Mazda3 Skyactiv X overview
The Mazda3 formula is a familiar one now. It's Golf-or-Focus-sized, with striking styling (at least in this five-door hatchback form, perhaps a little less so as a four-door saloon) and a line-up of potentially (emphasis on the potentially) economical 2.0-litre petrol engines and a frankly brilliant 1.8-litre diesel that, these days, everyone pretty much ignores. It is generally pricier than its closest conceptual rivals (especially in this 100th Anniversary Edition, but we'll come back to that), but makes up for that - up to a point - with better standard specification and the kind of quality, fit and finish that you'd expect from a pukka premium brand. In that sense, nothing has changed since the last time that we drove a 3.
However, the engine has changed. The SkyActiv-X four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol unit has made some gains. Specifically, it has gained 6hp, 16Nm of torque and an 'e' at the start of its name, making it the e-Skyactiv X. That, presumably, is so Mazda can try to convince you that its mild-hybrid system makes it slightly more of an electric car than you thought (it doesn't but let's circle back to that). Mazda also claims improvements in overall economy (by 0.3 litres per 100km), a fall in CO2 emissions of 7g/km (bringing it to an impressive 120g/km on the WLTP test) and a trimming of the 0-100km/h time by 0.1 seconds (bringing that to a very respectable 8.1 seconds).
Total power output has now climbed to 186hp, while the torque figure now stands at 240Nm - a respectable figure, even if it is developed at a lofty, by modern standards, 4,000rpm.
In terms of equipment, this 100th Anniversary edition (marking the centenary, technically celebrated last year, of Mazda's beginnings as a manufacturer of cork products - it wouldn't actually build a proper car until the 1960 R360 Coupe, which was more of a bubble-car than anything else) has had the options list covered in some sort of sticky substance and liberally rubbed all over the car. Befitting the frankly daft €37,220 price tag, it comes with Snowflake Metallic White paint, 18-inch black alloy wheels, special 100th anniversary badging, a red leather interior, 360-degree parking camera system, adaptive LED headlights, privacy glass, power driver's seat, heated front seats and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, part-digital instruments, the latest Mazda Connect infotainment system, a Bose stereo system, a head-up display and a bevy of safety systems including blind-spot monitoring, driver attention alert, radar cruise control, lane-keeping steering and autonomous emergency braking.
The big question, though, is whether or not the e-Skyactiv X engine stands up to scrutiny. In the past, we've found it too hard to extract the advertised fuel economy, so have the updates and the extra power and torque made a real-world difference?
The Mazda3 model range
Before we get to that, we do need to acknowledge that the Mazda3 is often rather more expensive than most of its mainstream rivals. A starting price of €28,595 for the cheapest Skyactiv-G 122hp 2.0-litre in GS trim pitches it well above the cheapest Golf, Focus, or Skoda Octavia, albeit about in-line with the Toyota Corolla Hybrid.
The Mazda3 range runs through GS-L, GT and GT Sport, with a top-spec of GT Sport with Burgundy Leather and an advanced safety pack. If you want the 1.8-litre diesel, you'll need to spend €31,765 at minimum, while the cheapest version with this e-Skyactiv X engine retails for €32,270.
Oddly, if you want a saloon, then the cheapest version is actually the GS 1.8 diesel, which retails for €30,565 - likely a reflection that most four-doors are still sold to the diesel-keen fleet market.
If you're buying on finance, Mazda currently has offers available that will put a 3 on your driveway for a very reasonable €244 per month at 4.9 per cent APR, assuming a deposit of €7,900 or thereabouts. These finance figures are correct at the time of writing, but it's worth checking the official Mazda Ireland website for the latest numbers.
Standard equipment is exceptionally good, though, across the range. Even the most basic GS model comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, blind spot monitor, autonomous emergency braking, driver attention alert, a speed limiter, traffic sign recognition and radar cruise control. You also get LED headlights, manual air conditioning, a leather steering wheel, head-up display, an 8.8-inch infotainment screen, Apple and Android smartphone connectivity and Bluetooth as standard.
