Mazda 3 Diesel Review : XD Astina

A $40,000 Mazda 3. Can it sell?

The Mazda 3 diesel will start to nudge Mazda’s small car into the premium pricing territory when it arrives locally in September/October of this year.

Based on the top-spec Astina ($36,190), the diesel should demand a price close to $40,000 (Mazda generally charges a $3000 premium for diesels), which puts it dangerously close to the likes of BMW 1 Series and Audi A3 sportback (both from $35,600 in petrol guise).

Named the Mazda 3 XD Astina, taking its naming convention from Japan, the Mazda 3 diesel will be available as a five-door hatch only, but for the first time will be offered with an automatic transmission.

Though manual buyers will still be catered for, a six-speed automatic gearbox should extend its appeal to a significantly larger audience: those looking for an all-you-can-eat small car with class-leading levels of technology, dynamics and practicality.

The Mazda 3 XD Astina gives buyers a choice of having a jam-packed small car with a Mazda badge instead of a bare bones German that relies on its badge for justification.

The Mazda 3 range continues to be the best-selling car in Australia and given the company’s prejudice towards private buyers (over fleets), its small lead over the Toyota Corolla extends further if you take fleet sales out of the equation.

Instead of competing with existing diesel challengers from Europe and Korea, Mazda has gone for a different approach, a diesel hot-hatch.

Powered by a SkyActiv-D 2.2-litre turbocharged diesel engine, the Mazda 3 pumps out an impressive 129kW of power and a massive 420Nm of torque. That leaves the likes of Volkswagen Golf 110TDI (2.0-litre turbo diesel: 110kW/320Nm), Hyundai i30 CRDi (1.6-litre turbo diesel: 94kW/260Nm), Ford Focus diesel (2.0-litre turbo diesel: 120kW/340Nm) and Honda Civic DTi-S (1.6-litre turbo diesel: 88kW/300Nm) trailing a long way behind.

Even the more upmarket and sporty Europeans, such as the Citroen DS4 (2.0-litre turbo diesel: 120kW/340Nm) fail to outdo the zippy Japanese. It’s the class-leader in terms of power and torque from its diesel heart, a spot previously filled by the now discontinued Volkswagen Golf GTD (2.0-litre turbo diesel: 125kW/350Nm). It easily outdoes the premiums in its price category also.

So if the most powerful non-premium diesel small car in Australia isn’t reason enough to look at the Mazda 3 XD Astina, let's get further into it.

We flew to Mazda’s proving ground in Mine, Japan, and were let loose for two fast laps behind the wheel of a Mazda 3 diesel in manual guise. We then had the opportunity to experience all of the 3’s active safety technology (blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, head-up display and city braking system), this time coupled with an automatic transmission.

Behind the wheel the Mazda 3 XD Astina is a surprisingly quick package. The 2.2-litre engine is well and truly oversized in today’s economy obsessed world, but for car enthusiasts it’s perhaps a rare chance to buy a practical and still economical car (5.0L/100km in manual form) that has far more power and torque than it really needs.

Essentially Mazda has transplanted the engine from the CX-5 SUV and Mazda6 range and put it in the lighter and smaller hatchback. It was always going to be good, but it’s not until you’re flat out in second gear that its positive power/torque-to-weight ratio becomes so evident.

Torque delivery across the range is linear and relentless until around 5000rpm where the next gear is required. Unlike some of its competitors, its class-leading 129kW of power is by no means a compromise and given the enormous torque that goes along with it, driveability is a level above the pack at all speeds.

There’s no unwarranted surge of power as the turbo comes on, and despite its might we found torque steer a rarity from the well-balanced and highly dynamic chassis.

The manual gearbox is effortless to operate but we found the automatic transmission to occasionally struggle to shift at low speeds and then change with a noticeable thump. It would be odd for this to be a characteristic and it’s more than likely to have been an isolated issue with our test car.

Unfortunately as with the rest of the Mazda 3 range, the noise, vibration and harshenss (NVH) levels are still higher than they ought to be and that is only pronounced with the diesel engine. It's loud even at idle, and under full load you’ll be wishing it was a petrol exhaust note rather diesel clatter you can’t escape.

Mazda hasn’t released any acceleration times for the diesel, but in-gear - from 40-80km/h or 80-120km/h - there’s no doubt it’s the fastest Mazda 3 in the range, and depending on transmission it may even take the 0-100km/h title as well.

The challenge the Mazda 3 XD Astina will face is convincing buyers that the $3000 premium (which will take a few years to pay back in terms of fuel cost savings) is worth it over the already pricey but feature-rich Astina.

Time will tell if it hits or misses its mark with the general public. The Mazda 3 diesel is nothing short of what we’ve come to expect from Mazda, teaming excellent build quality with a class-leading interior and technology, and, in the XD’s case, superb handling and dynamics.

It is, however, effectively a diesel-powered hot-hatch. The Volkswagen Golf GTD never found the following of its GTI equivalent (though it wasn’t as quick as the Mazda 3 XD), and we likewise expect the Mazda 3 XD to appeal to a niche market.

Mazda Australia itself doesn’t expect the XD to make up a big portion of its Mazda 3 sales, estimating a share of about five per cent, which would still make it five times more popular than the previous-generation Mazda 3 diesel.

Perhaps the point of the Mazda 3 XD Astina is for Mazda to claim that it builds the best diesel small car in Australia for around $40,000. That’s a fact we can’t argue with.

More on the Mazda 3.