Mazda 3 2011

Mazda3 SKYACTIV Review

Rating: 7.0
$20,330 $39,490 Mrlp
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With the latest mid-life facelift highlighted by SP20 SKYACTIV, Mazda can be assured of many more sales to come
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Mazda Australia launches all-new Mazda3 with SKYACTIV technology and it’s a cracker

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV: SKYACTIV-G 2.0-litre, four-cylinder with SV-T and i-stop, SKYACTIV-Drive six-speed automatic transmission, 113kW/194Nm - $27,990 (Manufacturer's List Price)

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV Luxury: $30,990 (Manufacturer's List Price)

The buzzword around Mazda at the moment is SKYACTIV and for a couple of very good reasons. This technology can literally transform a car’s performance and fuel economy without any additional cost and it’s coming to a Mazda showroom near you this November.

Australia is the only country outside of Japan to get the first iteration of Mazda’s revolutionary new SKYACTIV technology in the form of the new Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV. Still don’t know what this SKYACTIV stuff is all about?

Put simply, SKYACTIV technology is about substantial efficiency gains without the slightest compromise to the car’s performance and dynamics. Those gains are achieved through more precise design and engineering of key components. If anything, performance and handling are well and truly enhanced, if our test drive in the all-new Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV was any measure of the potential of this technology.

Mazda Australia launched the new Mazda3 to the motoring press this week, but the focus was squarely on the SP20 SKYACTIV variant.

Under the bonnet of the new Mazda3 is Mazda’s SKYACTIV-G 2.0 engine mated to the equally new SKYACTIV-Drive automatic transmission. Collectively, these two new technologies have transformed this car into something far greater than the some of its parts. There’s more power, more torque and quicker gear changes for an altogether more exhilarating driving experience.

Earlier this year we test-drove a Mazda6 Diesel with a full suite of SKYACTIV technologies; including engine, transmission, body and Chassis. Clearly, this was not your run of the mill Mazda6 Diesel. Its performance at Sandown Raceway was extraordinary, to say the least. The SKYACTIV components (that was virtually the whole car) meant that the car weighed some 200kg less than its non-SKYACTIV sibling.

This is where it gets slightly confusing. The new Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV is only partly SKYACTIV; that’s the engine and transmission only, but after 300 kilometres behind the wheel, I can tell you that’s reason enough to consider this vehicle over its closest competitors in the small car segment.

Performance from the 113 kW/194Nm engine is far better than you would ever expect from a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre powertrain. High-speed overtaking on country roads is a breeze. The car pulls hard, especially mid-range, and there’s seemingly a lot more torque on tap than the 194 Nm would normally convey. This is a car that feels more like a 2.5-litre sedan than its 2.0-litre displacement and that includes a thoroughly sporty engine note to boot.

Mazda engineers have been able to raise the engine’s compression ratio to an unusually high 12.0:1, and that feature combined with the tricky SKYACTIV-Drive transmission means this car punches well above its weight in the performance department. In fact, the engineers have been able to raise the compression ratio to 14.0:1 in the ‘full’ SKYACTIV powertrain, but due to Mazda Australia’s insistence that its cars be compatible with 91 RON fuel and the fact that this engine is not using a 4-2-1 exhaust system, a slightly lower compression ratio has been adopted.

That said, Mazda3 program manager, Kenichiro Saruwatari, says his team worked hard on NVH (Noise, Vibration, Harshness) management and we can attest to the fact that overall this is a quiet engine when it comes to boom inside the cabin, and apart from the performance engine note, the cabin is relatively quiet and a nice place to be.

SKYACTIV-Drive is the other revolutionary piece of engineering on board the new Mazda3 SP20. Mazda says it has combined the best characteristics from the current suite of transmission options, which include the standard automatic, continuously variable and dual-clutch technologies to create the best all round shift feel, but without the additional costs and weight associated with more expensive dual-clutch systems.

Without boring you with a slew of technology jargon, let me just say the shifts, both up and down the six forward gear ratios, are decidedly quicker and more refined than any other standard automatic box I’ve ever used. It’s quite remarkable and that’s because this gearbox reduces transmission slip by applying near full-range lock-up during the shift process.

It’s even better when you’re using the sequential manual mode and downshifting into a corner, that’s when it seems as quick as dual-clutch box. You’ll find yourself playing with this feature time and time again on uncrowded twisty roads.

