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Japanese firm puts its new-age petrol engine into its fourth-generation family hatchback

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Driving the Mazda 3, like most of the brand’s cars, can feel like stepping back in time, but in a good, rose-tinted glasses kind of way.

It’s like driving an older car, one that preserves much of the mechanical tactility and simple shapes and doesn’t hit you over the head with nannying safety systems. However, it’s one that has all the useful advances in safety and emissions and doesn’t make you resort to a paper map or a wallet of CDs.

Mazda’s Kodo design language rejects visual complication, and styling creases are almost entirely absent. Odd then, you might think, to put the bootlid badge on a plinth – but it’s a functional change, serving as a handle.

Mazda has never been afraid to go against the grain, both in the way its cars operate and the way they're powered. It’s also famously sceptical about EVs. It plans to launch a scaleable EV platform between 2025 and 2030 but maintains that it can achieve more for the planet in the short term by simply making more efficient internal combustion engines than by chucking them all in the bin and taking a massive leap with both feet into electric power.

Central to that strategy is its Skyactiv-X technology. It’s unlike any other petrol engine currently in production; it combines both spark and compression-ignition technologies to boost efficiency; and it came to market in this fourth-generation Mazda 3 hatchback.

Mazda 3 range at a glance

Ever since the very short-lived 1.8 Skyactiv-D diesel option was dropped, there has been a choice of just two engines, both 2.0-litre petrol four-cylinders with 24V mild-hybrid assistance and a choice of a six-speed manual or torque-converter automatic gearbox.

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The e-Skyactiv-G is the more conventional unit, while the more powerful e-Skyactiv-X has Mazda's compression-ignition technology. Earlier versions, named simply Skyactiv-X (without the e) had very slightly less power.

There's also the Mazda 3 Saloon, which is exclusively available with the e-Skyactiv-X engine and a manual gearbox.

e-Skyactiv-X183bhp (177bhp*)
Saloon e-Skyactiv-X183bhp (177bhp*)




Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X 2019 road test review - hero side

For its fourth generation, launched in 2019, the Mazda 3 had a ground-up redesign on an all-new platform. This is a marginally shorter and lower hatchback than the one it replaced but a better-packaged one in terms of interior space, says Mazda. A slightly heavier car too, for reasons that will become apparent – although a stronger and stiffer one, with the proportion of ultra-high-strength steel used in its construction jumping from 3% in the last generation to 30%.

Aside from the hatchback, there’s a saloon as well. Saloons in this segment can easily look awkward, but the Mazda 3 Saloon is 200mm longer than the hatch, and the two only share a bonnet and windscreen. As a result, the four-door might just be the better-looking of the two. Still, in Europe we tend to prefer the practicality of a hatchback, so although the saloon remains available, it was always going to be a niche seller.

The 3 continues in a broadly class-conventional vein in terms of mechanical layout, with an all-steel monocoque underbody; engines mounting transversely up front, and MacPherson strut type front suspension with a torsion beam at the rear. An all-wheel drive version with a multi-link rear axle was available for a few years, but was dropped as there isn’t much demand for that in this class.

I was struck by the styling appeal of the 3, and the classy look and feel of its interior. As a slightly left-field alternative to a premium German five-door, I’d expect it to have plenty of draw.

Get into the technical detail of the car’s design and configuration, and you quickly unearth evidence of alternative thinking typical of Mazda. The car’s chassis, for example, has been reinforced with ring-shaped structures intended not only to add strength but also to more quickly transmit vertical loads from the car’s suspension mountings to the base of the driver’s seat.

Mazda 3 2019 rt rear quarters

The suspension has been designed to achieve similar ends, and (for the first time in recent Mazda history) works through tyres with softer sidewalls than those of the car they directly replace. Handling is aided by an electronic torque-vectoring system called G-Vectoring Control Plus, which uses brake and throttle interventions to imperceptibly but proactively balance the car’s weight between its axles during cornering and, says Mazda, to “smooth the transitions between pitch, roll and yaw”.

The seat frames have been stiffened significantly and the seats themselves reshaped, too. All of this, together with the specific body-stiffening measures, is aimed at taking better advantage of the same biomechanical human reflexes that allow you to keep your head steady while walking, and giving the Mazda 3 what should seem like a more intuitively comfortable ride. It’s an interesting approach you won’t find many other car manufacturers following.

