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First drive: Mazda3 Diesel walks the torque

Rising sun: The Mazda3 Astina XD arrives in Australian showrooms in early September, but pricing is yet to be confirmed.

Tech-heavy Mazda3 diesel hatch has premium Euro hatches in its crosshairs

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Mazda logo9 Jun 2014

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in JAPAN

MAZDA is gatecrashing the premium Euro small-car party with a new flagship diesel version of Australia’s best-selling passenger car – the Mazda3 hatch.

Expected to straddle either side of the $40,000 mark – depending on transmission choice – when it launches on September 1, the Astina XD will be pitched as a high-technology performance turbo-diesel hatchback.

No sedan variant is planned for now.

Never mind the $36,490 Ford Focus Titanium TDCi Powershift and $34,790 Volkswagen Golf Highline 110TDI DSG as direct competitors as this pricing catapults the Japanese-built five-door head-on into the Audi A3 TDI, BMW 118d, Mercedes-Benz A200 CDI and Volvo V40 D4 Kinetic.

But being the Astina grade, the Mazda hits back hard with a standard specification list that would – in some cases – add upwards of $10,000 to the prices of the upmarket Euros.

These include a suite of active driver aids like low-speed autonomous braking, higher-speed impact-mitigating braking, radar-based adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, reverse cross-traffic alert and a heads up display.

This is on top of satellite-navigation, powered front seats, leather upholstery, upmarket audio and 18-inch alloy wheels.

Crucially, alongside the Volvo V40 D4 Kinetic ($40,490) and BMW’s 118d ($42,500), the Mazda will be one of only a few premium compact diesels available with a manual gearbox. Even the French and Italian alternatives have gone down the auto route.

And before you write in, Hyundai’s i30 CRDi and the underrated Honda Civic DTi-S Diesel manuals employ significantly smaller eco-focussed engines pitched at a much lower price point.

So does the Astina XD drive like it belongs on the Euro hatch catwalk? To find out, we undertook a couple of high-speed laps around the tight (though ultra smooth) racing circuit at Mazda’s Mine Proving Ground in a Japan domestic market Axela XD Sport – the Astina XD equivalent.

Damp glassy surfaces do much to disguise the 3’s notorious road and tyre noise intrusion – and the Dunlop Sport Maxx 215/45 R18 89W tyres are not the quietest around at the best of times – so we cannot report on that front.

Aside from the typical diesel clatter at start-up and idle, the XD sounded like every other current up-spec BM-series Mazda3 we have driven.

However, this one includes awesome, effortless torque delivery available pretty much across the rev range.

The engine in question is the Mazda6 and CX5 SUV’s 2.2-litre common-rail direct-injection four-cylinder turbo-diesel SkyActiv-D unit, delivering a heady 129kW of power at 4500rpm and 420Nm of torque from 2000rpm.

That last rev number is a bit deceiving because there is an un-diesel-like flexibility in this high-compression (14.0:1) unit’s propensity to explore the upper reaches of the very prominent tachometer.

Wearing such a wide footprint helped keep the XD planted as we floored our six-speed manual test car’s accelerator, with the hatch leaping off the line cleanly, yet quickly enough to justify this Axela’s Sport badge adjunct in Japan.

Yet it is the sheer effortless ease in which the Mazda storms forward – even when you are barely bothering the go-faster pedal – that is most instantly endearing. Hushed yet hungry to reach the horizon, the diesel shoots along like the Shinkansen bullet train that transported us to the event.

Forget about choosing this 5.0L/100km eco miser to save some money at the petrol pump this diesel’s pulling power is downright addictive.

You’ve heard the old cliché of not needing to down change due to the sheer depth of torque availability in the slick-shifting six-speed manual XD this truism is underlined by the fact that – on the smooth track at least – the chassis copes with corners like they’re not even there.

Huge grip levels combined with nicely reactive steering, resulting in crisp and confident handling capabilities.

Unfortunately, the home-ground advantage combined with the two-lap limit precluded us from really getting a feel as to whether this Japan-spec steering set-up (electric) and suspension (MacPherson struts up front and multi-link in the rear – just like in the petrol models) is affected by the diesel engine’s extra weight (about 80kg) over the front wheels.

But the Axela XD certainly felt like it was born to scoot around the Mine PG.

It will be interesting to ascertain how the diesel’s extra mass and Australian-specification chassis tune cope on our roads.

In Australia, most people will choose the six-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, but how it performs remains a mystery to us, for now.

At Mine, in manual guise at least, this range-topping Mazda3 felt as premium and capable as the majority of more expensive Europeans, with nothing glaringly wrong to put canny cashed-up buyers off.

Note too that this generation Mazda3 is still in its honeymoon period, with a model mix that remains richer than most mainstream competitors.

So we reckon success awaits this car come springtime Down Under – particularly as there might be pent-up demand for this car since the two previous-generation diesel equivalents from 2006’s BK and 2009’s BL series respectively were manual-only affairs that could not quite reach their intended audiences as a result.

But while we understand the company’s desire to make hay while the sun still shines brightly, a more accessible Maxx XD to take on the $28,090 Focus Trend TDCi might be more in Mazda’s democratic philosophy.

After all, the diesel certainly feels good enough to see off most competitors, and not just the fancier ones that Mazda is so clearly trying to party with.

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