It’s all change for the Mazda3, which is now designed around ultra-efficient SkyActiv technology. It’s cleaner than ever – but is it still good fun?
Base price: $35,595
Powertrain and performance: 2.0-litre petrol four, 114kW/200Nm, 6-speed automatic, front-drive, Combined economy 6.0 litres per 100km, 0-100km/h 9.4 seconds.
Vital statistics: 4580mm long, 1450mm high, wheelbase 2700mm, luggage capacity 408 litres, fuel tank 51 litres, 16-inch alloy wheels.
We like: High style, polished chassis, lots of high-tech equipment as standard.
We don’t like: SkyActiv 2.0-litre lacks refinement, touch screen locks out when car is moving.
How it rates: 8/10
WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW? The all-new Mazda3 is the third instalment in the Japanese maker’s SkyActiv generation, following the Mazda6 last year and the CX-5 crossover in 2012: one every year, nice and neat. Being based on completely new powertrain and chassis technology, there’s nothing carried over from the previous generation save the badge on the grille. So it’s a big deal: a whole new generation of Mazda’s biggest-seller worldwide (although the CX-5 is top in New Zealand’s SUV-obsessed market). Our GSX test car is the model expected to cover the most bases: it’s charged with providing the value and equipment to take on mainstream rivals like the Toyota Corolla, yet retain enough sporting spirit to justify Mazda’s self-cultivated zoomy image.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE? You probably don’t need another refresher on SkyActiv, except to say that it’s a real thing rather than marketing invention: Mazda has redesigned every aspect of the mechanical package to minimize weight and friction, while maximizing performance and fuel efficiency. Nothing radical has taken place – just incremental improvement in every possible area.
The 2.0-litre engine and six-speed automatic gearbox are both ground-up SkyActiv designs, albeit familiar from the larger Mazda6. In the smaller Three it has plenty of zest if you are driving enthusiastically, although it does sound a little coarse in the upper reaches. Certainly not as smooth as the 2.5-litre unit in the SP25 models, even taking into account the fact that it’s working harder.
It’s a responsive car in corners, without feeling overwrought. The steering is not the last word in communication, but beautifully consistent and matched to a surprisingly agile chassis. The Mazda3 is not quite as compliant as a mainstream Volkswagen Golf, but it’s arguably more agile and certainly very stable: it’s very to upset the chassis mid-corner, even with unexpected steering-wheel movements or a sudden throttle lift.
It’s something of a quiet achiever, but the Mazda3 is a certainy car that will please the enthusiast. Mazda is also giving the small-car class a prod on active safety features. It’s really gone to town on the flagship SP25 Limited (we’ll talk about that another day), but even this mid-grade GSX gets a blind-spot monitoring system, reversing camera and rear cross-traffic alert – a radar-based system that warns you of approaching traffic at your rear when reversing out of a driveway or parking space. Big tick for that – it’s a great feature.
IS IT EASY TO LIVE WITH? Mazda has finally come to grips with infotainment hardware and software. While the CX-5 and Mazda6 have a TomTom touch screen mounted in the dashboard and a slightly mismatched controller on the console, the Mazda3 introduces a new setup called MZD Connect.
This combines a high-quality screen with a new controller layout, proprietary software for sat-nav (standard on the GSX) and smartphone applications such as Pandora. Through another app called Aha, it can even connect you with social media… if you must. Anyway, MZD is a brilliant arrangement, with one annoyance. The screen itself operates by touch when the car is stationary, but locks out when you’re moving unless you use the manual controller. Which is odd, as it’s arguably more distracting to be fumbling around for the low-set controller than it is to be looking straight ahead and operating the touch screen.
The interior styling is more polished and coherent thann the more expensive Mazda6 and CX-5 models – presumably by virtue of the fact that it’s newer, but also because Mazda will have poured more effort into this, its most important model. Expect to see features from the Three – including the MZD system – filter into the rest of the SkyActiv range over time. Our test car is a sedan, but the hatchback model is the same price spec-for-spec. Which to choose? There’s little between them in styling, thanks to the very sleek ‘fastback’ profile of the four-door model. Both are striking and unmistakably Mazda.
The sedan has the bigger boot: 408 versus 308 litres. However, fold the hatchback’s rear seats down and you get 1222 litres of loadspace, so it’s ultimately the more practical.
SHOULD I BUY ONE? The Mazda3 is a strong contender in the small-car class, but also the pick of the bunch when it comes to Mazda’s latest generation of SkyActiv models. The CX-5 and Mazda6 certainly made their mark, but everything really seems to have come together in the Mazda3: styling, interior design and technology.
The GSX as tested impresses for handling, equipment and value for money. For a mainstream model it certainly feels special, although we’d like a little more refinement and low-end punch from the 2.0-litre engine. For that reason, the stretch to the $39,895 2.5-litre SP25 model is well worth it. But if you stick with the GSX, you won’t be disappointed.
EQUIPMENT CHECKLIST Air conditioning: Dual climateAudio: CD, iPod compatibleAutomatic lights/wipers: Yes/yesBlind spot warning: YesBluetooth: YesCruise control: YesDriver footrest: YesHead-up display: NoHeated/ventilated seats: NoKeyless entry/start: No/YesLane guidance: NoLeather upholstery: YesParking radar: Yes with cameraPower boot or tailgate: NoPower seat adjustment/memory: NoRemote audio controls: YesSatellite navigation: YesSeat height adjustment: YesSelf-parking technology: NoSplit/folding rear seats: 60/40Steering reach adjustment: YesStop-start: YesTrip computer: Yes
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