One of the constant dangers for your humble TTAC correspondent is drifting away from gimlet-eyed and ruthless objectivity towards developing a soft spot for a particular manufacturer. Lord forbid you should ever start becoming an “advocate”.
Should such tendencies emerge, one of our larger and hairier Senior Editors will show up on the front stoop bearing a large boat oar emblazoned with “Integrity” and begin beating you about the ears in the manner of the berserker school-master from Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht. Leaving aside semi-obscure references to mid-century Irish literary satire for the moment, there’s one company for which I’d cheerfully risk the aforementioned major head trauma: Mazda.
How could you not? The homologation-special 323 GTX, the curvaceous FD RX-7, the gutsy MX-6 GT, the sharp-yet-practical Protege5, the apex-predator Mazdaspeed3, the Brit-that-don’t-break Miata; over the years, Mazda has produced a veritable pantheon of great cars, all relatively affordable, all moderately practical.
Well, the MX-6 GT was a bit crap, if I’m honest. I had one, and it was really fast and ran forever, but it also torque-steered like a helicopter with the tail-rotor shot off.
And, lest you think that I’ve entirely become Mazda’s – ahem – protégé, it’s worth noting that Mazdas appear to be plagued with rust issues that don’t seem to affect other Japanese competitors (we’re rarely afflicted with this problem in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s a common complaint among Easterners). Also the early ‘speed3 ate motor mounts like milk-duds and the RX-7’s twin-turbocharged engine couldn’t have been less stable if it was made out of nitroglycerine, anti-matter and bits of the Middle East.
So, there are occasional flaws. And with the current Mazda3, two warts immediately hove into view, and beg to be looked past.
First, the styling, about which they’ve done little with this new car. A tweaked front fascia makes the grin a little less idiotic, they’ve added blue mascara ’round the headlights, and there’s a “Skyactiv” badge out back. That’s about it.
In fact, the reason you’re looking at press shots here rather than my own ham-handed photography is that so little is changed, I plumb forgot to take pictures of the car. But everybody knows what the Mazda3 looks like already: lots of curvy styling, big goofy smile.
Who. Cares. While – based on the conservative-but-interesting looks of the CX-5 – I look forward to seeing a new, KODO-ized Mazda3, the current ‘3 now blends right in to modern traffic alongside bulbous Hyundai Velosters, basking-shark Ford Focii, and bug-eyed Nissan Jukes. If the smirk really bothers you, just buy a black one.
We can also take any interior criticisms “as read”. Exactly the same, but the lighting is now light blue, the official other colour of efficiency.
Which brings us to the other wart, perhaps the larger and hairier of the two. While the ‘3 has a certain verve with the 2.5L engine, it’s not particularly competitive in the economy department. Opting for the base 2.0L improves the fuel-consumption somewhat, but the power deficit is quite noticeable. What Mazda needs to stay competitive is more zoom-zoom from less fuel.
There isn’t the space here for me to fully explain the science of Skyactiv (click here to read my somewhat bumbling attempt to do so), but let me lay out the Cole’s Notes. First, it’s not a hybrid. I’ve lost count of how many people have come up to me and asked what I thought of “Mazda’s new hybrid”.
Skyactiv is not a specialty trim level, it’s the tagline for the mindset of the engineer who’s currently designing your – they hope – next Mazda: a full suite of technologies designed to improve economy and enhance driver involvement. In the case of the Mazda3, you get partial Skyactiv tech in the mid-range models free-gratis-for-nothing.
Second, if we simplify things down to a level that would have Dave Coleman gnawing on his graphing calculator, Skyactiv-G engine tech is about the controlled burn. The high-octane, premium fuel normally required in high-pressure engines (including turbo’d and supercharged applications) is less prone to spontaneously combusting than regular. Mazda gets around this requirement for high-grade gas with precise multi-point injector technology and specially dished pistons that ensure regular flame-front propagation out from the spark.
Advantage? A clean, even burn that runs leaner and gives you a bump in power. Theoretically great, but what about real-world application?
