to offer the 1.8 diesel any longer. The derv was simply a stop-gap until Skyactiv-X could adorn the Mazda3 Mk4 range.

The handsome four-door model has also arrived in the 3 family for autumn, this being previously known by its Fastback moniker, but now it takes the more prosaic 'Saloon' name. Weirdly, despite the duller branding, it looks better than the old 3 Fastback and it only shares the windscreen and bonnet with its current hatchback sibling; every other exterior panel is different. The Mazda3 Saloon is powered exclusively by the Skyactiv-X engine and comes in a four-trim specification line-up that starts at £23,555, making it less affordable than the hatch (which can still be had with the Skyactiv-G non-SPCCI 2.0-litre petrol motor). The Saloon comes with either a six-speed manual as standard or a six-speed auto as an option and it is always front-wheel drive - whereas there's the option to have all-wheel drive on the Mazda3 hatch, for the first time on this size of car from the Japanese manufacturer since demise of the 323 AWD in the 1990s.

To have an AWD, though, you need to have the Mazda3 in its highest GT Sport Tech specification. So, what with that, and the four-wheel-drive traction, and the most powerful engine in the form of the Skyactiv-X, you can quickly end up with a vehicle like our test car that's the wrong side of £30,000. A lot of money? Well, possibly, but it depends on how good this striking car is to drive. Does its clever engine win it the highest of acclaim?

How does it drive?

Let's first of all just touch on how seriously good a car the new Mazda3 is in general. The third-generation car was brilliant, but if it had some areas that needed work, it was in the cabin finishing and infotainment departments. However, we shouldn't ignore what an incredible-looking machine the Mk4 Mazda3 is from the outside - it's an incredibly attractive car in either five-door or Saloon shape, with about our only gripe being aimed at the hatch's bulky-looking C-pillar arrangement. But that's a very minor gripe, because this is a corking C-segment vehicle to behold.

Inside, it's nigh-on class-leading. The quality of all the materials used is top-notch, the way everything clicks and rotates and operates and feels is first-class, the graphics on both the infotainment system and the 3's head-up display seem to have leapt forward several decades in one go, and the whole car oozes sheer quality before you've gone so far as an inch in it. Throw in the new £200 Burgundy leather option and you have a cabin that will give the incoming Volkswagen Golf Mk8 a very high bar to clear. Sadly, it isn't flawless, as the legroom in the rear behind the seating position of an average-height driver is less than generous, while the boot - which is a decent size - has a deep step down into it from the open hatch.

Nonetheless, the solidity and excellence of the cabin translates into the driving experience. The Mazda3 is quiet, smooth and easy to operate, with that sort of effortless big-car feel that denotes proper engineering. Certain things also quickly become evident as you spend time at the wheel, like the utter brilliance of the six-speed manual gearbox's throw, the decent weighting and precision of the steering, and the general composure of the body control, both during fast cornering and while the Mazda is traversing rougher roads. That AWD system is OK, too, although we didn't notice a huge difference between it and a front-wheel-drive Saloon 3 we drove later in the day.

Nevertheless, in many ways the Mazda3 is, without doubt, one of the best everyday hatchbacks you can buy right now. But what about that engine? Ah. Right. Now, Mazda is one of our favourite manufacturers currently, mainly for its willingness to engineer its way out of and around problems, rather than taking lazy short-cuts. Its devotion to normal aspiration for its petrol motors is highly admirable and completely understandable, and there is absolutely no denying that the execution of the extremely clever SPCCI Skyactiv-X engine is brilliant.

Yet we think it's the weak point of the Mazda3. Something about it isn't quite... right. Unlike Mazda's other 2.0-litre petrol engines, such as the gem of a mill in the MX-5, the X doesn't feel like it wants to rev. It will do with an unremitting approach to opening the throttle fully, and it stays reasonably vibration-free while it goes through the motions, but it never spins up fast and there's the suspicion that it's happier staying at sub-4,000rpm.

This would be fine if the Skyactiv-X had the rich seam of torque of a turbocharged motor, especially precisely the sort of diesel it is trying to replace, but it doesn't. Even though the peak 224Nm hits at a relatively lowly 3,000rpm, there will be times where you'll crave the easily accessible oomph of a forced-induction engine. Mazda goes on about 'rightsizing', that the whole reason for having the 2.0-litre SPCCI in the first place is that fitting a light-pressure turbo to a smaller capacity petrol ('downsizing') might well result in decent economy/emissions figures when the car is driven gently (i.e., for NEDC and WLTP tests), but when it's driven harder then those eco-stats take a pummelling. And we'd agree with that, because we've tried enough of the fashionable 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo engines that are abysmal on fuel if you thrash the pants off them.

The thing is, so confident was Mazda in the Skyactiv-X proposition that it set up a challenging 85-mile route around the fringes of the Yorkshire Dales. This involved some strenuous climbing, nowhere more so than out of the village of Lofthouse and, apparently, straight up the side of the Nidderdale valley in the direction of Masham. Frankly, this was an ascent that would have possibly taxed something with 900Nm, never mind 224Nm, but at one point we were in second gear, foot flat to the boards at about 2,000rpm and the Mazda could not pile on any extra pace whatsoever. And its lack of low-revs response was notable on more sensible, level terrain, because there were plenty of times where it necessitated an additional downshift to get it to accelerate in line with the flow of traffic. Throw in a 32mpg economy return from the drive (not bad for a 2.0-litre, granted, but not turbodiesel-like, either) and the Skyactiv-X left us underwhelmed.

Not that it lacks power, because get it operating in the right spot and it feels every bit of its 180hp. And, in true Mazda fashion, it's a generally fine engine. We would also like to reiterate that we fully understand the noble principle of SPCCI and the genius that was required to make it work as well as superbly as it does. It's just that... well, we kind of think that if Mazda had just, y'know... taken that lazy short-cut and put a small turbo on the Skyactiv-G engine, it would have created a motor more worthy of finding a home in the otherwise-exceptional 3 hatchback.

Verdict

The new Mazda3 is a wonderful car with a wonderfully clever engine, in the form of this Skyactiv-X petrol. But it doesn't quite deliver the driving experience we were hoping for, despite its oh-so-clever ability to switch into SPCCI running and back again (which it does seamlessly, we might add; only a display accessible on the touchscreen lets you know when the car is operating in SPCCI mode or not), and we reckon customers hoping to migrate from forced-induction rivals will soon become frustrated with certain aspects of the Skyactiv-X's character. However, if the marque were to fit a more potent Skyactiv-G in this 3 than the 122hp unit currently in service, what you'd almost certainly have here is the best C-segment hatchback going, because the Mazda3 is a rather marvellous, ridiculously handsome thing.

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Exterior Design

5 5 5 5 5 Interior Ambience

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Passenger Space

4 4 4 4 4 Luggage Space

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Safety

4 4 4 4 4 Comfort

4 4 4 4 4 Driving Dynamics

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 7 Oct 2019









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2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.

2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.2019 Mazda3 Skyactiv-X AWD UK test. Image by Mazda UK.








 

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