From £21,8058
By making a petrol work more like a diesel, can the Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X show there’s still life in the internal combustion engine?

What is it?

This may look like a humble, if rather stylish hatchback, but there’s more to the Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X than meets the eye. Look under its bonnet and you’ll see, well, an awful lot of plastic actually. That’s because its 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is enclosed in a ‘capsule’ to promote a faster warm-up that improves efficiency.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the really clever stuff involves what Mazda calls SPCCI or spark controlled compression ignition. Under light loads, a very lean fuel and air mixture is pushed into the cylinder under a diesel-like 16.3:1 compression ratio on the intake stroke. As the piston squishes everything, a small amount of a richer mixture is squirted near to the spark plug. Igniting this instantly raises pressure so the leaner mixture also ignites, burning cleaner and more efficiently. However, put your foot down and it operates like a regular petrol engine, at least, that’s the theory.

To further improve efficiency, there’s also a 24v mild hybrid system that uses a combined starter/generator to harvest energy when you’re slowing down. This can then be used to assist the engine when accelerating from a standstill, for instance. The end result is 178bhp without the use of a turbo, emissions from just 100g/km and official fuel economy of 51.4mpg. That’s rather impressive.

Those figures are for the six-speed manual with front wheel drive on 16in wheels. Four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox are optional, while higher trims receive 18in wheels. Naturally, all these items make the 3 less efficient, with emissions rising to as high as 125g/km.

What's it like?

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. 

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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.

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Front seat passengers might be able to stretch out comfortably, but rear leg and head room will be tight for those over six feet tall. Small rear windows and thick rear pillars don’t help this feeling of claustrophobia. Boot space is a little below average, but you can still fit six carry-on suitcases back there.

Should I buy one?

Even with the normal and relatively weedy 2.0-litre petrol and 1.8-litre diesel, the Mazda 3 is a highly recommendable hatch. Unsurprisingly then, with a little more fire in its belly courtesy of the Skyactiv-X engine, there's even more reason to pick one as your next family hatch. Some may bemoan the low torque figure achieved at relatively high revs, but you can't argue with the outright performance and those emissions and economy figures.

Pricing is yet to be released, but early indications suggest it should be slightly cheaper than the diesel and will cost less in BIK tax should you be a company car driver. If that price remains palatable, the Skyactiv-X is the best engine for the 3 unless you’re covering mega-miles, in which case the diesel’s even better economy is hard to ignore. With Mazda already saying there’s more to come from Skyactiv-X, we’ll be keeping a close eye on developments.

Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X 2.0 specification

Where Frankfurt, Germany Price £26,000 (est) On sale October Engine 4cyl, 1998cc, petrol Power 178bhp at 6000rpm Torque 165lb ft at 3000rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1486kg Top speed 134mph 0-62mph 8.2sec Fuel economy 48.7mpg CO2 WLTP data TBC Rivals Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus

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Will86 16 July 2019

@si73

I enjoy a nice NA engine too, but I tried the 2.0 120ps in the current 3 and it was very disappointing. Throttle response wasn't great and it felt much much slower than my 1.8 Civic when on paper it should have been faster. The critical issue was gear ratios. I hope Mazda haven't lumbered the new 3 with overly long gearing because I'm not convinced it actually helps economy if you are having to work the engine harder to drive round the gearing.

si73 16 July 2019

Will86 wrote:

Will86 wrote:

I enjoy a nice NA engine too, but I tried the 2.0 120ps in the current 3 and it was very disappointing. Throttle response wasn't great and it felt much much slower than my 1.8 Civic when on paper it should have been faster. The critical issue was gear ratios. I hope Mazda haven't lumbered the new 3 with overly long gearing because I'm not convinced it actually helps economy if you are having to work the engine harder to drive round the gearing.

I think the newer cars get the worse throttle response is as it is all electronically controlled as opposed to a physical cable opening a butterfly etc, the crz I had came with eco normal and sport settings, all altered the throttle response with eco being lethargic in response to sport being instant, I didn't really like any of them as they felt slightly false but the engine behaved like a torquey na, an 8 valve as opposed to 16 valve, and that made it fun to drive but I do find nearly all modern cars, that I have driven, throttle response to be vague. Reminds of the fly by wire defenders that used the electronics to prevent wild throttle inputs when bouncing off road, that damped response is how modern cars feel to me, makes them easy to bog down when pulling away in heavy stop start traffic.