The Mazda3 interior
The Mazda3's interior is one of its strongest points. If you thought the exterior was strikingly handsome (hint: it is), then the cabin is pretty much its equal. It may lack the whizz-bang all-digital instrument panel of some rivals, but the combo of analogue dials and a neatly integrated seven-inch screen looks crisp and clear, and is quite easy on the eyes.
Likewise, the 8.8-inch screen - shallow and mounted up high on the dash - isn't a touchscreen, but rather is controlled by a BMW-style click-wheel on the centre console. Many may bemoan the lack of a touchscreen, but frankly this setup is far simpler, easier and less distracting to use than a touchscreen. You spend far less time with your eyes off the road. Bravo, for that, Mazda, and bravo too for having proper switches and dials for the heating and air conditioning. Technology can be a bit too clever, sometimes...
Under the slide-and-tilt centre armrest, you'll find a USB-A type connector, and a socket for a 12-volt charger, and there's another USB-A socket underneath the climate control panel. Sensibly, Mazda locates the car's two cupholders ahead of the gear lever, so you're not constantly clonking your elbow into a bottle of Coke Zero when looking for fourth...
The driving position is excellent - Mazda makes much of its seat ergonomics, pointing out that the shape and design of the front seats tilts your pelvis to a more natural position. It certainly seems to work, with terrific seat comfort and a driving position with barely any offset of the steering wheel and pedals.
Oh, and while I get that many may not care for the lurid spec of this 100th Anniversary model's dark red leather seats, I love them. All cars should have red seats. It's just a fact you can't deny.
In safety terms, aside from the active safety kit, the Mazda3 has ISOFIX points in the outer rear seats and the front passenger seat, and a switchable passenger airbag. It's also worth noting that the 3's EuroNCAP rating of 98 per cent for adult occupants is right up there with Volvo's best efforts - lifting the 3 into contention with premium models.
As does the quality of the cabin. Yes, this is a pricey, specced-up model, but we've driven more basic 3s in the past, and the overall levels of quality are just off-the-scale good. The 3 skips trying to compete with Volkswagen, in quality terms, and just goes straight to toe-to-toe combat with the likes of Lexus and Audi. And frankly, the Mazda has the beating of even those lofty rivals in some respects. It is a heroically well-made interior, and Mazda's rep for quality suggests that it will still feel as good, and work as well, in a decade's time.
In the back, it's perhaps a little less successful. Space is actually OK (if not exceptional by the class standards), but the sharply rising window line, that on the outside gives the 3 it's distinct clamshell rear styling, means that rear-seat passengers don't get much of a view out, nor much light in (it also doesn't do much for your over-the-shoulder visibility).
It's worth noting that the four-door Mazda3 saloon has a much flatter window line and a much brighter rear cabin, but if you're regularly putting people in the back seats, this hatchback may not be the car for you. The boot space is fine - at 351 litres, it's a little shy of the class average, but the floor is relatively flat and it's a deep, square shape. There is a nice little touch of a reversible boot mat, that is lushly carpeted on one side, and with a water-and-dirt resistant hard-wearing cover on the other, complete with a little fold-out flap to protect the rear bumper when you're loading heavy or mucky items.
The rear seats split 60:40 and fold down, and can be dropped from a handy handle in the boot. They sit as close to totally flat as makes no difference when folded.
Aside from all that practical detail, though, the 3's cabin is quite simply a lovely space in which to pass a journey. The sheer reassurance that comes from its build quality is quite something.
The Mazda3 driving experience
I think that we can now safely say that the Mazda3 has taken the Ford Focus' crown as the best-to-drive car in the family hatchback segment. Yeah, I get it - most family buyers don't care about the minutiae of steering feedback and chassis response, but the 3 really is an exceptionally good thing to drive.
Mazda's clever G-Vectoring Control Plus system gently and carefully twiddles with the engine's power and torque outputs as you steer, so as to give the smoothest possible turn-in to a corner. While only a true car nut might appreciate the granular nuance of what's happening here, even someone with no interest at all in driving will appreciate the 3's combination of agility and stability. It feels genuinely, properly, rewarding to drive.
