Mazda 3 Driving, Engines & Performance | Top Gear
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Saturday 2nd December


What is it like to drive?

There’s not a lot wrong with the way the Mazda 3 drives. It’s smooth, accurate, good-natured, quiet and refined. For a regular hatch it’s incredibly hard to fault.

The entry-level Skyactiv G engine is a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol, and it struggles a tad. There’s a bit of torque from 3,000-5,000rpm (it peaks at 157lb ft at 4,000rpm), but performance is sluggish with 0-62mph taking 10.4secs in manual guise and 10.8secs in auto form. The engine drones away too.

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So the Skyactiv X is the one to go for?

It is. The 3 redeems itself here, with the 184bhp 2.0-litre petrol chalking off 0-62mph in 8.4secs (the auto is a tenth slower) despite boasting no turbo and only four cylinders. But stick with it.

It actually uses a tiny supercharger to whack all that air into the cylinder, but it's what goes on once it's in there and ready to burn that's really clever. As well as conventional spark-plug ignition on standby, this engine can squeeze the fuel-air mixture until it gets so compressed and hot it explodes all on its own.

This has benefits. Running a lean fuel-air mixture means a big bang from a tiny squirt of petrol. That saves you money on fuel, and lowers CO2 emissions. What’s more, NOx nasties are reduced because the burn is so instant and efficient.

Intriguing. Can you give me hard numbers to prove it?

Of course. The smaller Skyactiv G engine returns 50.4mpg and emits 127g/km of CO2 on the official test cycle, while the larger Skyactiv X manages 53.3mpg and 120g/km. Yes, the beefier power unit is also the cleanest and most efficient of the pair. Weird, innit?

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Those figures are for manual cars, by the way. The autos aren't quite as frugal, nor as green.

Both engines run a 24V mild hybrid system that uses brake regen to store power in a small battery that’s used to run the on-board electric systems. We suspect Mazda has done this for very valid engineering reasons, but it comes across as a token gesture. Where’s the actual hybrid? Why is plug-in tech still only in the pipeline for the CX-60, and not at all for the 3? It does look like other firms have the jump on Mazda right now in this regard.

What's it like in the real world?

Not bad. On our first go in the bigger engine (updated in 2021 with a few extra horses under the bonnet), we got 55mpg without really trying much. But on a longer cross-country drive up the motorway, we saw this fall below 45mpg with the 3 fully laden with passengers and luggage.

As a result of those updates, the bigger 2.0 is also less rough-sounding on start-up than before. A true win-win-win. It's the engine to have, by a mile.

What else can you tell me about it?

There’s other interesting bits of tech on the 3. A torque vectoring system called GVC that’s designed not to maximise traction, but to smooth out cornering, specifically the transitions between roll and pitch by gently pulsing the torque on the way into a corner. At the exit the brakes are brushed for a similar reason.

The fact the 3 corners smoothly and deals with roll neatly suggests it works. The mild hybrid regen system is also used to bring the revs down quickly between upshifts, helping to smooth out the gearchanges. But it doesn’t blip the revs on downshifts, which would arguably serve a better purpose. There’s also cylinder deactivation in the 120bhp engine.

Which gearbox should I get?

Have the manual. The shift is great, slick and satisfying. The auto isn’t. It’s an old school torque converter that hunts for gears, shifts up and down inappropriately and is no better in Sport mode. There are paddles, but that’s not enough to offset the higher fuel consumption (the auto is roughly 3-4mpg heavier on fuel and emits another 10g/km of CO2) and the circa £1,500 Mazda charges for the privilege.

It disrupts the 3’s otherwise impressive dynamics. Mazda goes on about Jinba Ittai – the sense of oneness between car and driver. And the 3 is a very natural car to drive. The steering has little feel, but it still manages to be direct. Meanwhile the chassis isn’t stodgy and the ride is supple, well damped and well insulated – even on the largest 18-inch wheels.

Highlights from the range

the fastest

Mazda 3 2.0 Skyactiv-X MHEV 100th Anniversary Edition 5dr
  • 0-628.2s
  • CO2103.0g/km
  • BHP180
  • MPG
  • Price£29,725

the cheapest

Mazda 3 2.0 Skyactiv-X MHEV 100th Anniversary Edition 5dr
  • 0-628.2s
  • CO2103.0g/km
  • BHP180
  • MPG
  • Price£29,725

the greenest

Mazda 3 1.5d SE-L Nav 5dr
  • 0-6211s
  • CO299.0g/km
  • BHP105
  • MPG74.3
  • Price£N/A
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