si73 16 July 2019

I may be alone but I see a

I may be alone but I see a lot to like, I like the styling of this car even though I do agree the C pillar is a bit big and the rear side window could easily have been bigger, that aside I still think it is an attractive car. The ride and handling seem pretty good from the review, even if not the best, but all that is subjective and I'd test drive and form my own conclusions there, and don't forget the focus and golf come with torsion beams. The interior is stunning and far superior in style to any of its competition, in my opinion, and the engine performs well with good economy, I like naturally aspirated engines and I like using the revs and changing gear to get performance as opposed to staying in a high gear and riding a turbocharged torque wave, just my preference, which is why I like the way Mazda have been keeping to large ish na engines.

jason_recliner 16 July 2019

si73 wrote:

si73 wrote:

I may be alone but I see a lot to like, I like the styling of this car even though I do agree the C pillar is a bit big and the rear side window could easily have been bigger, that aside I still think it is an attractive car. The ride and handling seem pretty good from the review, even if not the best, but all that is subjective and I'd test drive and form my own conclusions there, and don't forget the focus and golf come with torsion beams. The interior is stunning and far superior in style to any of its competition, in my opinion, and the engine performs well with good economy, I like naturally aspirated engines and I like using the revs and changing gear to get performance as opposed to staying in a high gear and riding a turbocharged torque wave, just my preference, which is why I like the way Mazda have been keeping to large ish na engines.

I hear ya!

The Focus will probably still be best in class - the most practical and talented all-rounder. If over the shoulder visibility and / or carrying capacity are high priorities this new 3 clearly isn't the car for you.

If you like the style - many do - if you like the interior, if you still enjoy a revvy NA engine and slick manual and sporty handling, this is a convincing package that is almost in a class of one.

The Aussie test suggests 1,350 kg kerb mass. Still a bit porky but much better.

Not sure about the UK but over here a lot of the cars in traffic only have one or two passengers, so maybe there is a market for a sexier, less practical hatch.

Bar room lawyer 15 July 2019

I have the previous Mazda 3 and tried this

I have the previous model Mazda 3 and tried this new version in the showroom, then decided against a road test. Why?

  1. at 6'3' tall I cracked my head on the door frame trying to get in the back seat, my son is 6"6" tall. I can't comment on the view out from the back seat as I can't get in!
  2. The boot  and it's opening are smaller than the current car, so my nephew's wheelchair will not fit as it will in the boot of the model this replaces.
  3. Sat in the driver's seat, over the shoulder 3/4 vision is none existant, it reminded me of the 3/4 view from the driver's seat of a Mk2 Ford Escort Van from the 1970's

The whole design suggests to me that Mazda are looking at this as a Coupe and are marketing the forthcoming CX30 as the more likely family car, probably with a greater profit margin. 

 

jason_recliner 16 July 2019

Bar room lawyer wrote:

Bar room lawyer wrote:

I have the previous model Mazda 3 and tried this new version in the showroom, then decided against a road test. Why?

  1. at 6'3' tall I cracked my head on the door frame trying to get in the back seat, my son is 6"6" tall. I can't comment on the view out from the back seat as I can't get in!
  2. The boot  and it's opening are smaller than the current car, so my nephew's wheelchair will not fit as it will in the boot of the model this replaces.
  3. Sat in the driver's seat, over the shoulder 3/4 vision is none existant, it reminded me of the 3/4 view from the driver's seat of a Mk2 Ford Escort Van from the 1970's

The whole design suggests to me that Mazda are looking at this as a Coupe and are marketing the forthcoming CX30 as the more likely family car, probably with a greater profit margin. 

 

Yep, Mazda did the same thing with the Astina back in the 90s (which still looks great IMO). You and your son would probably fit into a CX-5. I'm 176 cm, my son is 98 cm, and I'm glad every car isn't designed to fit every person, so we can still buy something low, sporty and sexy!

xxxx 16 July 2019

Agreed

Bar room lawyer wrote:

I have the previous model Mazda 3 and tried this new version in the showroom, then decided against a road test. Why?

  1. at 6'3' tall I cracked my head on the door frame trying to get in the back seat, my son is 6"6" tall. I can't comment on the view out from the back seat as I can't get in!
  2. The boot  and it's opening are smaller than the current car, so my nephew's wheelchair will not fit as it will in the boot of the model this replaces.
  3. Sat in the driver's seat, over the shoulder 3/4 vision is none existant, it reminded me of the 3/4 view from the driver's seat of a Mk2 Ford Escort Van from the 1970's

The whole design suggests to me that Mazda are looking at this as a Coupe and are marketing the forthcoming CX30 as the more likely family car, probably with a greater profit margin. 

Yep when the first pictures appeared it reminded me of the DS4 and how difficult it was to get in the rear. At 5ft 10 you might suffer broken ribs but at 5ft my 10 year old would probably have fractured a skull getting in.   I got slated for those comments and vomit inducing rear accommodation but I feel redemption now.

Awful design for family 5 door hatchback.