It’s all about red lip gloss on the front grille and a twin-turbo diesel behind it with the Mazda 3 XD Astina, the new flagship of the Japanese brand’s ultra-popular small car.
Red signifies sportiness, and the application of it on a front grille has, for example, distanced arch-rival the Volkswagen Golf GTI from more prosaic models for decades. Without a replacement for the turbocharged petrol Mazda 3 MPS in sight, it’s up to the new turbocharged diesel XD Astina to fill the boots of buyers wanting a racier Mazda 3.
Perhaps a comparison with the now-superseded and not-to-be-replaced Golf GTD is closer to the mark. The Mazda 3 XD Astina costs similar money to the old VW – $40,220 for the manual and $42,220 for the auto – which may be expensive enough for buyers to react with a facial expression more like the emoticon ‘:O’ than ‘XD’. Read full price, specifications and a competitor comparison here.
From its 2.2-litre twin-turbocharged diesel four-cylinder, the XD Astina produces 129kW of power at 4500rpm and 420Nm of torque at 2000rpm. The engine is shared with the Mazda 6 and CX-5 which make identical outputs, though the Mazda 3 weighs an appreciable 76 kilograms less than the lightest 6 and is the only one available locally with a manual transmission.
Compared with the former Mazda 3 flagship, the 2.5-litre petrol SP25 Astina that remains on sale, going for the XD Astina adds $4000 to the price and takes away a modest 9kW but adds a sizeable 170Nm.
Combined cycle fuel economy drops by around 20 per cent compared with the petrol, to 5.0 litres per 100 kilometres in manual XD Astina guise, or 5.2L/100km with the auto. The XD Astina shares with the Mazda 6 a system dubbed i-ELOOP, which captures braking energy and stores it in a small capacitor to run the electrics, saving fuel.
You approach the Mazda 3 XD Astina with a clear question in mind: is this a sports-luxury, fast and frugal sweet spot in the popular range? Or is it a very expensive sub-species to a hot-hatch proper?
Other than the splash of red, there’s little to distinguish the XD Astina from the SP25 range that starts from little over $25,000. In fact that the only other signifiers that you’ve paid beyond $40,000 for this Mazda is darker silver on the 18-inch (same design) alloy wheels, black garnish on the rear diffuser, LED foglights and a Skyactiv-D badge on the boot lid.
The biggest difference is when you thumb the starter button. Actually, you’ll have to pay very close attention to hear the difference, at least initially, because this Mazda diesel is perfectly quiet at idle and distantly cultured when revved.
The six-speed manual transmission brings out the best in a superb diesel engine we’ve only previously sampled in auto form. It’s a beautifully oiled and friction-free shift, rowed via a stubby leather-topped gear-lever.
As is the case with diesels, outright performance isn’t the first thing that grabs you; the XD Astina is brisk, but nowhere near in the league of hot-hatches. But the engine is so flexible it pulls from just 1000rpm and maintains both enthusiasm and refinement all the way to its 5800rpm cut-out.
Over a tight and twisty Tasmanian test loop - where we saw a decent 9.9L/100km for the hard-driven manual, and 8.8L/100km for the auto - the XD Astina only occasionally suffered from a power band that is wide for a diesel but still narrow by petrol standards. Sometimes it would be caught over-revving in second gear or providing little throttle response and urge out of bends in third.
The manual is certainly a more sporting choice than the six-speed automatic, though, which is excellent as far as autos go, but doesn’t have a sport mode for racier driving, only a manual tipshifter facility with paddles behind the steering wheel.
This generation of Mazda 3 has softer suspension than the old one, and it’s for the better in terms of ride comfort both around town and on chopped up country roads. The XD Astina is firm but never harsh.
It has beautifully balanced handling, too, good enough that you never really miss the tighter body control and less roll of the previous generation model when hustling hard. The steering is consistently weighted and incisive. But a hot-hatch the XD Astina is not, mainly due to the roll and the lack of purchase from Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres that give up far to early. It is an enjoyable rather than exciting car.
While the Mazda 6 and CX-5 no longer stand-out for being too noisy on a country road, the smaller 3 still does, at least on 215mm-wide tyres (20mm up on the entry Mazda 3 Neo, Maxx and Touring). It is better than the previous Mazda 3, but still quite deafening on coarse-chip surfaces at speed, forcing you to crank up the decent nine-speaker Bose audio system then turn it down on smooth bitumen or at lower speeds.
Hatchback is your only option with the XD Astina, and that means the same 4.46-metre-long body, moderately roomy interior – though rear headroom with a sunroof is at a premium and legroom is average – and below-par 308-litre boot.
The design and quality of the Mazda 3 interior is fine when the price starts with a ‘2’, but it starts to dip below the expected standard when it begins with a ‘3’ and falls a bit out of its depth when another digit ticks over, as is the case here.
There’s nice and supportive leather/Alcantara front seats with heating, but eight-way electric adjustment is standard for the driver only. The dual-zone climate controls rotate with precision, the leather-wrapped steering wheel is a nice and nuggety little unit and the knurled silver-look central tachometer with digital speedometer inside it looks classy.
It’s the details that grate: the four different types of plastic used around the central dash area; the head-up display that uses a small piece of plastic that rises above the dash and reflects the speed in a green, 1980s-looking dotmatrix font that doesn’t match any other in the cabin; and a lack of storage space, including tiny door bottle holders and a shallow tray under the climate controls that barely holds the smart key without allowing it to fly into a front footwell.
On the upside, Mazda’s MZD Connect system is terrific, with a high-mounted high-resolution 7.0-inch colour display that doubles as a touchscreen when the car is stationary. When it’s on the move, a rotary dial on the lower console with multiple shortcut buttons around it works as easily and intuitively as BMW’s iDrive on which it’s clearly based.
App connectivity for functions such as Pandora and Stitcher internet radio is standard, as is satellite navigation, and plenty of buttons on the dash for active safety gear – including systems that check your blind spot and illuminate a light on each wing mirror, let you know if you’re straying from your lane, automatically dip the high-beam if an oncoming car is detected, and beep at you if the car detects a crash then brake automatically even avoiding an accident at low speeds. There’s even active cruise control that will automatically slow the car to a safe distance behind another car in front.
All will be familiar to any current petrol Mazda 3 SP25 Astina owner. But they will have paid $4000 less for their petrol Mazda 3.
For its $40K-plus price tag, the Mazda 3 XD Astina is an interesting proposition. It doesn’t offer the thrills of a hot-hatch nor the refinement and quality of a premium hatch. Conversely, though, it offers more technology and features than any hot-hatch and premium hatch, while blending some fun with economy and luxury.
It’s a great car, but we can’t help but think the superb diesel-manual combination would be more convincing if it were accessible to more people who don’t want all the fruit for a lower price.