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Driven: Mazda’s hybrid future

Back in power: Mazda’s hybrid version of the 3 uses technology borrowed from Toyota’s Prius program.

Petrol-electric Mazda3 is an impressive first effort for the brand, but Oz off radar

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Mazda logo25 Nov 2013

By BARRY PARK

MAZDA says internal combustion engines still feature firmly in its future, but it still has to have a hand in hybrid technology, as evidenced by the launch in Japan last week of its first-ever petrol-electric model housed in the shell of an all-new Mazda3.

All indications are that the fuel-sipping version – it will officially use about 3.2 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres on the Japanese fuel cycle rating – will only be sold in Japan where domestic brands need to have a hybrid model to stay relevant with buyers.

Despite the Australian arm of the Japanese car maker saying it had not even been offered hybrid as a choice for the new 3 line-up, GoAuto was given the opportunity to sample one on a brief 20-kilometre drive loop through suburban Yokohama, south of Tokyo.

Our first impressions, as you'll find when you read on, are that it's an excellent first effort. However, there is a problem: the Mazda3’s potential Australian customers – mums and dads – aren’t really interested in the technology.

And according to Mazda Australia managing director Martin Benders, the lack of fleet and government buyers with corporate-average carbon dioxide targets means the hybrid model misses out on the part of the market where most of the hybrid action sits.

Until something changes – Mr Benders suggests a sharp rise in fuel prices, or even government incentives encouraging more fuel-efficient technologies – the Mazda3 Hybrid is at best an outside chance of coming to Australia.

Indeed, so far the petrol-electric Mazda3 is only on sale in Japan (it launched last week), and only as a sedan, with no hatchback version largely due to packaging issues with the battery pack.

The upcoming Mazda3 saves about 70 kilograms in weight compared with the model it replaces, largely due to a program of weight-shedding as part of the SkyActiv program.

However, in hybrid form including its electric motor and bank of batteries tucked in behind the rear seat – this means like the Camry Hybrid, the rear seats don’t split-fold – the Mazda3 Hybrid weighs in at 1390kg, or slightly more than a current Mazda3.

The Mazda Alexia Hybrid-S L model we’re driving is a higher-end version that, in Australia, would slot in somewhere between the mid-range Maxx Sport and higher-end SP models in terms of specification.

Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv-G petrol engine delivering 73kW of power from 5200rpm and 142Nm of torque from 4000rpm. That is mated to an electric motor that pitches in an extra 60kW of power and a combined 207Nm of torque when added to the petrol engine’s output.

Apart from the “SkyActiv HEV Technology” badge on the rear below the subtle boot lip spoiler that denotes this is a more richly equipped model, there’s little to tell that this is anything other than a normal Mazda3.

However, it does sit on 16-inch alloys clad in low-rolling resistance Bridgestone Ecopia tyres that help the petrol-electric hybrid Mazda3 hit the low fuel use average.

In Japan, the hybrid technology sourced from Toyota’s development program for the fuel-misterly Prius hatchback – Mazda says it is the current-generation Prius technology rather than a generation past – includes a Camry Hybrid-esque stack of batteries across the back of the rear seat.

It’s a compromise over the non-hybrid Mazda3, because it means the petrol electric version misses out on the split-fold function for the rear seats – no quick trips to Ikea, then.

The hybrid model adds about $3000 to the price of a Mazda3 in Japan, meaning that if the more fuel-miserly model is ever considered for Australia, it would likely be up to $4000 more expensive once local price rises to pay for the raft of new SkyActiv technology are taken into account.

The interior of our hybrid is light despite its spread of black materials, and classy. There’s no problems with headroom – our car lacks a sunroof, opening up acres of space – and the leather-trimmed driver’s seat is comfortable and supportive.

Even in the rear, which we sampled briefly after ducking under the steeply falling roofline, knee and toe room are adequate thanks to the scalloped-out front seat, and the pews are comfy and surprisingly supportive.

One miss we did notice are door pockets. Mazda has built drink bottle holders into both the front and rear doors, but apart from a couple of cupholders in between the front seats and a decent-sized tray at the foot of the centre console, there’s few easily accessed stash points.

