Mazda 3 e-Skyactiv-X: Peak petrol?
As the car industry heads towards an electric future, Mazda reckons petrol engines can still be relevant. William Scholes tries the latest version of its fuel-saving - and super-clever - e-Skyactiv-X engine
AS we've explored on these pages many times over the years, Mazda is a car company that likes to do things its own way, writes William Scholes.
Not in the Novak Djokovic sense, I hasten to add - there's no suggestion, for example, that the Australian government is going to turf Mazda out of the country because it simply won't follow the rules.
Instead, it's best to think of the car-maker as a free-thinking outfit that looks at what everyone else is doing… and then decides to go about the task differently.
It's a creative and independent spirit of the sort that once distinguished Saab, or that has made marques like Porsche and Subaru persist with engineering approaches - rear-mounted engines, boxer engines, symmetrical all-wheel-drive, that sort of thing - that just about everyone else has rejected because it's too expensive or too complicated or just too difficult to get to work.
But back to Mazda. It persisted with the rotary engine for longer than anyone else, for example.
And a few years back, just as its competitors were accelerating full-throttle towards 'downsized' turbocharged engines - in the often wrongheaded notion that these units would result in lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions - Mazda rolled out a new family of relatively large capacity engines that were defiantly unencumbered by a turbocharger.
These engines were 'right-sized', argued Mazda, meaning that the engine's size and power outputs were an ideal match for the car in which it was installed; rather than having to work at a frantic pace, as little turbos do, the Mazda engine could go about its business in a more relaxed fashion, and thus yield superior 'real world' fuel economy.
The trade off for all this common sense and delicious throttle response was that Mazda's petrol engines lack the torquey oomph that is a defining characteristic of turbocharged engines and which so many of us have come to expect from our family cars.
Engines aside, Mazda also sweats the stuff that makes a car genuinely satisfying and fun to drive. The consistent weighting of the major controls - throttle, brakes, clutch, steering - speaks of an obsessive attention to detail. Its manual gearboxes are arguably the best you will find anywhere.
And when it became conventional wisdom that a 'sporty' car, even if it was a family hatchback or SUV, had to have suspension so stiff it could rearrange Boris Johnson's hairstyle on a bumpy road, Mazda went the other way, giving its cars supple chassis that keep the car keyed into the road and feed the driver a constant flow of information about what is going on under the wheels.
The MX-5 is all of these Mazda qualities triple-distilled into a two-seat roadster, but it's remarkable that the same heady essence can also be enjoyed in a family hatchback (the Mazda 3) or SUV (CX-5).
Another example of Mazda's apparent contrariness is its unalloyed commitment to ye olde internal combustion engine. With governments legislating in favour of electric cars, many car-makers are halting petrol and diesel development and throwing their weight behind battery power.
The folk at Mazda HQ in Hiroshima obviously didn't get the memo. A while back they were the first to put into production a crazily complicated petrol engine, dubbed Skyactiv-X in Mazda parlance. You can get it in the Mazda 3 and that car's slightly loftier SUV-style brother, the CX-30.
Perhaps the most straightforward way of thinking of Skyactiv-X is as a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine which can operate as a conventional 'spark ignition' petrol unit… as well as a diesel-style 'compression ignition', albeit aided by some spark.
It switches between these two approaches according to driving conditions. This tech basically combines some characteristics of a diesel engine for extra torque, with the relative cleanliness and revvy nature of a petrol unit.
The theory is that it can run a 'lean' fuel-air mixture more often than a conventional engine, thus using less petrol. CO2 emissions fall too, as does NOx output.
It really is fiendishly clever stuff - the computing power involved in making all this happen is off-the-scale.
When I drove the first iteration of Skyactiv-X, I loved the fact that Mazda had gone to the bother of building something so complex and which, frankly, I suspected few would appreciate or care about.
That car sound quite rough on start-up - more redolent of a cold diesel than a petrol engine - and it was occasionally possible to detect Skyactiv-X doing its thing.
The Mazda way is to finesse and constantly improve - and so we now have a fettled Skyactiv-X engine… called e-Skyactiv-X, the 'e' prefix a nod to the mild-hybrid set-up.
There's revised software, but changes go much deeper, extending to the pistons, camshafts and valve timing. The net result is power rises by 6bhp and torque by 12lb ft to totals of 183bhp and 177lb ft. CO2 emissions have been cut by up to 11g/km, depending on which model of Mazda 3 you opt for, to as little as 118g/km for the hatchback and 114g/km for the saloon.
It's also quieter - that slightly rough dieselesque start-up noise has been banished, as far as I could tell - with the transitions between how the engine chooses to combust the fuel imperceptible.
Best of all, however, is the fact that the car returned an easy 50mpg-plus - without me particularly trying to be frugal. In my normal mix of driving, I would be glad to see that out of a diesel; from a petrol-engined family hatch, it feels borderline miraculous.
The rest of the package is typical Mazda. The Mazda 3 is one of the best-looking new cars of any sort money can buy. It really is a fabulous piece of design, the attention to detail highlighted in how the light plays along its flanks.
If there's a downside to this aesthetic commitment, it's in a back seat that is relatively stingy and gloomy compared to something like a Skoda Octavia. But then a Skoda Octavia looks like a Skoda Octavia, while a Mazda 3 simply gets on with looking amazing.
The Mazda's thick rear pillars also compromise rear visibility - but hey, this is a car in which to look forward…
Those quibbles aside, the interior is as plush and well put together as an Audi A3, which is another way of saying it's in a different league to something like a Ford Focus or the latest VW Golf.
An e-Skyactiv-X Mazda 3 can be yours from a smidgen under £25,500 for SE-L Lux trim, with the bells-and-whistles GT Sport Tech around £29,500. Adding an automatic gearbox can push the price to a shade over £30k.
All trim levels are well equipped. A colour head-up display, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a panoply of safety kit are on board. Some trims come with toys like a heated steering wheel and a Bose sound system.
The driving position is spot on, the six-speed gearbox as sweet as honey and the overriding impression is of a thoroughly engineered family car that can satisfy the keen driver. These aren't things that one can yet say about any comparable EV.
But no matter how accomplished the Mazda 3 is, no matter how fluently it makes the case for the internal combustion engine, existential questions remain.
Whether or not we like it - and, to be clear, there is much to like - we are being legislated out of petrol and diesel cars towards electric vehicles.
We aren't quite there yet, not least because Northern Ireland's public charging network is far from persuasive, and EVs tend to be more expensive than petrol alternatives.
It's possible that in a few years, when EVs have taken over, that we'll look back on 2022 and judge the tech wizardry under the bonnet of a Mazda 3 as peak petrol engine.
In the meantime, as Mazda shows, there are still compelling reasons to stick with petrol. But for how long?