But it's the engine that is the most intriguing technical innovation. Both Skyactiv petrols are normally aspirated and have 1998cc of swept volume, but it’s the more powerful of the two – the e-Skyactiv-X – that has Mazda’s ingenious Spark-Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI).

Combining the benefits of both compression and spark ignition, the system can actually switch from the former to the latter regime at higher loads and crank speeds. When it’s running lean, it’s claimed to be between two and three times more efficient than an equivalent conventional engine by cranking up the compression ratio to 16.3:1 and by using very localised, controlled spark ignition to trigger compression ignition throughout the wider combustion chamber.

The e-Skyactiv-X 2.0-litre engine produces 183bhp at 6000rpm and 171lb ft of torque at 4000rpm (earlier versions had 177bhp and 165lb ft), so it’s unlikely to rival a downsized turbo for drivability but should do better than the atmospheric petrol average in that respect. Depending on wheel size, however, it’s claimed to deliver up to 51.4mpg for the Mazda 3 on the WLTP combined cycle, which is better than the significantly less powerful 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G manages in the same car.


01 Mazda 3 RT 2023 dashboard

Mazda really raised the bar with this car’s interior – not only in relation to the previous-generation Mazda 3 but for the wider family hatchback segment to boot. More impressively, in the four years the car has been on sale, no rival has really managed to match it, not even the supposedly more premium BMW 1 Series or Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Comparing it with the Volkswagen Golf or Vauxhall Astra, there’s simply no contest.

A key aspect of the 3’s appeal is the balance Hiroshima’s team of designers has managed to strike between clean minimalism, user-friendliness and some excellent material choices. The terraced fascia is notably free from clutter, with only practical controls for the climate system being retained. These are not only laid out in a pleasingly neat and symmetrical fashion, they impress for tactile quality too – a trait common to all of the Mazda’s interior switchgear.

The Mazda 3's gauge cluster is still largely analogue, which feels like a retro touch. The small screen could've been more useful, but the whole is classy and clear.

Elsewhere, the infotainment screen sits comfortably within the driver’s eyeline, its gracefully sculpted border complementing the tidy, flowing curves of multi-layered dashtop that swoop away from the crisp, predominantly analogue instrument binnacle. A combination of leather, leatherette and darker soft-touch plastics are used to great effect, while gloss-black plastic and touches of polished chrome brightwork further contribute to the cabin’s general air of classy, inviting sophistication.

The Mazda doesn’t quite impress to the same extent when it comes to spaciousness. Passengers in the second row are likely to feel a touch hemmed in – a consequence of a comparative lack of head room, as well as those rather thick C-pillars. Our tape measure took the former at 890mm (the Golf has 950mm), while typical rear leg room was 690mm – very slightly less than in the Golf (700mm).

Boot space comes in at an average 358 litres. The hatchback aperture makes access easy enough, though there is a fairly prominent lip to contend with. While the Mazda’s boot is likely to prove spacious enough for all but the most demanding payloads, both the Ford Focus and the Golf are more practical. Respectively, their luggage compartments have capacities of 375 and 381 litres.

Multimedia system


The 3 uses the same multimedia system as most other Mazdas. It’s one of the few systems that still use a rotary controller, and long may it continue to do so, because once you learn some of the interface’s quirks, it’s very easy to use.

At launch, the screen measured 8.8in in diameter, and rather uniquely lacked touch functionality. In 2023, it was upgraded to a 10.3in unit with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The addition of the touchscreen doesn’t actually make as much difference as you might expect, because it’s still automatically disabled on the move. Even though that’s not ideal, we soon get used to navigating CarPlay with the rotary dial. The native menus are logical and fairly simple, while the built-in navigation is quite clear and fairly good at avoiding traffic.


Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X 2019 road test review - engine

Given the technologically innovative measures it uses to go about its business, this new Skyactiv-X engine sounds and feels surprisingly ordinary during day-to-day use.

