Inside the new Mazda 3 is a button. This button activates and deactivates the i-Activsense suite of safety technologies, and I’m sat in the driver’s seat wondering where it all went wrong.
I haven’t crashed, but the realisation is crashing: this is a far, far better car with the safety systems turned off. I’ve just driven a week’s worth of mileage, often moving from urban streets to dual carriageways, motorways and back again before a country road stint later in the week. Overall I covered about 600 miles over the seven days.
The first couple of planetary rotations were marred by the car’s constant fussing, whether it was red-backed steering warnings on the dashboard when I strayed within about six miles of the edge of my lane, the assortment of ‘no-you-don’t’ beeps and unwanted steering nudges if the car mistakes overbanding or old white lines for the real thing, or even the forced power cuts when you pull into a motorway gap close behind the car that just passed you, accelerating you helplessly towards the onrushing car behind instead of allowing you to build speed and control the gaps fore and aft.
Man, the relief after I turned it all off was tangible. I relaxed and felt like I could finally enjoy the car. The clean, stylish interior is first on the list. A simple, confidently shaped dashboard and matching – but also clever – digital instrument cluster give a premium impression from the off. There are enough buttons but not too many, while the iDrive/MMI-style rotary dial interface is a dream. Crucially, too, there aren’t a million sub-menus here like there are in German cars. It’s really easy to get a hang of. The Mazda’s might just be the most user-friendly arrangement of controls I’ve come across.
Fire up the spark-controlled compression ignition SkyActiv-X 2.0-litre petrol engine – the real reason we’re testing this car – and there’s a gruff, dieselish response as it settles into tickover. Pull away and it’s more of the same; if I wasn’t so sure I was driving a new kind of petrol engine I’d have to check it wasn’t a diesel by noting the rev-counter redline and then sniffing inside the fuel filler.
I was paying attention at this point and noticed how early the upshift indicator was appearing. Sometimes you don’t even get to 1500rpm before the light winks on and tells you to grab another cog or two – the 3 is all about block-shifting where it can, and will happily send the engine back to 1100rpm or less to do it. Amazingly, the engine will actually pull from such low number – albeit with a grumble.
Mazda made claims of diesel-like torque for the SkyActiv-X unit (we have also reviewed a Mazda 3 with a more conventional petrol engine). It doesn’t come across that way because of the gearing involved – second passes 60mph – but I’d have to say I think it’s an accurate boast. If second only did 45mph like on most diesels, the engine would feel as torquey as a modest four-cylinder diesel. As it is, it still pulls its gears pretty impressively for a non-turbo petrol engine. It’s just a shame that there are trim rattles throughout the dashboard, doors and B-pillars that are directly triggered by the engine speeds the car wants you to stay at.
Up at the top of the rev range is a proper N/A petrol top-end. It starts to build before 5000rpm but really kicks in after that point, finding a deep well of power reminiscent of VTEC up to the 6300rpm-ish redline. Sadly the gearing – particularly from second to third – makes it impossible to stay in the power and there’s a lull while the revs rebuild, but above 5000rpm the Mazda is a quick, engaging car. It doesn’t make a thrilling noise but it gets a move on.
You won’t be disappointed with the supple, stable handling, either, if you put some better tyres on. Darting, accurate steering outmatches the surprisingly lacklustre Toyo Proxes R51A hoops that push into understeer far too quickly in wet and damp conditions. A set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4s would transform it; likewise the Continental PremiumContact 6 or the best from Goodyear and Bridgestone.
Whichever rubber is fitted the car has an outstanding suspension tune, brilliantly soaking up B-road bumps and undulations while keeping the body stable, inspiring confidence in what it’s capable of. Get on the throttle after the apex and it will tense and pull itself around neatly without crashing over further bumps. And there’s no sport button! This is just a delightfully well-sorted driver’s car that works for commuting just as well as it deals with choppy back-roads. In an age where car makers want to force you to pay more for adjustable and adaptive suspension that never seems quite right in any mode, Mazda is leading the way in how it should be done.
As an engineering example the SkyActiv-X engine is a marvel. On one traffic-free journey during the week, going no higher than 63mph or so, I managed an indicated 64mpg over 35 miles. That’s astonishing. Careful gap-management in traffic meant I was able to secure low-50s even on the busiest of commutes. The efficiency potential is there, no doubt about it.
I love the totality of the stop-start integration, too. Come to a stop, shift to neutral ahead of time and lift off the clutch; the engine cuts thanks to a mild hybrid system. Then the same tech restarts the engine with such smoothness and speed that it can afford to leave the restart until the very latest point: either when you begin to lift the clutch to the bite point or, if your foot is still on the brake when you engage first, only when you lift off the brake. It’s marvellous.
One other thing: the 3 may be an all-new car but it has a CD player. This is good news, not just for me because I’m old, grumpy and still don’t get on with the quality of streamed music (only two of these are fact), but also for any streamers who suddenly discover how much fuller and richer tunes sound from CDs. You’re welcome, etc.
As I sit back and sum up my days in the 3, I give it full credit for achieving such a mighty feat. To pair such impressive economy with a chassis this good and a 6000rpm+ top end worth chasing is something no one has done before, to the best of my knowledge. Massive respect to Mazda, whose only major failing here is a wildly overzealous application of safety gizmos. I’ve got a few more miles to do and that magic button can stay in the ‘off’ setting.