Quite a bit of which is down to the drivetrain. The six-speed manual gearbox deserves a review all of its own, triggering a desire to trot out all the old 'rifle-bolt' cliches. It's not quite as direct and short-throw as that of the Mazda MX-5 sports car, but I'll tell you what - it's not far off, and demonstrates a level of tactility and reward that we are going to sorely miss when everything's electric and automatic.
Of more importance than that, to most people, will be the engine improvements. An extra 6hp and 16Nm of torque don't sound like much, but they have worked wonders on the e-Skyactiv X engine. Yes, you need to wind the revs up more than many will be used to these days (especially those trading out of a turbodiesel), but do so and the rewards are there. There's not a night-and-day difference compared to the previous Skyactiv X engine, but this version definitely feels more responsive through the mid-range and feels less hung-out-to-dry when you go looking for a burst of extra grunt to deal with a motorway incline. It's also exceptionally refined (an effect that's slightly counterbalanced by a tendency to pick up too much tyre roar on anything less than a perfect surface).
Best of all, though, the e-Skyactiv X is finally displaying the sort of fuel economy that was originally promised. Previously, we've struggled to get Skyactiv X engines to return much better than 6.5 litres per 100km in mixed driving. This time around, though? Bam - 5.7 litres per 100km, on our usual test route of motorway, country road and city streets. That genuinely is the diesel economy, with petrol refinement and cleanliness that we were originally promised, and it vaults the e-Skyactiv X engine from also-ran to one of our favourite powerplants.
Praise is also due to the Mazda M Hybrid mild-hybrid system, which shuts the engine down earlier in standing traffic, leaves it switched off for longer and restarts with an alacrity that no other brand can match. Some stop-start systems leave you hanging, green light shining, for two long before the engine fully wakes up, but not the Mazda - we never caught it napping. The mild-hybrid tech theoretically feeds in extra torque to the engine when accelerating hard, but to be honest we never managed to detect it doing so, so it's either very subtle, or just doesn't add all that much.
The 3's only dynamic snafu is that, on these optional 18-inch wheels, it's a little too fidgety around town. Given that most of us spend most of our time in urban traffic these days, that's a bit of a shame.
Alternatives to the Mazda3
Obviously, if you're in the market for a family hatchback, you're going to be looking at the likes of the Toyota Corolla, the Ford Focus and the VW Golf - all three of which make excellent foils to the 3. Of course, the Toyota comes only in hybrid form now, which arguably gives it a leg-up in a fast-evolving marketplace, but the Ford (still as sweet as anything to drive) and the Golf (still the hatchback that defines the class) make for very sensible purchases, and their downsized turbocharged petrol engines can compete with the Mazda in terms of fuel economy.
Perhaps its strongest rivals actually come from elsewhere in the VW Group - the Skoda Octavia and SEAT Leon. The SEAT has the sort of styling and driving enthusiasm to match the Mazda (and isn't so far away in quality terms either) while the Skoda simply overwhelms the Mazda in practicality terms, with masses of space in both the back seats and the boot.
Our verdict on the Mazda3
OK, so this specific spec is just silly. Much though I like the red leather, the white paint and the subtle little 100th Anniversary badges, asking €37k for a small family hatch is a bit of a stretch. However, go for a more sensibly-specced Mazda3 and I think you might be looking at my personal favourite of the family hatchback segment. It looks great, it's brilliant to drive and is built to last. On top of which, finally, this clever e-Skyactiv X engine is delivering the goods when it comes to economy and driveability.
What do the rest of the team think of the Mazda3
After an initially disappointing introduction, Mazda seems to have the e-Skyactiv X engine properly sorted now. Like Neil, I too saw fuel consumption figures that reflected the manufacturer's claims. The smoothness of the stop-start function and general refinement were further cause for praise, as is the overall sense of build quality. I was less of a fan of the 100th Anniversary colour scheme, but some excellent alternative colour choices are available. The Mazda3 is probably destined to remain something of an outlier in the segment, but it's well worth seeking out, particularly if you are willing to spend a little more.
Dave Humphreys - Road Test Editor