Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X: long-term test review

Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X: long-term test review

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I’m really starting to gel with how the Mazda drives. I’ve been able to explore its handling recently, which I really like. It’s a civilised car, but it feels like it’s for keen drivers, too.

I do a lot of miles in my Mazda 3 fleet car, travelling the length and breadth of the UK to snap pictures for Auto Express magazine and the website. At least, I used to.

As with most readers, for what seems like nearly as long as I can remember, the furthest I’ve been driving is to the shops – which in my case are in Chelmsford city centre, just a few miles down the road from my house. However, the government’s slight easing of the lockdown restrictions recently, permitting longer drives, has allowed me to enjoy the Mazda’s strong suit: just how good the car is to drive.

Beforehand, my day-to-day life with the 3 mostly meant mixing it with motorway traffic while trudging around the M25, rather than quiet B-road blasts. But with traffic still light at the moment, I’ve been taking the scenic route to the beach where I do some exercise and walk my dog.

I think the Mazda 3 is one of the best-driving models on sale at any price, full stop. Let’s start with the steering, because for a family hatch it reacts with the kind of sweet precision that some sports cars don’t even offer. You can really feel an engineering link with Mazda’s MX-5 roadster – and that comes from the chassis, too.

My car is damped really nicely, offering a good degree of comfort. The suspension is not exactly soft, but it absorbs and filters out bumps well. It also gives plenty of support to keep the car flat and stable in corners, serving up a lot of grip. It’s responsive and fun at normal speeds on normal roads, and when it comes to the engineering, you can sense that Mazda’s Skyactiv lightweight philosophy has paid dividends here.

The same technology also extends to the engine, because for the new 3 Mazda added its Skyactiv-X powerplant, along with some sharper styling tweaks and a super-smart overhaul for the interior.

I’ll spare you the full details, but the motor uses clever tech that mimics partly how a diesel engine works, but mostly how a petrol unit works to deliver a little extra torque. However, it revs like you’d want a petrol to, and is more refined than a diesel.

Does it give the best of both worlds then, or is it something of a compromise? To be honest, it feels like a conventional petrol engine all of the time, but it’s nice that Mazda is pushing forward with tech such as this while sticking with naturally aspirated petrols and not turning to turbos.

The 2.0-litre boasts 178bhp, which is more than enough in this car, even if it does need revving a little harder than I expected. This is no great hardship, though, because working it is made all the more enjoyable by the lovely six-speed manual box the engine is teamed with. Every time our chief reviewer Sean Carson drove the Mazda while using it as a photography tracking car (back when we were allowed to), he mentioned the transmission’s positive feel.

Having not sat behind the wheel for more than five minutes at a time until recently, my brain is not yet used to where everything is laid out on the Mazda’s dash. For that reason, the clarity of the analogue dials was welcome relief when I jumped back into the car for a longer journey. These have a plain black background, smart white markings and a neat, slim needle. Their simplicity makes them lovely design details.

It’s not all good news with the interior, though. With schools currently closed, my children have frequently been coming along for the ride, and their growing size is starting to test the limits of the Mazda’s practicality. My photography gear often used to spill over into the rear seats, but with little need for that right now, it’s been replaced by my girls’ stuff – or the dog on family drives.

Still, I’m holding on to the pluses. Until now I’d never truly experienced how good the Mazda is to drive, so in a way I’m glad this terrible situation has yielded a positive for mine and the Mazda 3’s relationship.

The Mazda 3 is just about cutting it as a family car following two larger models for our snapper Pete.

The Mazda 3 sits in the family hatchback class – its main rivals are cars such as the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus. So one of our objectives when we added the Mazda to our fleet was to see if it can live up to that billing – with the help of my family.

With the country in lockdown, I’m spending more time than ever with them, and was able to get out with my daughter Isabella in the Mazda to walk our dog, Benson.

My last two fleet cars were a VW Touareg SUV and an Audi A6 Avant estate: two huge upmarket models. So when the Mazda turned up, I wasn’t sure about it being a family car. Surely it was too small to accommodate my needs as a family man, I thought?

However, the 3 has proved me wrong in the past few months. It’s easy to drive a large car for a while and think it’s essential, but something the size of the Mazda is just fine. 

