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In-depth reviews

Mazda 3 review - Engines, performance and drive

Even with new 178bhp SkyActiv-X engine, the Mazda 3’s sweet underpinnings long for more power. But it’s an excellent family hatchback to drive

Mazda has carved a reputation for delivering family cars with a thrilling edge, and while the Mazda 3 lacks a true performance variant, it lives up to its reputation by feeling solid from behind the wheel. 

That’s apparent the moment you take a seat inside. The driving position is excellent and the ergonomics of the controls are perfect. The wheel is well sized and the rim is thin; ideal for exploiting the Mazda 3’s tidy handling and steering. There’s little in the way of feedback, but few mainstream cars supply this these days. At least the 3’s steering rack is weighted well and the speed of the steering motor is spot on, too, resisting the urge to re-centre too quickly like on a Ford Focus, but being snappier than a Golf in this regard. 

The six-speed manual gearbox is simply the best in class. The throw is short, while the action is tactile and mechanical feeling - it’s an absolute joy to use. The six-speed automatic isn’t quite as strong as other auto options out there. Mazda still uses a torque converter compared to the faster dual-clutch transmissions that have become popular in the segment – and even with wheel mounted paddles it’s just a shade too slow and unresponsive. 

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The 3 is responsive on turn-in, and by family car standards it’s extremely composed. A lot of that can be put down to standard G-Vectoring technology, which detects wheel lock and reduces engine torque as necessary, shifting weight onto the front axle and pushing the nose of the car into the tarmac. It doesn’t corner totally flat – there is a little body roll – but it’s communicative, and you’ll quickly learn the limits of the car’s grip. 

However, perhaps more impressive is how the Mazda 3 manages to be fun to drive while retaining excellent ride quality. The firm’s engineers have struck a sweet spot between forgiving springing and damping and body control, and while a Golf is still the most comfortable family hatchback on sale, the Mazda manages its priorities better than the Ford Focus, by being just as fun from behind the wheel while riding better in the process.

Engines, 0-60 acceleration and top speed

In contrast to its many rivals the Mazda 3 totally forgoes any turbocharged engine options.

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Instead, both the basic petrol and diesel options are naturally aspirated (the 2.0-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv-G does come with 24v mild hybrid assistance) while the new SkyActiv-X petrol uses a supercharger, as it’s an essential element of the all-new spark controlled compression ignition technology this 2.0-litre petrol engine debuts. 

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Starting with the basic 2.0-litre four-cylinder SkyActiv-G engine, power stands at 120bhp with peak torque of 213Nm delivered at 4,000rpm. Mazda claims 10.4 seconds from 0-62mph for manual cars, with automatic versions taking 10.8 seconds. Top speed stands at 122mph. Figures like these won’t trouble any of the torquier alternatives on the market, but in practice we’ve found the SkyActiv-G adds up to be a little more than the sum of its parts. On test against more powerful, turbo versions of the Golf (1.5 TSI 130) and Focus (1.0 EcoBoost 125), we clocked faster 0-60mph times, with the off-the-line pace boosted by the Mazda’s mild-hybrid system. 

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However, in-gear acceleration lags behind, and the small amount of torque on offer exposes the 120bhp 2.0-litre petrol as a hampered overtaker. It is refined though, remaining hushed right through the rev band. In sixth at motorway speed it’s very quiet, pairing off nicely with the Mazda’s controlled wind noise and decent ride. 

The 1.8-litre four-cylinder diesel is a straightforward affair, developing 114bhp and 270Nm torque. Typically, some refinement is lost by virtue of the engine’s noisier combustion, and while the manual version matches the performance of the 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G petrol, the automatic dips significantly, taking 12.1 seconds to hit 62mph. 

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In any case, the SkyActiv-X petrol is the engine to go for, developing 178bhp and 224Nm of torque. This 2.0-litre supercharged four-cylinder engine also uses mild-hybrid assistance mated with clever spark controlled compression ignition technology – a production vehicle world first. Mazda claims 0-62mph in 8.2 seconds and a top speed of 134mph for the manual variant, with the benchmark dash taking 8.6 seconds for automatic versions. 

Start the car and it idles like a petrol, but as the engine reaches mid-revs it begins to mimic the sound of a diesel. Keep it going up towards the 6,500rpm redline and the noise turns back to that of a conventional petrol engine. It’s not quite as refined as the SkyActiv-G engine, but it’s a much better performer and more than enough for day to day motoring. It’s great to finally have a little bit of performance to go hand in hand with the excellent chassis, too, making it our pick of the line-up.

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Which Is Best

Cheapest

  • Name
    2.0 Skyactiv-G MHEV SE-L 5dr
  • Gearbox type
    Manual
  • Price
    £21,570

Most Economical

  • Name
    2.0 Skyactiv-X MHEV SE-L 5dr
  • Gearbox type
    Manual
  • Price
    £23,090

Fastest

  • Name
    2.0 Skyactiv-X MHEV SE-L 5dr
  • Gearbox type
    Manual
  • Price
    £23,090
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