Here it is then, finally, the meat n’ potatoes of this review. Assuming you’ve read this far, you don’t care about styling commentary, you don’t care that they’ve swapped all the red interior lights for blue ones, you don’t care about high-flown hyperbole, or even how Skyactiv tech actually works. You want to know: is this ‘3 any good?
Well, first the bad news. The first Skyactiv ‘3 is a bit of a mongrel. It’s the same old Mazda3 chassis with an engine and transmission swap, and part of the Skyactiv-G gasoline tech has been watered down. There isn’t room underhood to fit the 4-2-1 header that allows the CX-5 to attain that sky-high 13:1 compression ratio with tuned exhaust pulses. The mill in the ‘3 is therefore restricted to 12:1.
However, the six-speed automatic gearbox in this tester is fully Skyactiv (conventional but lightened with improved shift control and a greater lock-up range), and while the chassis is roughly the same as last year’s – with a slight enhancement to rigidity – there was nothing wrong with the old one. In fact, there was everything right with the old one.
And here comes the good news. This heart-transplanted ‘3 is better than ever.
I was invited to the launch of the Skyactiv-equipped Mazda3 in sunny Los Angeles, but elected to wait for a locally-available tester instead. I’m glad I did, and not for some imaginary independent-can’t-be-bought-hipster-journo street-cred: I knew the ‘3 would be great to drive on a Mazda-planned canyon route; I’m pleased to report that it’s also great to drive in rain-soaked, volume-snarled, suicidal-pedestrian, militant-cyclist, turn-signal-absent everyday horrible traffic. It is such a hoot.
The new automatic transmission delivers crisp, rapid shifts, and is actually fun to operate in manu-matic mode. No paddle-shifters (yet), but it’s an engaging transmission that makes a mockery of weaksauce dual-clutch systems like that found in the Focus.
The engine, while lacking the outright grunt of the 2.5L, provides considerably more poke than the somewhat dowdy 2.0L, splitting the difference between the two engines at 155hp and 148lb/ft of torque. Mazda claims the power of a 2.5L from a 2.0L, but that’s pushing it a little: there is still plenty of room for more down-low power.
Expect the full-fat, 91-octane burning 14:1 Euro-versions to have a little more panache, but if I’m going to express jealousy of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, it’ll be for their upcoming Skyactiv-D diesel with its 300lb/ft of torque and 5300rpm redline.
But I digress, back to what we actually get. In my normal driving style, which is to careen everywhere as though pursued by a brown 450SEL with a rocket-launcher-wielding Robert DeNiro hanging out of its sunroof, the Skyactiv-G Mazda3 returned a very respectable 33mpg.
Granted, that’s about 15% off the promised 40mpg highway, but seriously, we’re talking depleted uranium Dr. Scholl’s inserts here. I beat that thing like a concrete piňata and not only did it feel like it loved every minute of it, but there was also little penalty at the pump.
Currently, this kind of fuel-economy puts the ‘3 right up there amongst other – alleged – fuel sippers. Should the little Mazda fall mid-pack for operating costs in the future as others catch up, its fun-to-drive quotient should do the rest of the selling.
Of course, there’s a worry. Any time words like “high-compression” start getting tossed around, the image that immediately pops into mind is of some brightly coloured Italian exotic on the shoulder and en flambé. And while most Mazdas have a reasonably good track-record for reliability, there’s still the long shadow cast by that FD RX-7 and its, um, explosive performance.
But I’m bullish on Mazda’s new tech, and can’t wait to see it range-wide and try it in full effect in the CX-5. It’s all well and good to have interesting niche enthusiast cars like the GT 86 and the EVO-X but we need a car company that champions driving pleasure as a core value for all its models.
It’s nice to have a company like Mazda around, and I’m happy to report that their SKYACTIV technologies seem to indicate that they’ll be able to compete on both fronts: not only as the enthusiast choice, but also as a manufacturer of economically efficient daily drivers. This new Mazda3 is certainly a car I’ll be recommending next time somebody asks.
Oh hang on, someone’s at the door.
Mazda provided the vehicle tested and insurance.