Okay, there’s not as much room in the boot for all my camera gear, but I’ve managed. I’ve just had to be clever about how I pack my kit up, rather than simply chucking it all in the back of a big SUV or estate like I did before.

The boot has 358 litres of space, and while that’s not class-leading, it’s a decent shape. Because it’s fairly deep, I can be satisfied that everything is secure in the back.

Plus there’s still enough room for my family inside. My daughters fit into the back seats easily and have loads of leg and headroom. I’ve heard no complaints from the dog about space in the Mazda either, although that might be more down to biology than the 3 itself, and Benson has had the luxury of those bigger cars for a while.

One thing I have heard being moaned about, though, is the visibility for shorter passengers in the back. The car’s windows are set high and are quite small, so the
kids can’t see out of them very well. 

We’ve complained about it being dark in the back before, but this is an example of a long-term drive confirming something that we might just make a note of in on a road test. We wouldn’t have thought that much more about it, but with Isabella also commenting on it being dark in the back, it really brings the issue into focus.

One other thing I’ve noticed that we couldn’t have picked up on during a road test is that the SkyActiv-X engine is wearing in really nicely. It was fine when we first took delivery, but as I’ve piled on more miles the engine has become significantly better in every way. It’s quieter when at a cruise, sounds better at high revs, and even the performance feels like it’s improved. 

The engine is becoming a big part of the car’s appeal for me now: it’s satisfying to work the gearbox to get the best out of the motor. As it runs in, it feels like we’re developing a bit of a bond, as strange as that might sound.

Unfortunately there are a couple of exterior issues I’ve spotted. I love the Mazda’s looks, so I’m always sad when I look at the fuel filler flap. It’s not quite flush to the bodywork, which ruins the flowing lines a little.

A piece of trim on the roof has also come loose. I’m not sure how it happened, because I rarely touch that part of the car, but the plastic catches on the bottom of the trim piece have broken, so it won’t snap back down. It’s not really noticeable unless you pick at it with your fingers, but I know it’s there and can’t help but look at it every time I’m nearby.

Our Mazda 3 has gone in at the deep end at the hands of our photographer, because it’s often used as a camera car. It’s proven up to the task, along with being more practical than we expected.

Our Mazda 3 is settling into life on our fleet nicely. But because I’m running it, the new family hatchback is getting a more punishing test of its mettle than most.

You see, I’m a photographer, so my car is not just the way I get to my job;  it’s also one of the tools I use every day to do that job. The Mazda is put into use when we arrive at our test track, as I hop into the boot and take the car-to-car shots you see every week in Auto Express magazine and online.

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I have to admit, I didn’t think it would be particularly up to this task when I first got into the Mazda 3 in December last year. For a start, it was quite a lot smaller than my previous fleet car, a Volkswagen Touareg. Then there was the shape of the boot, which is also much more enclosed thanks to the Mazda’s curving body.

Yet I’ve become really comfortable in the back of my family car. The boot’s shape almost seems like it’s been designed for me to slot into; it’s nice and snug to sit in, and supports me as I snap away. The Mazda’s smooth ride also helps, because I’m not being shaken to bits in the back.

I’ll admit this is an incredibly niche use of the boot, but the good news is that when I’m not in it, there’s enough room for my camera gear and even a portable pressure washer, which we use to keep the cars clean. 

However, the boot isn’t the car’s strongest point; in fact, its size is a bit disappointing. A VW Golf, for example, makes better useof its space. I’m just making the best of what I have, and have been relieved to find that it works for me despite the limitations.

Where the Mazda really does excel is how it drives. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a fleet car that is as much fun as this. It’s the first manual car I’ve run in a while, and that  has reminded me of how much fun it is to be in control of the car’s gears. Yes, an auto is great in traffic, but the fun of a manual is often forgotten about. The Mazda has a great gearshift, too, so it’s never a pain to use.

The car also has a good level of grip and not much body roll in corners, which I’ve been making the most of on my commutes. I don’t go to the same place every day, so there’s always one or two great roads to explore on the way to or from work – and the 3 is a fine way to enjoy them.

