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Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - SP20 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Incredibly efficiency, economy, performance, auto gearbox response, balanced chassis, cabin comfort and design, value, safety, mechanical refinement, versatility
Room for improvement
Fussy styling, light steering, still some road noise, poor rear vision

28 Oct 2011

NEARLY 50 years ago, the mere notion of Australia’s top-selling car undergoing a heart transplant was headline news.

When Holden junked its pre-war era overhead valve ‘grey’ motor in 1963 for another pre-war overhead valver – the ‘red’ one – in the new EH, people went berserk. Sales reached record levels. Badges were prised off as hot souvenirs. Legends were made.

Haven’t times changed!

Today’s best-seller – perhaps for the first time across the entire new-vehicle spectrum and not just among private buyers – is a likeable little number named the Mazda3.

Released in January 2004, it has zoomed up the charts and into the Aussie psyche on a wave of striking looks, a lively chassis and brilliant timing.

So why aren’t we all talking about the all-new SkyActiv engine and six-speed automatic transmission in the facelifted Series II? The EH, after all, was just a warmed-over EJ with a seven (rather than four) bearing motor.

Shouldn’t it be the topic of heated national debate?

Okay, we’re no longer in the winter of 1963. But the fact is, the SP20 – a new up-spec model squeezed in between the Maxx Sport and SP23 – is the first recipient of a completely fresh-out-of-the-box drivetrain family that will spread its way across the entire Mazda range by 2014.

Compared to the old and continuing 2.0-litre MZR four-cylinder petrol engine/five-speed auto combination that powers the vast majority of 3s, the SkyActiv-G (for Gasoline) is the most fuel-efficient 2.0-litre petrol non-hybrid car on the market.

What sort of black magic has Mazda weaved here then?

The company says that thanks to new tech like multi-jet direct fuel-injectors and a piston featuring a small cavity in the top to suppress knocking, it’s been able to ramp up the compression ratio to 13.0:1.

Mazda boffins also managed to shave quite a bit of weight, make many of the drivetrain’s ancillaries operate more efficiently and add an idle-stop (i-stop) device to cut consumption even further.

Combined with the auto’s extra gear ratio, new underbody streamlining panels for smoother airflow and less drag, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions plummet by around 25 per cent apiece against the equivalent MZR auto. Wow.

No fancy turbos and superchargers. No exxy composite materials. No electric motors to help take up the slack… just exquisite Japanese engineering.

The result combined consumption of 6.2L/100km in the $27,990 Mazda3 SP20, which we tested with the $3000-extra Luxury Pack (Bose audio, leather trim, Xenon headlights).

Plus there’s more poke. The peak power of 113kW is up 4.6 per over the 2.0-litre MZR, while maximum torque of 194Nm rises by 6.6 per cent.

It’s game-on then, VW Golf 118TSI and Ford Focus Sport – our two current small-car favourites - not to mention Toyota’s evergreen Corolla and Holden’s homegrown Cruze. Mazda intends to maintain its sales grip.

But don’t strain your eyes trying to figure out what’s different visually in the Mazda3 Series II. A new grille, bumpers, colours and trim sum it up really, while blue-ringed headlight and a SkyActiv badge on the rump distinguish the SP20. The rear lenses boast LEDs. We’re talking deeply minor stuff here.

Inside there’s now less garish painted plastic surfaces (good), different cloth and new white/blue dash illumination instead of that eye-searing clashing red (at last!). That alone is enough to justify trading in the Series 1.

More importantly, in the name of better driveability and refinement, Mazda has tried to reduce road/tyre noise, sharpen responses and improve ride comfort. Incorporating a thicker body frame certainly helps.

And you immediately sense that the SP20 is a sharper tool than, say, the old equivalently priced Maxx Sport was.

Fire it up and the first thing you notice is the SkyActiv engine’s zingy sound. Give the pedal a prod and that metallic exhaust rasp rises quickly up the rev range (peak power happens at a highish 6000rpm), in a subtle but cheeky manner in keeping with the SP20’s pseudo sporty demeanour. You couldn’t imagine a Cruze or Corolla being this growly.

So it might come as a tad disappointing to learn there isn’t more of a shove in the back when you accelerate, like Mazda has deliberately held this SkyActiv back a bit so as it won’t encroach on the more expensive ($31,490 122kW/227Nm) SP25’s territory. Maybe we’re becoming too used to the proliferation of smaller turbo petrol units and their kick-up-the-backside mid-range boost.