The new Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV gains more power and torque over the MZR 2.0 engine, but those increases are relatively small, in the order of 4.6 per cent and 6.6 per cent respectively. There are also small reductions in the overall weight of the powertrain and again, these are small but clearly add to the car’s on-road performance.

You’ve got to remember; the Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV is only partly SKYACTIV so the weight loss isn’t that significant. Eventually, all Mazda vehicles will be ‘full SKYACTIV’: that’s engine, gearbox, body and chassis, and you won’t have to wait long. The Mazda CX-5 compact SUV, which was revealed at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show is exactly that, a fully loaded SKYACTIV car and it should be a game changing vehicle in the category.

It might only be a mid-life facelift but Mazda has made further improvements to the model’s handling dynamics, which when combined with the SKYACTIV engine and transmission have produced a sharper performer through the bends.

The Mazda3’s steering is very nicely weighted from the straight-ahead position to full lock, but it’s not too heavy as to make city parking a chore. There’s a good amount of feedback through the steering wheel from the Electro Hydraulic Power Steering unit.

I’m also impressed with the way this car sits on the road, especially when driving it with a degree of enthusiasm. It corners flat with little or no body roll and feels very planted on the road.

It’s the same scenario with the suspension set up on the Mazda3. I’d call the ride firm, but in no way harsh. In fact, even over some fairly ordinary surfaces the MacPherson Strut and rear multi-link suspension absorb even the harshest of roads without upsetting the balance of the car. It’s impressive.

That ‘planted’ feeling through the more twisty sections from Melbourne to Torquay in Victoria is no doubt the result of Mazda engineers further increasing the rigidity of the Mazda3’s body. It’s something you can definitely feel when attacking a series of snake-like bends.

Apart from enhanced performance and dynamics of the SP20 SKYACTIV, there’s another huge benefit to this technology: reduced fuel consumption. In this case, you’re looking at a 25.6 per cent improvement over the current MZR 2.0-litre engine.

It comes down to reducing the weight and mechanical friction of each part of the SKYACTIV-G engine in the Mazda3. That means detailed re-engineering of the shape of the pistons and connecting rods and thereby reducing the weight of these components by 127g per cylinder. It may not sound like much, but after putting an additional 300km on the clock (and that’s driving the car in a thoroughly ‘non-green’ fashion) our average fuel consumption was 6.1L/100kms and that’s with two adults and overnight luggage on board.

Also on board the Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV is Mazda’s idling stop system, i-stop. It’s another fuel saving mechanism similar to ‘Stop/Start’ systems employed by an increasing number of manufacturers.

It’s actually quite an unobtrusive system compared with some other adaptations. When you pull up at a set of traffic lights and come to full stop with enough pressure applied to the brake pedal, the system shuts down the engine to conserve fuel. The car automatically restarts from the very instant your foot releases pressure on the brake pedal for an altogether seamless transition in 0.35 seconds.

Design-wise Mazda has been careful to not fiddle with the existing styling too much, given the fact that in August this year, the Mazda3 model became Australia’s best selling car. The result puts it ahead of Holden’s everlasting Commodore, which has held the crown for the past 15 years.

The model gets new front and rear bumpers for a cleaner look and improved aerodynamics, as well as a new front fascia and alloy wheel designs.

It simply must be said that the Mazda3’s interior is a cut above most or all of its Japanese and Korean competitors. It’s a combination of the upmarket materials used on the dashboard and switchgear and the quality and colour of the plastics employed throughout this cabin. It’s absolutely first class.

The good news is that Mazda has reduced prices across the board of its Mazda3 model, but the standout value proposition is the SP20 SKYACTIV at $27,990. It easily represents better overall value than its Maxx Sport sibling, which offers a five-speed automatic transmission, although a manual 6-speed manual is available. Despite coming in at $1500 under the SP20, I would suggest that SKYACTIV technology alone is well worth the extra outlay, considering the performance and dynamic gains.

You’ll like the 'Mazda blue' engine cover on the SP20 and there’s a small SKYACTIV badge on the rear of the car for proper identification of the model variant.

Global sales of Mazda3 have already exceeded three million units. With the latest mid-life facelift highlighted by SP20 SKYACTIV, Mazda can be assured of many more sales to come.