We could all do with shaving a little of our headline figures. Drop a few pounds. Reduce a few inches. Save a few Euro here and there. Mazda seems to have taken that kind of advice deeply to heart. A decade ago, facing a separation from part-owner Ford, Mazda embarked on a round of radical re-engineering, developing a series of new engines and chassis under the SkyActiv brand. The whole idea was to make its cars more efficient and lighter and yet still fun to drive and engaging to the senses. Not an easy trick to pull off, but Mazda managed it. In spades.
But there was one small hurdle, perhaps one that was limited to Europe and especially Ireland. Mazda’s headline SkyActiv diesel engine was smooth, powerful and frugal but it was also big – 2.2-litres. Now, there is a deeply ingrained part of the Irish psyche that just won’t accept a big engine in a small car. Or any car, for that matter. Stray above 2.0-litres and, no matter how much you can point to tax-friendly emissions levels or small fuel consumption numbers, Irish eyebrows will raise and Irish air will be sucked in through Irish teeth. 2.2-litres? Couldn’t be doing with that, lads…
Which left the Mazda 3 hatchback rather marooned in sales terms. Right now the only thing that sells is diesel, but with a 2.2-litre engine when most rivals were running a 1.6, the 3 was out on a limb.
No longer. Mazda has finally introduced its 1.5-litre SkyActiv four-cylinder turbo diesel to the 3 range and, a bit like the BMW 116d and its own new 1.5-litre diesel, it is an almost perfect combination of car and engine.
With 105hp and 270Nm of torque, it’s right on the money for the class average and claimed economy of 70mpg looks very impressive. Needless to say, you won’t get that kind of economy out of it in day-to-day driving but then that’s the case with every car. Driven carefully, you should crack the 60mpg barrier though. It’s just that driving carefully becomes less and less of an option with this car…
First off, the engine is wonderfully refined. There’s a tickle of diesel rattle at very low speeds and when stooging around town but on bigger roads it really is admirably hushed, so much so that you might have to do the odd double-take at the fuel pumps when you realise that your hand automatically went for the green pump. Yes, that was me – I really did almost put the wrong fuel in.
But it’s not just quiet, it’s also enthusiastic. That 270Nm of torque is only about what you’d expect in a car this size, but it feels impressively urgent, and there’s really very little penalty in daily driving terms from down-sizing to this engine from the larger 2.2-litre diesel. 45hp drop? It certainly doesn’t feel like it and while calling the 3 1.5 diesel outright sporty might be a step too far, there’s certainly the whiff of sportiness about it.
That’s backed up by a chassis and steering which both have been tuned and tweaked by people who truly care about what your levels of driving enjoyment are going to be like. True, the steering weight can get a little odd and inconsistent at times (especially when you put full lock on for parking) but when cornering, there’s a delightful amount of feedback coming back through the rim and the whole car feels beautifully poised and balanced. It’s a properly rewarding little thing to drive, the 3. Better yet, it even rides comfortably, never crashing or thumping over road obstacles. It’s a dynamic master class, really.
We do need to have a word about the cabin, though. Now, I like minimalist design as much as the next guy, but Mazda lately has taken that to occasional extremes. The RX-8-coupe-like instrument pack is neat and simple, and laudably so, but it is a touch plain, as is the rest of the cabin layout. Things like a nice bright screen for the infotainment system and an optional heads-up display do lift the ambience a bit, but there’s no getting away from that fact that the interior is a touch on the dour side.
In order to combat this sensation, someone at Mazda had specced this car up with the full-on GT Leather trim, which brought with it extra equipment (dual-zone climate, Bi-Xenon headlights, Bose sound system, creamy-white leather) but which also bumped the price up to just over €28k. That’s a big chunk of money for a compact family hatch, but at least you can have the same engine for less money, and you get to keep the spacious, comfortable cabin.
If you can get around the price tag, it’s also worth remembering that Mazda has an enviable, almost untouchable, reputation for reliability and build quality so this is a car which is likely to last for pretty much as long as you want it to. No small matter, that.
Combined with the poised chassis, the handsome looks and that brilliant little diesel engine, and here’s an unsung Japanese hero which might just be good enough to sneak past the Golf and Focus to the top of its class.