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First drive: 2019 Mazda3 takes shape

New for old: It may look like a current-gen Mazda3 but underneath lurks all-new SkyActiv II architecture.

IRS gone but Mazda’s torque-rich compression 2.0 and dynamic maturity a revolution

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Mazda logo7 Sep 2017

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

THE next-generation Mazda3 will not only feature compression-ignition technology in its petrol engines, but will also ditch the advanced multi-link independent rear suspension set up for a torsion beam design.

“Frankly we shook our heads”, admitted one Mazda insider at an early prototype drive in Germany upon learning some time ago that the next-generation Mazda3 was to adopt what is generally regarded as a penny-pinching rear suspension layout.

Due in 2019, the Hiroshima-based car-maker’s best-selling passenger car will take up the torsion beam design for the first time in 12 generations and what will be 55 years of the Mazda small-car series.

Yet sceptics – including us – should keep an open mind, because the all-new SkyActiv II architecture that will debut in the next Mazda3 will take a holistic approach to the chassis, powertrain, body and – we are told – interior that in turn achieves the brand’s stated goals of substantially improved emissions, dynamics, refinement, safety, comfort, automation and connectivity.

The first details of these goals were outlined at the Mazda Global Technology Forum in Germany in late August, but centred only on the so-called SkyActiv-X engine for now. But from now through to 2020 Mazda will conduct further press conferences explaining each thoroughly, while revealing plans for electrification.

For the moment, it is just about the production world-first compression-ignition petrol engines. The rest, including transmission and final specifications, remains under wraps for now, so watch this space.

Diesel-like combustion processes for a petrol engine is not a new idea, as Daimler outlined, but seems to have gone cold on.

Uniquely also combining spark plugs in parallel with a Rootes supercharger for better controlled and leaner combustion, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine as fitted to several matte-finished Mazda3/Axela (Japanese name) mules is expected to deliver about 140kW of power and 230Nm of torque, but Mazda would not divulge the exact outputs of the prototypes we drove around a 30km route (including four sections of foot-down high-speed autobahn blasting) for a first taste.

Based on the existing SkyActiv-G petrol engine family, the final calibration details have yet to be perfected, while the six-speed torque-converter automatic transmission is essentially the same as the one introduced with the current-gen model in early 2014, albeit with revised ratios to take advantage of the far-broader torque bandwidth that is key to the SkyActiv-X system.

Whether the 2019 model ends up with this could not be confirmed, but Mazda Motor Corporation director and senior managing executive Kiyoshi Fujiwara declared: “Never a CVT (continuously variable transmission)!” Not the zoom-zoom way, apparently.

With this limited information in mind, the first drive of the development ‘mule’ was extremely encouraging. That distinctive direct-injection clatter that has come to define the existing 2.0-litre petrol was muted at idle.

Selecting ‘D’ (using a shrouded lever selection gate, so we’re expecting gearbox changes down the line), the Mazda3 eased away with a rich smoothness and linearity that brought to mind one of the better low-blow turbo/torque-converter auto powertrain installations, such as a BMW 120i.

At this juncture we discover that the SkyActiv-X runs best on lower-octane fuel – namely our cheapo 91 RON unleaded. It has something to do with the uniquely high compression ratio and supercharged lean-burn air-fuel mix ignition.

The Mazda moves away in a naturally effortless manner. Lushly muscular sums it up. We already know that this engine will be an option to an evolved version of today’s 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G, but will it replace the optional 2.5? It’s certainly a sweeter and quieter alternative.

Also impressive was the in-car data recorded during our test drive, although it was provided by Mazda and not by an independent body.

Our 2019 development mule was shadowed by a production 2017 Euro-spec equivalent acting as the control car, and in the final wash-up, the auto we drove first used nearly 12.5 per cent less fuel over exactly the same course the delightfully slick six-speed manual we drove later under very similar conditions (but at a maximum of only 147km/h instead of 192km/h, which is more real-life) recorded 15.5 per cent better economy.

Mazda reckons consumption similar to the current 1.5-litre SkyActiv-D turbo-diesel (as found in the CX-3), combined with the performance of the MX-5 2.0-litre is possible with real-world driving. Ambitious, particularly as the brand admits all car-makers are fearful of the potential exposure of fraudulent fuel figure claims in this post-Dieselgate state.

The mules we sampled wore cobbled-up third-gen hatch bodies and interiors, with various cut-outs and extensions presumably to accommodate different track dimensions (though wheelbase length apparently remains the same), betraying the box-fresh SkyActiv II platform lurking underneath.

However, frustratingly, the roads around Mazda’s European HQ in Frankfurt are smooth by Australian standards, so while we are able to ascertain some very impressive performance and economy data, definitive verdicts on the steering (meaty, responsive, tactile) and handling (agile and light yet utterly assured) have to wait.

An unexpected emergency stop (all of our cars’ traction and stability controls were disconnected) did reveal that the all-new braking system is up for the task, though.

What we can say is how much quieter the prototypes were, although it must be said that there was extra padding everywhere (including in the glovebox) that the company’s staff claimed was put there to replicate the 2019’s models’ stiffer, stronger and quieter yet lighter body.

The new body is said to feature much more high-tensile steel (from 18 to 45 per cent, we hear) as well as new gap-plugging techniques. Whatever the case, these were the most hushed and best-riding Mazdas we can recall.

We cannot say with confidence that the Mazda3 has equalled (let alone eclipsed) the class-leading Volkswagen Golf and Peugeot 308 in this respect, but compared to the 2017 model we drove to the Mazda facility, mechanical, tyre and road noise levels on our Toyo-shod mules seemed substantially cut.

Mazda admitted that the French car was the dynamic benchmark, boasting similar advancements in suspension bush shapes and dampers to provide both agility and suppleness.

Finally, seat comfort and support were remarkable, bearing out claims that they have been completely rethought, along with the as-yet un-sampled new-gen cars’ dashboard ergonomics. Mr Fujiwara said that the G-Vectoring Control system that varies the amount of torque to the driving wheels for smoother cornering, combined with the new platform that optimises the chassis, body, ergonomics, seats and even the tyres, all reduce stress and fatigue significantly.

Even the way humans walk without thinking was studied, to achieve Mazda’s goals of smooth and continuous sprung mass movement, while realising that taking into account how people perceive sound plays a big role in reducing noise, vibration and harshness properties.

Much to digest, but the bottom line (literally) is that our seat-of-our-pants first impression points to key progress in many areas.

Progress. That is what is happening as the first of the SkyActiv II architecture vehicles emerge, even if the rear multi-link has gone.

On first acquaintance, albeit on smooth and not very curvy roads, things seem to be really moving forward. We’re hopeful, if not fully convinced. More prototype drives are still in order.

Mazda talks about cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030 while improving performance and dynamic attributes. Words like desirability, pleasure and one-ness with the car permeated the whole discussion.

If nothing else it shows that Mazda is listening and, more importantly, acting.

Having open minds works both ways.

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