There’s a little bit of Toyota in the Mazda 3 Hybrid.
This version of the third-generation 3 small car borrows hybrid components from the Prius and mates it with its own 2.0-litre petrol engine to create its first petrol-electric production model.
We had a chance to drive the Mazda 3 Hybrid briefly in Japan where it’s just gone on sale.
Unlike a Prius, the Hybrid 3 doesn’t set out to feature a deliberately futuristic shape that won’t appeal to all and instead looks no different to the conventional yet stylish versions of the 3 sedan.
Inside, the interior also mirrors the new 3’s (higher-quality) cabin, with a few subtle differences.
The least subtle is the small gearlever knob on the console that’s similar in shape to the one used in the Toyota, while the instrument panel features a left digital display familiar from hybrid Toyotas. It includes a gauge indicating whether the battery is using power or is charging, and level of battery charge.
The Mazda 3 infotainment display also includes a Toyota-style Energy Monitor graphic that shows when the engine is assisting the Hybrid’s propulsion or when the electric motor is being recharged by regenerative braking.
There’s also an EV mode button to the right of the dash. This encourages the hybrid system to remain in electric-only mode, though as with Toyota hybrids the petrol engine kicks in as soon as speeds rise above about 40km/h or the driver applies more than light throttle.
While there are similarities to the way both the Prius and 3 Hybrid drive, there are also some elements of the Mazda driving experience that felt better during our quick steer.
Toyota has struggled to overcome a side effect of regenerative braking that can create a stiff and uneven brake pedal feel.
The brake feel of the Mazda 3 Hybrid is still firmer than you’d find in a regular petrol-only variant, though it’s easier to modulate the amount of pressure you want when slowing in traffic compared with Toyota hybrids.
This is despite the regenerative brake system being one of the components from Toyota (so Mazda’s own interpretation of the technology – i-Eloop – from the Mazda 6 doesn’t feature).
It’s only in the last phase of braking to a standstill where some consistency is lost, while braking can also be a touch more abrupt than expected if you squeeze the brake pedal a bit more forcefully.
There’s decent, smooth acceleration when you ask for it, with the Mazda 3 not feeling overly burdened by carrying an extra 80kg over the standard sedan – though there was not opportunity for assessing its affect during cornering.
The transition from electric motor to petrol engine is as impressively seamless as we know it in the Prius.
Mazda says it detuned the 2.0-litre engine – from 114kW to 73kW – to focus more on low-rev torque that would smooth the engine/electric motor interchange. (The engine still features the world’s highest compression ratio for a petrol engine, at 14.0:1.)
Combined, the system produces a total of 100kW.
Mazda’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder sounds more refined than the Toyota 1.8-litre employed in the Prius, however, though there’s still some unwelcome noise from the drivetrain as the CVT begins to drone as speeds rise.
Road noise was also loud on our route that included city streets and bridge freeways – on surfaces not dissimilar to those commonly found in Australia.
Boot space also shrinks by more than 100 litres due to the packaging at the rear of the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack (the positioning of which ruled out a hatch version of the hybrid).
Our drive was too short to get any meaningful trip computer readout for average fuel consumption, though an the official Japan figure of about 3.2L/100km would equate to about 4.0L/100km on the Australian cycle to compare with 5.7L/100km for the regular 2.0-litre Mazda 3 sedan.
Australians won’t get to enjoy those fuel savings, though.
Mazda Australia doesn’t intend to import the 3 Hybrid – which carries about a $3000 premium over the 2.0L petrol in Japan – setting out that there isn’t enough “natural demand” for such a car locally.
Mazda says while Toyota is successful in pitching its Prius (and Camry Hybrid) to governments and fleet buyers, it’s a company that is more focused on private buyers.
The lack of a hybrid model is certainly unlikely to affect the Mazda 3’s chances of competing to be the best-selling car in Australia next year, though it's a pity Australians won't get to try a vehicle that neatly marries Toyota's fuel-saving nous with fine Mazda driving manners.