Mazda 3 long-term test review: report 1

Mazda's new family hatchback combines groundbreaking engine tech with the promise of driver engagement. We're trying it out...


The car Mazda 3 2.0 Skyactiv-X MHEV Sport Lux  Run by Kris Culmer, special contributor

Why it’s here To prove that Mazda's new petrol engine technology really works and discover whether the 3 can now truly challenge premium-brand family hatchbacks

Needs to Achieve diesel-challenging economy; have an interior and driving experience that make you feel special; be practical enough for a family of four

Mileage 3426 List price £25,575 Target Price £23,989 Price as tested £26,365 Options fitted Soul Red Crystal metallic paint (£790) Test economy 44.2mpg Official economy 48.7mpg

16 January 2020 – The beautiful innovator

Never before have I taken delivery of a new car with a poem in the glovebox. This should bring out my cynical side, but it came from Mazda, so the sentiment comes across as genuine; this independent Japanese company has always done things on its own terms.

It opens: “We explore cities and winding country roads. Corners hugged and throttles revved. Windows down, radio loud, no particular place to go.” Huh. Unlike any other poem I’ve ever read, that has actually captured my interest. 

I vividly remember when I first saw the latest Mazda 3; it was at the end of 2017, in the form of the Kai concept. Its smooth surfacing, in contrast to the mess of lines and creases that is rife at the moment, was breathtaking (especially when coated in Soul Red Crystal paint, which is more than worth the £790 I paid for it). In my eyes, the best mainstream design of recent years has come from the Hiroshima firm. So, to hear that this most attractive of family hatchbacks also has a focus on driver engagement made it completely irresistible.

Mazda 3 long-term

Of even greater interest is the new 178bhp Skyactiv-X engine, as the first to use Mazda’s pioneering spark-controlled compression ignition (SPCCI) technology. Petrol engines ignite fuel using spark plugs; diesel engines do so simply through pressure and heat. SPCCI is the marriage of the two methods: a spark plug ignites only a little of the fuel-air mix, creating sufficient pressure and heat (with the help of a supercharger) to finish the job.

Adding to the complexity, energy is collected when you’re slowing down and fed back to a tiny battery. This is later deployed to a small motor, which makes pulling away in stop-start traffic very smooth and ekes out economy gains. This increasingly common setup is known as a mild hybrid system. That’s what MH means in the MHEV part of my 3’s name; EV means electric vehicle, which is a bit like an airport north of Bishop’s Stortford putting ‘London’ in its name…

Mazda 3

But what does all this mean for you? Well, it sounds too good to be true: 9% more power and 5% more torque than the regular Skyactiv-G petrol engine, yet 9% better efficiency, at 48.7mpg and 103g/km of CO2 emissions. Admittedly, the Skyactiv-X still isn’t as frugal as the Skyactiv-D diesel, but the shortfall of circa 10mpg should be repaid by the typical traits of a petrol engine that are so enjoyable. Even so, all of this begs the question: why doesn’t Mazda simply use a turbocharger to improve efficiency like literally everybody else? I’m very keen to find out.

That will be an extended task requiring a fair bit of experimentation – the opposite of making myself at home inside the 3. Mazda’s poem continues: “We were always meant to connect, like a horse and rider, car and driver as one.” That’s a bit rich, but the driving position and the overall design, in terms of ergonomics as much as aesthetic appeal, are fantastic. You sit really low, in a supportive seat that can be made as hot as a radiator, looking over a leather-wrapped steering wheel of perfect thickness. The cockpit sensation is completed by a high windowline and a large, gloss black-topped centre console that presents two more delights.

mazda 3 rotary dial

These are a stubby stick for a six-speed manual gearbox and a large rotary controller, surrounded by four large buttons for the infotainment, which is displayed on a wide, shallow 8.8in display atop the black leather dashboard. As I’ve always found in Alfa Romeo, BMW and Mazda models, such a setup is infinitely better than any touchscreen, being both easier and safer to use and avoiding any finger smudges. 

Thanks to mid-range Sport Lux trim, my car has a DAB radio, two USB ports, Bluetooth, sat-nav, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and, to my shock, a CD player. The controller also allowed me to quickly memorise how to disable the head-up display before driving; annoyingly, this ‘aid’, which to me is unnecessary and distracting, comes on by default.

So, whether the driving experience will prove to be “effortless and engaging” in the long run will be as interesting to discover as whether SPCCI is a breakthrough or dead end and whether the 3 is a practical alternative to the likes of the Ford Focus and Mercedes-Benz A-Class, rather than simply an appealing object of design and engineering. I genuinely can’t wait to get to work on answering those questions.

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