We’ve not had the smoothest start to our time together though; in the first weeks I picked up a huge stone chip that cracked the windscreen badly. I had to get it replaced, so I ended up in a four-wheel-drive 3 for two weeks while my car was fixed. I liked this version, but felt the lighter two-wheel-drive model was a smarter choice.

Then, when my car returned, it was showing a warning message on the dash, but luckily this cleared on its own.

Cabin, kit and gearbox make big impression as the Mazda 3 hatch joins our fleet

This week I said hello to my new fleet car, a Mazda 3 hatchback. It’s quite a big change from what I was running previously – a Volkswagen Touareg – so my motoring life is about to change significantly.

In some ways, the 3 couldn’t be further from my old car: it’s a family hatch rather than an SUV, it’s petrol rather than diesel, and it’s manual rather than automatic. But that’s the beauty of running a fleet car for Auto Express: I get to try all sorts of models.

My new Mazda 3, which I collected from Mazda’s head office in Dartford, Kent, is one of the most interesting new cars on sale, too. That’s because it has the new Skyactiv-X petrol engine, which is a really clever evolution of the internal combustion engine. Most of the time it runs using compression like a diesel engine, but it can seamlessly switch to normal spark ignition if needed. The idea is that it should bring the efficiency of a diesel motor with the driveability and refinement of a petrol.

It’s also a mild hybrid – it has a system that recovers energy and converts it into electric charge to give a small boost to efficiency. We’ll delve deeper into the engine in a future report, once we’ve got to grips with it. After all, thanks to a small delay in delivery of the car, I’ve spent very little time behind the wheel so far.

In the time I have shared with the Mazda, I’ve mostly been in awe of its interior, which is instantly impressive – it took me no time at all to work out that I really like it.

The materials inside look really upmarket and the build quality is superb, too. I’ve come out of a car with a huge infotainment screen, so the 8.8-inch unit in the Mazda is smaller than I’m used to, but it looks really classy with its black-and-white interface. As a photographer, I’m certainly partial to a monochrome look. I also really like the rim of the steering wheel – it’s just the right thickness and feels great in my hands – and the seat bolsters are spot on, too.

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I’m also a big fan of the way the latest Mazda 3 looks on the outside. Its sleek headlights, bright paintwork and imposing front grille mean I’m looking forward to photographing it in 2020.

My new car is in GT Sport trim, which means it gets lots of equipment as standard. The one option fitted to it is Soul Red Crystal metallic paint, which costs £790, and I think it looks brilliant, as you’ll no doubt agree.

My car comes with 18-inch alloys, LED headlights, heated leather seats, a heated steering wheel, dual-zone air-conditioning, keyless go, adaptive cruise control, blind- spot monitoring and AEB as standard. This means that even though I’ve come into the Mazda from a much more expensive Touareg, I’m not left wanting for any equipment – everything I need is here.

But that’s not to say I don’t have some questions and concerns about my new car. I carry lots of photography gear, car-washing kit and family members around every day, so I need plenty of interior space.

The Mazda 3 is one of the smaller cars I’ve run recently, so will its 358-litre boot be enough? Even if you fold the seats down, there’s only 1,019 litres, which looks on the small side on paper. Part of a long-term test is going beyond the figures and finding out what it’s really like, though; some cars feel smaller than their figures suggest, while others seem larger. I’m hoping the Mazda is in the latter camp.

I’m also wondering if the Mazda will be able to provide the kind of fuel economy I’m used to, because I mostly run diesel cars. I do a lot of motorway miles, so I’m interested to see if the clever Skyactiv-X engine really can bring diesel-like running costs. It’ll also need to be quiet at speed to keep me relaxed.

Finally, it doesn’t have a turbo, so I’m keen to find out if it has enough torque. With 178bhp, it’s plenty powerful enough, but to me the torque figure of 224Nm looks quite low. Having spent a little time behind the wheel, it seems to need working quite hard to keep speed up – I have to change down to fourth to overtake on the motorway, for example. I must say I do already love the Mazda’s manual gearbox, though.

I can’t wait to find out more about the 3; I’m already loving just sitting in the cabin and settling into my new car.

*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

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