When we originally road tested the Skyactiv-X, we noted that there was a vaguely rough, diesel-like edge to its timbre at idle and when accelerating through the lower reaches of the rev range, which morphs into a slightly coarse four-cylinder buzz as the crankshaft spins up to the 6500rpm limiter. Otherwise, it behaves like a pretty typical normally aspirated engine. It may be ground-breaking in what it does, but doesn’t feel much that way in how it does it. Later versions seem to be smoother but no more characterful

Skyactiv-X engine doesn’t pack as much punch as those turbocharged units found inside the class leaders, but few can match the Mazda 3’s impressive touring economy

There are two distinct sides to its power delivery. It’s very happy to potter about at exceedingly low revs, with no buzzing or groaning to indicate you’re lugging the engine. That gives the impression of torqueiness, but sadly it’s only an impression because when you put your foot down for a bit more acceleration, it’s got very little to give unless you shift down several gears and send it to the redline.

The engine will oblige with linear acceleration and good throttle response, but due to the long, economy-optimised gearing, that redline is long way away and as the revs climb, there’s little sense of high-rev vigour to report on. It simply does not feel like it makes the claimed power figure.

Our timing gear supported that. The Mazda’s 0-60mph time of 9.1sec was slower than the supposedly less powerful Mercedes A200 (7.8sec) and Volkswagen Golf 1.5 eTSI (8.3sec). Admittedly we did test both those rivals with automatic transmissions, but that excuse doesn’t apply for the in-gear acceleration figures. In fourth, the Mazda required 14.2sec to accelerate from 30mph to 70mph, whereas the turbocharged Mercedes and Volkswagen did it in 9.6sec and 9.1sec, respectively.

We’ve not performance tested a later, updated Skyactiv-X, but it doesn’t take timing gear to notice that its six additional horses haven’t made a huge difference to the raw performance.

We would probably stick with the cheaper Skyactiv-G, which, despite a 63bhp deficit, doesn’t feel an order of magnitude slower in everyday driving. After all, the difference in torque is far smaller, at 20lb ft.

The Mazda claws back some ground by virtue of its delightful manual gearbox. The throws are not quite as short and mechanical as in the Mazda MX-5, but just comparing it to one of the greatest manual shifts you will find at any price should tell you how good the 3’s is. Every gear engages positively but without balking, and you can perform fingertip changes, or flash the lever through as you see fit.


Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X 2019 road test review - on the road front

The previous-generation Mazda 3 didn’t let old age erode its reputation as one of the dynamically sharper hatchbacks around. Right up to the end of its days, it remained as fit as a fiddle – its alert, fleet-footed handling allowing it to comfortably mix with the likes of the Seat Leon and the Ford Focus – our class heroes when the new Mazda 3 launched. In terms of its athletic eagerness and agility, this fourth-generation model paints a remarkably similar picture.

Its chassis feels energetic and responsive, allowing for directional changes to be executed with notably more verve and panache than you’d extract from the average compact five-door. The car is more prone to body roll than a Ford Focus ST-Line is, but it’s reined progressively so that the car lends itself well to a flowing, smooth style of fast driving.

With 2.9 turns lock to lock, the 3’s steering isn’t quite as in-your-face responsive as the Ford’s, but it’s very well judged in terms of weight and accuracy, and doesn’t come across as slow-witted in its response to your inputs. It simply lets you dial in exactly as much lock as you need. There’s a modicum of feel here, too, although we’d prefer more of it.

Early cars were slightly short of front-end grip, even when you were just hurrying the car along on the road. However, a change from Toyo tyres to Bridgestone Turanza T005s largely cured that slight issue.

Otherwise, the car remains crisp, precise and stable in its cornering manners with a subtle but pleasing sense of neutrality and adjustability in its handling at times, and it holds its line with decent conviction under power.

Track notes

Mazda 3 2019 rt rear track notes

On Millbrook’s unforgiving hill route, the Mazda 3 behaved in a manner totally in step with what you would expect from one of the sharper-handling cars in the family hatch class.

Body movements through corners both fast and tight were well controlled, though perhaps more pronounced than what you would experience in a Focus. Nevertheless, the 3 developed plenty of usable grip, with its front end being perfectly willing to tuck in towards an apex in response to a light application of torque. Particularly sharp bends could cause the front end to wash wide, but this slip was easily marshalled by backing off the throttle.

Meanwhile, its ESP software didn’t prove overly intrusive at any point. At the same time, however, the engine’s lack of low-down punch did result in the Mazda feeling a bit more strained on the route’s numerous inclines compared with some of its turbocharged rivals.