It’s the first time this writer has been able to play with Mazda’s new multimedia interface. The seven-inch screen sits high on the dash, and easy-to-read icons make it easy to navigate the menus via a BMW iDrive-like dial controller mounted in between the front seats.

Push the button to start the Mazda3 Hybrid, and instantly you’ll start and notice a few differences.

The first is the quiet. Like the Prius, the Mazda3 Hybrid is silent on start-up, with a green car icon illuminating on the dash to indicate it is powered up and ready to drive. There’s an “EV” button down by the driver’s right knee that will force the Mazda3 into electric mode, which allows it to creep around at low speeds and for a couple of kilometres without firing up the petrol engine.

It’s when you go to slip the car into drive that you notice the Toyota link.

The Mazda3 Hybrid’s gearshift lever is almost a direct lift from the Prius. It’s moved from the dash down to the centre console, but it has the same confusing array of gearbox modes for the stepless continuously variable transmission that’s also borrowed from Toyota’s hybrid program.

To set off, you need to do Toyota’s strange hook-like movement to shift the car into drive mode. Pull it straight down, and the Mazda3 will go into braking mode that attempts to maximise regenerative braking, feeding the forces normally lost during braking into recharging the car’s batteries.

Because of the driver-sharing program, we have only a 10km stint behind the wheel.

Nosing out of the car park that serves as our driver swap point, the Mazda3 Hybrid glides along smoothly.

Touching the brakes lightly as we slip along almost silently, a light tap of the brakes shows that Mazda’s engineers have dedicated effort to rubbing out one of the Prius’s less savoury traits, a distinct on-off style feel to the pedal as the regenerative braking system kicks in with force.

In the Mazda, the brakes feel just like those on a normal car. The only distinction is under heavier braking, where there is a slight bit of extra pressure needed towards the end of the braking manoeuvre as the system shuts off.

Punching the accelerator shows that Mazda has also worked on the transition from electric to petrol power. As we round a corner to take the famous Rainbow Bridge that spans the harbour, the petrol engine fires up seamlessly to take over from the electric motor.

Acceleration is brisk without being quick, accompanied by the sustained note of the engine as the CVT holds it in the optimum power band to keep up with the tip truck in front. The steering is linear and bordering on light, but gives just enough feedback to keep the driver aware of what the road surface is saying.

The 80kmh speed limit does no favour to the hybrid drivetrain, which is best suited to slow-moving city traffic. Still, the Mazda3 performs well, giving the impression that it is a competent and well-rounded tourer.

A criticism, though, is road roar. It may just be the hard-wearing eco tyres the Mazda3 Hybrid is shod with, but over a section of coarse-chip road that would do any similar surface in Australia proud the rubber became as noisy in the cabin as the current-generation car – not a good thing.

Another point to note is Mazda’s version of a heads-up display, which flips up out of the dash on start-up. It will grace most models in Mazda’s Australian line-up, making it among the first mainstream makers to adopt the technology.

It works well, providing speed and navigation data that appears to float in under the driver’s line of vision, however it did reflect on the windscreen quite badly in strong sunlight.

In traffic, the hybrid 3 shines. Step-off acceleration from a set of lights under a light throttle is via electric power alone, and more than enough to keep up with Yokohama traffic that is much milder mannered than in Australia.

Give the throttle a tramp, and the petrol engine fires up almost instantly, roaring as the CVT again finds the sweet spot.

It is less noticeable at speed, but at more urban speeds the suspension struggles a bit with our load of an extra 80kg in hybrid parts and three bodies. It is fine on smooth surfaces, but hit a sharp bump and the Mazda3 reacts with a sharp judder through the suspension as the forces transfer to the chassis.

A 20km round trip isn’t really a fair representation of what life with Mazda’s only petrol-electric passenger car will be like to live with. Our fuel use on the loop – admittedly testing engine response and the like rather than incorporating a smooth and steady driving style you’d expect most hybrid car owners to adopt – settled at 5.5L/100km, well below the current Mazda3’s 8.2L/100km for six-speed automatic versions and even bettering the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine’s official 6.1L/100km average.

Yes, the Mazda3 Hybrid is a likeable car that ticks all the environmental boxes in climate-conscious buyers.

It’s a shame Australia is off the radar for now, because the new Mazda3 is richer for the experience with a petrol-electric offering.

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