Mazda 3: X Factor
Mazda's innovative Skyactiv-X engine forms a great double act with the stylish new 3 saloon, says William Scholes
ONE of last year's motoring highlights was the arrival of Mazda's latest 3 hatchback, writes William Scholes.
The family hatchback market isn't short of deeply talented contenders, of course. The Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus are just two of the plethora of eminently sensible rivals for your family cash.
In comparison, the magical Mazda 3 feels as if it has been sprinkled with fairy dust.
Gorgeous to behold, fabulous to drive, shot through with quality, brimming with technology and conceived with the sort of intelligent contrariness that makes Mazda such an interesting car-maker, the 3 was one of my stars of 2019.
It's not perfect, though. On Northern Ireland's varied tarmac, the ride can be on the stiff side.
The low roofline and thick pillars that help make the hatchback look so stunning also conspire to make its back seat feel dark and on the cramped side - not ideal for a family car whose rear occupants are more likely than not to be small children.
Mazda has a solution to this, however, in the shapely form of the saloon version of the 3.
It gets a slightly higher roofline, what feels like a bigger back window than the hatch and loses that car's chunky pillars and thus manages to feel generally airier.
The saloon and hatchback share the same 2,727mm wheelbase but the four-door's bodywork is 20cm longer.
This, should these things matter to you, yields a more commodious boot. The saloon's is usefully larger than the hatch's, growing from 351 litres in volume to 444 litres.
It is, as you can see, still a great looking car. The only body parts shared with the hatchback are that long bonnet and the sleek windscreen; the rest is bespoke.
The interior is carried over from the hatch. This is a resolutely good thing, especially for the driver and front passenger.
They enjoy lots of space, super-comfortable seats and instruments and switchgear which are sensibly and clearly arranged.
There's no over-reliance on a touchscreen to control the car's functions, thank goodness. There is a centrally mounted screen, of course, set atop the dashboard. It's smaller than some of the jumbo iPads you will find elsewhere but, in my view, none the worse for that.
The Mazda 3 is gorgeous to behold, fabulous to drive, shot through with quality, brimming with technology and conceived with intelligent contrariness
A big knob and a group of switches - the 'Commander Control', in Mazda-speak, is located behind the gearstick. It's intuitive and a cinch to use to control the radio, sat-nav, phone and so on. Steering wheel controls add a further layer of usability.
The sum effect of the cabin's design and layout is to convey quality and a premium feeling; much like the exterior, then.
As you might expect, the saloon drives just as the hatchback does. A quite superb driving position and, thanks to that long, low bonnet, an excellent view of the road ahead help make this an easy, confidence-inspiring car to drive.
The major controls - brakes, throttle, clutch, gearchange and steering - are consistently weighted and smooth. Everything you operate feels thoroughly engineered and expensive.
It's quiet and refined on the move, too - notably so compared to the previous generation Mazda 3 - but strikes a great balance between comfort and the company's characteristic sporty handling.
Where the hatchback can be had with a diesel or 'regular' petrol engine, the saloon is offered only with Mazda's new, and very high-tech, Skyactiv-X petrol engine.
This is a typically idiosyncratic Mazda innovation and a real breakthrough - the engineers mustn't have read the obituaries that have been written for the internal combustion engine as the battery-electric era dawns...
Mazda does have EVs on the way but, with a close eye on 'whole-life' emissions and environmental concerns, it reckons there is still plenty of life left in the petrol engine.
At the moment you can get the Skyactiv-X unit in the 3 hatchback and the new CX-30 SUV, and it will be extended to other Mazda models in due course.
But what makes Skyactiv-X special? It uses what Mazda calls 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' technology; others have tried to make this work in the past - current Formula One car engines use a similar system - but Mazda is the first to put it into production.
The theory is that it allows the engine to offer the free-revving characteristics of a petrol engine with the torquey responsiveness of a diesel, as well as running very 'lean' which results in low emissions and strong fuel economy.
Indeed, it runs so lean that the fuel-air mixture injected into the engine's cylinders has so little fuel that a normal petrol engine with spark plugs wouldn't be able to fire it.
Being able to run a 16.3:1 compression ratio - the highest of any production petrol engine, and higher even than most diesel engines - is key to how the Skyactiv-X engine is able to work.
It can also operate like a more conventional petrol engine by using a spark plug to ignite the fuel-air mixture under certain circumstances.
Being able to switch seamlessly between a diesel-esque and a more typically petrol combustion cycles is what makes this new Mazda engine revolutionary.
The first iteration of Skyactiv-X to reach these shores is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder with 178bhp and 165lb.ft; that torque figure is higher than a comparable Mazda petrol engine, and the peak torque is also produced lower in the rev range.
Fuel consumption on the combined cycle is as good as 52.3mpg using the official WLTP assessment and CO2 emissions are as low as 99g/km.
The engine is louder and gruffer on start-up - more diesel-like than petrol - than you might expect for a car that drinks unleaded, and you can sometimes detect a change in sound from the engine as it switches between its different combustion methods.
A graphic can be displayed on the infotainment screen to show what the engine is up to in real-time; it's fascinating.
As Mazda engines do, Skyactiv-X thrives on revs, which rather adds to the car's fun-to-drive factor.
And there's something inherently satisfying about working the engine hard while also returning healthier fuel consumption than you would in a similarly thrashed 'regular' petrol engine.
It is also notable for its low CO2 emissions, which ought to please benefit in kind tax-sensitive company users among others.
Some versions get below 100g/km, but even the 102g/km of the sportier trimmed test car is impressive against the competition.
The Skyactiv-X engine offers the free-revving characteristics of a petrol engine with the torquey responsiveness of a diesel, as well as running very 'lean' which results in low emissions and strong fuel economy
There is, then, a great deal to like about the 3 saloon. It's a little more practical than the hatchback version, as well as a better proposition for back seat passengers.
Beneath that trademark fabulous looking exterior is a depth of engineering and quality rare among mainstream car-makers.
Skyactiv-X is a case in point. Though it won't be understood by everyone, it is the sort of innovation that has made Mazda one of the industry's most interesting and alternative-thinking manufacturers.
That's why Mazda remains so popular among discerning motorists, and why the 3 saloon is easy to recommend.
AT A GLANCE
Mazda 3 saloon Skyactiv-X Sport Lux
Price: £25,575. As tested £26,365, with soul red crystal metallic paint £790
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' Skyactiv-X, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 178bhp, 165lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 134mph, 0-62mph in 8.2 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 50.4mpg (WLTP combined), 44.7mpg (real world), 102g/km
Car tax: £150 in first year, then £145 annually
Benefit in kind: 24 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (98/87/81/73), 2019