Mazda's unconventional approach to automotive design has born real fruit when it comes to the engineering of this Mazda3 Skyactiv-X model. What we're served up here is a family hatch-style model that offers fairly potent 180PS power, yet can deliver the kinds of efficiency returns you'd expect from a diesel in this class. As a bonus, you also get the nicest handling and arguably the best cabin in the segment. What's not to like?
The MK4 Mazda3 claims to be a family hatch that's as good to drive as a Ford Focus, as good inside as a Volkswagen Golf and as good to look at as an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The fact that its usual 2.0-litre 'Skyactive-G' petrol engine ignores turbocharging is another break with current convention, though Mazda has followed the current trend towards part-electrified mild hybrid technology for it. And created a more powerful supercharged 'Skyactive-X' version of this unit that uses 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' to deliver petrol response allied to diesel economy. That's what we're going to look at here. All of this engineering's bolted to a brand new very stiff platform. And, the trend with previous Mazdas for slinky styling to clothe rather dull cabin design has been broken here with what might just be the nicest interior in the segment. Add in standard equipment features you'd have to pay extra for on rivals and plenty of camera-driven safety kit and you've a promising-sounding package offered either in this hatch form or as a smartly styled saloon. Time to check it out.
When we first tried this fourth generation Mazda3, we loved the way it handled and its lovely steering and gear change. But to be frank, we thought the standard Skyactiv-G petrol and Skyactiv-D diesel engines were a bit of a weak link in the car's armoury. But don't despair if you love everything else about this car because the third of the three engine options - the Skyactiv-X - makes up for everything. It's a development of the Skyactiv-G 2.0-litre petrol unit but is very different, developing 180PS and using what the brand calls 'Spark Controlled Compressed Ignition' or 'SPCCI', a patented lean burn process that delivers exceptional efficiency. Interestingly, it incorporates a supercharger, not for extra performance (though torque is increased by up to 30% over the Skyactiv-G unit) but instead to ensure that there's enough air in the engine for the compression ignition to work properly. Rest to 62mph takes 8.2s en route to 134mph. Another reason for choosing the Skyactiv-X powerplant is that it's the only engine offered in this car that can be mated with the brand's i-Activ AWD all-wheel-drive system, an option with the hatch body style.
The fourth generation Mazda3 borrows its sensual shaping from the evolved version of the brand's 'KODO' design language first showcased on the company's recent 'RX Vision' and 'Vision Coupe' motor show concept cars. And at a stroke, makes almost everything else in the segment look either uninspired, stodgy or over-styled, thanks to clean surfacing and coupe-like lines that are almost startlingly effective in the way that light and shade plays upon the sculpted panels. Choose between hatch or Saloon body styles. At the wheel, it's certainly different, thanks to a minimalistic design that has seen almost every unnecessary ancillary control removed. Only the essentials are left, all of which have a satisfying look and feel and are designed within an elegantly slender dashboard swathed in lovely soft-touch surfaces. Also breaking with convention is Mazda's decision not to use touchscreen functionality for the 8.8-inch centre-dash touchscreen; we agree with them that using the provided 'Comand Control' rotary dial is less distracting for the driver. Less impressive is rear seat accommodation, which can feel a bit claustrophobic thanks to the swept-back styling. And the boot size ids only average by class standards, offering 351-litres of capacity in the hatch; there's 450-litres in the Saloon.
There's not a huge premium to pay to get the Skyactiv-X engine over the less powerful and less efficient Skyactiv-G petrol unit. Prices for the 'X' start at around £23,500 and the cost is the same, whether you want a hatch or a saloon body style. There are four trim levels - 'Sport', 'Sport Lux', 'GT Sport' and 'GT Sport Tech'. There's a choice of automatic or manual transmission available on all models. And if you go for the top 'GT Sport Tech' version with the hatch body and you can have Mazda's i-Activ all-wheel drive system. Standard kit across the range includes high-end technology such as a windscreen projecting colour head-up display with Traffic Sign Recognition, Mazda Radar Cruise Control and LED headlights across the range. Every model in the line-up also features navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and an advanced eight speaker audio system. Even the 'Sport' trim entry point to the Skyactiv-X range has a cabin enhanced with chrome detailing, a frameless rear view mirror and rear privacy glass, while 'Sport Lux' models feature a reversing camera, smart keyless entry and heated front seats. 'GT Sport' sees the introduction of black leather seats with power adjustment, a heated steering wheel and Bose audio, while the range-topping 'GT Sport Tech' features a suite of additional active safety equipment, including a 360o camera and Driver Monitoring System with interior camera.
If you found yourself slightly disappointed by the efficiency returns of the 122PS Syactiv-G petrol-powered Mazda3 model (up to 45.6mpg on the combined cycle and up to 117g/km of CO2) you should be much happier with the potential of this Skyactiv-X variant. Think up to 52.3mpg and 100g/km. From a more powerful 180PS engine; have cake - eat it. It's as simple as that. This comes courtesy of the ground-breaking 'SPCCI' 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' system used by the Skyactiv-X petrol unit. This engine is based on the 2.0-litre normally aspirated mild hybrid Skyactiv-G unit. But it can run far leaner than any ordinary petrol powerplant ever could, improving efficiency by up to 30% over the Skyactiv-G, helped by a supercharger which ensures that there's enough air for the clever 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' system to function. The result is a set of fuel and CO2 readings that should better those of the alternative conventional 1.8-litre turbocharged Skyactiv-D diesel in regular use. For reference, a Mazda3 Skyactiv-D model manages up to 56.5mpg on the WLTP combined cycle and up to 107g/km of NEDC-rated CO2. But why would you choose it over the more potent, quieter, cheaper to fuel and comparably-priced Mazda3 Skyactiv-X petrol model? Answers on a postcard please.
Mazda's Skyactiv engine technology is a bit of a mixed bag. The standard Mazda3 petrol model's Skyactiv-G petrol unit isn't particularly noteworthy in terms of either performance or efficiency. And we can't really see why anyone would choose that base petrol unit when not much more money buys the innovative Skyactiv-X 'Spark Controlled Compressed Ignition' supercharged petrol powerplant we've been looking at here, which delivers better efficiency and offers greater refinement and more acceleration. If you can stretch to Skyactiv-X power, you'll apply the finishing touch to a very complete family hatchback indeed. There are some times when looking beyond convention pays great dividends. And we'd suggest that this might well be one of them.