Yet this is all a bit of an illusion, for the SP20 is a strong and determined performer, charging quickly past the legal speed limit and responding immediately to overtaking requests. Perhaps it just doesn’t feel that fast.

Underlying the latter is what may be the best non dual-clutch automatic gearbox we have ever tried in a small car. The SkyActiv trannie is terrific, with smooth and instant changes every time, which probably masks some of the speed as a result.

And when you slot the Tiptronic-style lever into ‘M’ for manual, the changes are equally quick and equally invigorating. It’s not just hype – this new auto is simply brilliant.

Armed with such spicy hardware, we basically drove the ring off this car every opportunity we could… like rushing to the airport, trying to keep an appointment, or just racing off to work late. Yet we rarely saw the trip computer figure rise above 7.0L/100km.

Much credit belongs to the clever i-stop. Outsmarting it is a fun game, but one where the Mazda has the upper hand, for it fires up quicker that you can floor the pedal every single time. Are you listening Alfa Romeo Giulietta?

Interestingly, the i-stop won’t work if the wheel is not at the straight-ahead, under certain unfavourable-to-occupant-comfort conditions, or if you tug at the wheel if the engine is ‘idle’. Clever stuff.

Basically, then, the SkyActiv drivetrain is a winner – it exceeded our expectations and then kept on impressing us the more we delved deeper into the SP20’s abilities.

After our recent spell in the Focus Sport, we are less enthused about the Mazda3’s steering than we once were. Linear and responsive though it may be, the helm is let down for us by a slightly artificial feel it could use a bit more weight.

This is personal preference stuff, though, and for most of the population who want faithful, light and dependable steering that points the car precisely where it needs to go, the SP20’s helm will be fine – more than fine, it’s virtually perfect.

Put your foot down, and the chassis remains your friend, sticking doggedly to the line you’ve chosen, reacting with measured response to inputs, and keeping the car calm and composed throughout.

There’s nothing to complain about with the ride, either, which is firm and controlled but also isolating and pliable enough to feel comfy across most inner-urban surfaces. And the brakes feel as powerful as ever.

But… Mazda just hasn’t done enough to quell road noise. Again, the consistently quieter Golf and Focus show how far behind this-generation ‘3’ has fallen, for on some bitumen the drone is still really pronounced, while on others the level of tyre sound intrusion is fine.

Again, however, we should qualify this by saying that if you’re not familiar with the latest VW or Ford offerings then perhaps you’ll be none the wiser.

As far as the rest of the SP20 package is concerned, the Mazda has held up well over the last three years.

Fussy though the well-crafted dashboard presentation may be, the toning down of the trim and conflicting instrumentation colours is appreciated. We have heard that many prospective buyers are lured in by the sporty, stylised approach anyway (have you sat in a Nissan Tiida or Mitsubishi Lancer lately?), so who are we to complain?

Plus points include crystal-clear analogue dials, a great set of front seats (with lumbar adjustment for the driver in the SP20), stacks of storage and an easy reach to almost all the controls.

There’s head, leg and shoulder room aplenty up front, and even folk with longer legs should find sufficient space in the back seat area as well, while the long and wide hatch area is augmented by a low loading lip as well as your usual split/folding backrest (that also contain child-seat restraint hooks so as to not hamper luggage capacity).

On the flip side we reckon the GPS screen is laughably small, some of the trip computer functions are fiddly and distracting, a few of the plastic bits and pieces seem like they’re from the cheapo recycle shop, and rear vision is woeful. Rear parking sensors ought to be standard at the SP20’s price point too.

Nevertheless, whether you’re assessing the Mazda3 from inside or out, it is clear that the model – over two generations – has ticked enough of the boxes that are important enough to Aussie motorists to make it number one.

What the SkyActiv tech does is take what has already been a very competitive set of drivetrain components and make them a bit quicker and sweeter as well as a whole lot cleaner and more economical – without the buyer having to worry about exorbitant servicing or running costs.

The latter point is vital because that’s what driving a Mazda is all about – utter reliability and years of dependability combined with a dash of style and a dollop of substance. We can think of some European rivals who only concentrate on the latter.

It’s been that way since the first 600s of the 1960s when the EH Holden – king of the road at the time – sat on blissfully unaware of the revolution that was about to happen around it… the one that has led to a four-cylinder Japanese car dominate the Australian new car market today.

On the strength of the SkyActiv tech, the new king can only go from strength to strength. Unlike that slug of an old ‘Red’ motor 50 years ago, Mazda really does have something to shout about with its latest heart transplant.

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