Assisted Driving notes

Most versions of the Mazda 3 come with standard adaptive cruise control. Although early systems could be a little panicky, the latest iteration is smooth and deal with cars cutting in without any hysteria. It also lets you switch to standard cruise control, which is a rare but very welcome feature. From 2023, Mazda 3s include a buzzer that warns you when you go over the speed limit. It’s just as annoying as in other cars, but can be disabled with just one press of a physical button. Helpfully, this also disables the lane-keeping assistance.

Comfort and isolation

Mazda 3 2019 rt rear cornering

Mazda’s decision to offer the 3 exclusively with a torsion beam and passive dampers raised one or two eyebrows at launch, since many of its key rivals were still available with multi-link arrangements. You could argue Mazda was simply ahead of the curve, however, as cost savings claimed most of those rivals’ fancier suspension set-ups. And frankly, a torsion beam is as little of an impediment to a well-set-up chassis as a multilink is a guarantee of one.

The Mazda 3 is a firm-riding car, no doubt. But considering its sporty nature and the enjoyment it can offer on a twisty road, it strikes a well-judged compromise. If you're after a hatchback with a plush ride, we would point you towards the DS 4 or Peugeot 308. However, there is no trace in the 3 of the either the primary unsettledness or secondary harshness evident in the larger Mazda CX-60 SUV.

Primary ride comfort is generally good, and smooths out bigger inputs and compressions. You’ll definitely feel poor road repairs and sunken manhole covers, but the damping is suitable adept at taking the harshness out.

The supremely well-trimmed cabin is fairly well isolated from the outside world. There is a bit of engine, wind and road noise present when trotting along at a steady cruise but nothing vocal enough to leave a black mark by the Mazda’s name.


Mazda 3 2019 road test review - hero front

Mazda has been gradually uprating moving upmarket and into premium territory with classy styling, luxurious interiors and user-friendly multimedia. You might expect that this would come with a premium price, but it doesn’t – not by a long shot.

Mazda has renamed its trim levels for 2023, but hasn’t raised prices quite as much as rivals. Prices start at £23,945 for a manual Skyactiv-G in Prime-Line. We’d recommend upgrading to the £25,045 Centre-Line to get essential niceties such as heated seats, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and wireless phone charging. A comparably specced Volkswagen Golf or Vauxhall Astra, never mind a BMW 118i, are all considerably more expensive. You’ll need to upgrade to a top-flight £31,645 Takumi with the Skyactiv-X engine to get the red leather interior in the photos, but even that undercuts any rival you’d care to mention.

If you don't want a black interior, you'll need to upgrade to range-topping Takumi spec, which gives you a choice of black or burgundy leather.

The Mazda isn’t quite so competitive on finance, with a Centre-Line Skyactiv-G costing about the same as a Golf Life 1.0 TSI with some options and slightly more than a Vauxhall Astra GS. However, the Mazda still justifies that with its plusher interior.

Consistent with the Skyactiv-X’s split personality when it comes to performance, its fuel economy is very sensitive to how you drive it. Keep the revs low and the throttle openings small, and it will return over 50mpg. Our road test car even managed 57mpg on our 70mph touring test. A more enthusiastic driving style will quickly see that number tumbling into the 30s, however. We’ve tended too average around 40mpg.

We’ve not done any extensive economy testing on the Skyactiv-G, but experience suggests it will return a more consistent 40mpg.


Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X 2019 road test review - static front

One of Mazda’s key selling points has long been the heightened level of driver appeal its cars tend to offer. And even with the rather obvious roadster-shaped poster child put firmly to one side, this has been manifest in Hiroshima’s modern hatchbacks and superminis as much as anywhere.

In terms of its ability to conjure up an engaging sort of handling athleticism, the fourth-generation Mazda 3 gives away none of that hard-earned reputation; in the wider class, it’s up there with the very best.

Sweet to drive, great to behold – but the new engine’s no knockout

That innovative new Skyactiv-X engine, as cleverly engineered and potentially frugal as it might be, has never quite lived up to its billing of offering the best of both the petrol and diesel worlds. However, as long as you’re not looking for hot hatch performance, the cheaper Skyactiv-G is a pleasant and responsive companion.

Whichever engine you choose, the Mazda 3 has well-considered safety and multimedia systems and one of the most materially appealing cabins in the segment. In fact, rather than the clever engine, the 3’s interior might be its standout feature, feeling more upmarket than some of the premium options in the segment, but without the premium price.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Mazda 3 First drives