First DriveMid-life revisions improve the Mazda 3’s dynamics and reduce NVH still further, but the 2.2 diesel lacks sparkle
First DriveBrackley-based tuning specialist BBR has a long history of working with Mazda’s MX-5, and the firm has now launched a three-stage tuning programme for the 3 MPS
What is it?
Technically, it’s Mazda’s first model to be offered with a fuel-saving, emissions-lowering stop-start system. But, for reasons we’ll get on to, it’s easier to think of this car as a lukewarm version of the Japanese car maker’s facelifted 3 hatchback, which just happens to have some new and interesting engine technology.
As anyone who’s checked out this car’s vital statistics will have already observed, this car might have commendable fuel economy and emissions for a 148bhp petrol-powered five-door, but it’s no rival to Ford’s Focus Econetic on either fuel economy or CO2 emissions.
Mazda has been developing its own engine idle stop-start system for some time. It’s different from other systems because it doesn’t include a conventional starter-generator. Instead, Mazda’s system restarts the engine after a brief halt in traffic using a slightly more sophisticated and more powerful starter motor and Mazda’s own ‘DISI’ direct injection system.
The system automatically stops the engine when it detects the time is right and, once stopped, it automatically aligns the engine’s pistons towards the middle of their stroke. Using crankshaft position sensors it detects which piston is on a power stroke and, the instant you hit the clutch to move away again, it simply injects fuel into the cylinder, ignites the mixture, and uses the starter motor to put enough kinetic energy back into the crank to get it spinning again.
Mazda says its system is faster to restart and creates less vibration than a conventional starter-generator. But it does only work on direct injection engines...
Given that it had already added direct injection to the 3 MPS’s 2.3-litre turbo motor, and allowing for the fact that it simply wants to roll out DISI and i-Stop technology throughout its petrol engine range as quickly as possible, the easiest first step for Mazda was to add direct injection to the related 2.0-litre before it adapted it for the smaller 1.6-litre petrol four. Eventually it will adapt the system to work with its diesel engines too, but there are hurdles to overcome when dealing with compression ignition.
So forget about whether you think this should be Mazda’s launch car for its emissions-saving stop-start system; for nowat least, this 2.0-litre 159g/km 41.5mpg Mazda 3 is the only ‘i-Stop’ model that the company could offer. Phew. Moving swiftly on…
What’s it like?
Quite an impressive and much-improved family hatchback. The last 3 was an odd, unfinished and unsatisfactory car in many ways; this new one’s got more pleasing and less anonymous exterior styling, and a much softer-touch and more upmarket cabin. It’s both more refined and more enjoyable to drive too.
The old 3’s unsettled and noisy ride has gone, replaced by near Golf-like rolling refinement and handling that’s supple and compliant as well as sporting. Its power steering is also better than it used to be, although could still offer more natural feel.
What’s improved most is this car’s dynamic repertoire. The way it corners, and rides bumps and dips in the road, is much more confidence-inspiring than the old 3; this is a car you can engage with, even lean on occasionally. It feels like bosom kin of the benchmark-setting Ford Focus, while the old one seemed a very distant relative indeed.
Mazda’s excellent new direct-injection 2.0-litre engine plays its part in this car’s success. Torquey from low revs yet willing to work hard beyond 5000rpm, it provides just enough power to give this car entertainment value, but never is it harsh or slow to respond.
Although 32mpg was as near to Mazda’s official economy claim of 41.5mpg as we could get this car to return on a mixed test route, the stop-start system worked effectively too. It was hard to perceive any speed or refinement advantage over a conventional system, but the way it elected to leave the engine running when stopped on inclines, or with the wheels turned away from the straight-ahead at junctions, seemed particularly clever.
Should I buy one?
If you like the idea of a fun-to-drive petrol-powered family hatch that won’t cost so much to keep, quite possibly. Proper hot hatches are more fun; proper economy cars go further on a gallon. But while you’d have thought the two concepts irreconcilable, Mazda has somehow succeeded in bringing them together with this car.
The Japanese brand has produced something genuinely interesting and different here; a low-CO2 special with bucket seats, 17in alloys, a sports exhaust and a large rear spoiler. It makes no sense, but it’s effective, appealing and fun nonetheless.