Arguably the most impressive thing about the Skyactiv-X engine is just how normal it feels. Hit the start button and it doesn’t sound or feel any different to the regular petrol engine. However, accelerate past 1500rpm and there is a gritty edge, almost like you're hearing a diesel car next to you accelerating. Push it beyond 4500rpm and bizarrely it goes back to sounding like a slightly gruff petrol engine. It is however much smoother and quieter than diesel and the start stop system works almost imperceptibly.
There might be a diesel edge to some of the soundtrack, but there’s no surge of power from low in the rev range, it feels just like a naturally aspirated petrol engine despite the soundtrack. Rather than peak torque coming in at around 1500rpm as we’ve come to expect from modern turbocharged engines – including petrols – it needs to reach 3000rpm before its modest 165lb ft is unleashed.
Peak power comes at a fairly high 6000rpm although the engine will rev to nearly 7000. As it does start to feel a little breathless at high engine speeds, you won’t be exploring the redline regularly. Even so you’ll still be stirring the six-speed manual gearbox more than in turbocharged rivals, although that’s no hardship. A short, positive and pleasingly mechanical shift makes changing gear an experience to enjoy. Once stoked, performance isn’t bad with 0-62mph taking a reasonable 8.2sec.
Other than that, it’s business as usual for the Mazda 3. The steering is precise with a pleasant weighting that builds predictably with speed and cornering force. It might not be quite as quick as in some rivals, but it allows you to guide the 3 from corner to corner in a satisfying manner.
There’s little body roll even when pressing on, helping it feel agile in quick direction changes. It might not have quite as much front-end bite as a Ford Focus, but it’s still enjoyable to drive within the limits of grip.
This driver appeal does come at the expense of ride comfort. It’s by no means uncomfortable and has far better body control than the Skoda Scala, but you do feel it patter over crumbling road surfaces. That’s partially down to the simple torsion beam rear suspension – there’s no independent rear end, at least for the front-wheel drive cars.
Apart from a screen on the infotainment system that shows how often you're in SPCCI mode (Mazda reckons 80% of the time, a figure we’d be inclined to believe), the interior is no different from any other Mazda 3. We’re not complaining, though, the material quality is truly impressive, feeling distinctly premium.
Not only is there heavy use of soft touch plastic and convincing-looking leatherette, everything feels well screwed together and built to last. That impression is helped by switches, knobs and stalks that work with a pleasing precision.
Infotainment is taken care of by an 8.8in screen mounted high on the dashboard so the driver doesn’t have to look far from the road. It’s controlled by an iDrive-style rotary dial between the seats and impresses with its responsiveness, the quality of its graphics and simplicity of its menus. There are even handy shortcut buttons around the dial, too. Meanwhile, the instruments are partially digital but lack the configurability of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit. A standard head up display makes up for this somewhat, though.