Let’s start with that Skyactiv-X engine. Producing 178bhp, it’s essentially another 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit. However, it’s unique in combining the best aspects of petrol and diesel engine technology. It can behave like a sporty petrol engine when you need lots of acceleration, and then, at cruising speeds, uses diesel-style compression ignition to reduce fuel consumption. It does all this without using a turbocharger; Mazda is one of the only manufacturers that hasn’t added a smaller, turbocharged engine to its range, preferring to stick with natural aspiration.
But what does this all mean in the real world? Well, in terms of driving, the Skyactiv-X doesn’t feel any different to a regular petrol engine. That means that the 3 Saloon delivers power smoothly and pulls well, getting you up to speed with ease. There’s a surprising amount of torque at low revs for a petrol (one of the Skyactiv-X’s particular merits), so you don’t have to change gears too often, making for a relaxed driving experience. Peak performance kicks in at around 2500rpm, though, so you need to rev the engine hard to make the most out of that 178bhp.
The Skoda Superb is a much larger executive car, but its starting price is roughly the same, so it’s a valid opponent. Its equivalent petrol engine – a 148bhp 1.5-litre turbo petrol – is equally keen to rev and can produce as much low-down torque, thanks to its turbocharger.
The 3 Saloon offers the choice of a manual or automatic gearbox. We’ve not tried the auto yet, but the manual is one of the best around, mimicking that in Mazda’s MX-5 sports car. It has a short and precise action that really slots into place with confidence. It’s still light to operate, though, so you can flick between gears with just one finger.
Ride comfort isn't one of the 3 Saloon’s strongest suits. It's set up quite firmly and doesn’t smother rigid bumps around town nearly as well as the Mercedes A-Class Saloon. On the plus side, it’s well tied down, so you and your passengers won't be bouncing out of your seats on rolling country roads. There’s plenty of grip to encourage you to push through corners, while body roll is resisted well, keeping the car composed. Although the 3 hatchback is available with either front or four-wheel drive, the saloon is exclusively front-wheel-drive.
Mazda says it worked hard on ensuring that the 3 is one of the quietest cars in its class, and sure enough, wind and road noise are well suppressed, only picking up slightly at motorway speeds.
Although the Skyactiv-X engine is ever so slightly coarser than the conventional, less potent Skyactiv-G unit available in the 3 hatchback when revved hard, there’s sometimes a slight grittiness that reminds you of a diesel.
The steering has some initial vagueness that's noticeable when you're trying to keep the 3 Saloon straight on the motorway, plus a sluggishness at the start of turns. Once up to speed, though, it’s well weighted and has sufficient heft to make it feel connected to the wheels, helping you turn in to corners precisely.