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The Japanese firm puts its new-age petrol engine in the fourth-gen family hatchback

Perhaps it’s as a result of a particularly genuine sense of corporate responsibility; perhaps it’s for more pragmatic reasons. But alongside the launch of the new Mazda 3, and quite oddly for a car company that’s on the cusp of launching its first all-electric production car, Mazda has called into question how much a mass movement to battery-powered motoring would reduce global CO2 levels in the short term.

This famously innovative Japanese car maker has never been afraid to go against the grain, and yet its thinking will rile those who believe that the quickest possible adoption of EVs should be enshrined in global car industry strategy and widely accelerated by taxes and incentives.

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.

The company’s latest long-term product and powertrain credo, catchily entitled ‘Sustainable ZoomZoom 2030’, aims to half the ‘well-to-wheel’ CO2 emissions of its annual production output of cars by 2030 and reduce them by as much as 90% by 2050. But since its own research puts the well-to-wheel emissions of any electric car introduced today at 128g/km (based on the current global mix of power generation from renewable, but still mostly nonrenewable, sources), it has decided 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.

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And so, while the first all-electric Mazda will come along next year and its first plug-in hybrid a few years later, what we’re getting from the firm for now is a new and interesting breed of petrol engine called Skyactiv-X. It’s unlike any other petrol engine currently in production; it combines both spark- and compression-ignition technologies to boost efficiency; and it comes to market first in the all-new, fourth-generation Mazda 3 hatchback – which is our road test subject this week.

Mazda 3 design & styling

The new Mazda 3 has had a ground-up redesign on an all-new platform. This is a marginally shorter, lower hatchback than the one it replaces, 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%.

The car continues in a broadly class-conventional vein in terms of mechanical layout, with an all-steel monocoque underbody; engines mounting transversely up front and driving the front axle only; and MacPherson strut type front suspension with a torsion beam at the rear. Get into the technical detail of the car’s design and configuration, however, 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.

The suspension has been redesigned 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.

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For now, the company is offering a choice of only two petrol engines, both with 24V mild-hybrid assistance, while an all-new diesel option is likely to follow in 2020.

Both Skyactiv petrols are normally aspirated and have 1998cc of swept volume, but it’s the more powerful of the two – the Skyactiv-X – we’re interested with here, which uses what Mazda calls 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 can 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 Skyactiv-X 2.0-litre engine produces 177bhp and 165lb ft of torque at 3000rpm, 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, a result 13% better than the significantly less powerful 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol manages in the same car – as well as a relative CO2 emissions saving of 17%.

The Mazda 3 line-up at a glance

While the Mazda 3 was initially available with a choice of Skyactiv-G petrol and Skyactiv-D diesel engines, the arrival of the new Skyactiv-X motor has seen the oil-burner dropped from the range. Both six-speed manual and six-speed auto ’boxes are available.

The Skyactiv-G motor is exclusively front driven, while the Skyactiv-X powerplant can be had with all-wheel drive. Hatchback and saloon bodystyles are offered, with the trim walk starting at SE-L and moving up through SE-L Lux, Sport, Sport Lux, GT Sport and GT Sport Tech.

Price £26,675 Power 177bhp Torque 165lb ft 0-60mph 9.1sec 30-70mph in fourth 14.2sec Fuel economy 40.0mpg CO2 emissions 103g/km 70-0mph 49.2m

Mazda 3 First drives