A Note from the Editor: Stock image has been used in this review.
I've owned this car for about a year and have traveled about 20,000km in that time. I am extremely pleased with the Mazda. It has proven to be reliable, very fuel efficient (although way off official figures as we all expect) and it even looks good, especially in Sonic Silver with the shadow chrome wheels!
I bought the car as a 'daily'. I have another modified car that has spent a fair amount of time in the workshop, and I need to drive interstate from time to time for work, so I needed something quiet, fuel efficient, refined and reliable. I did not want any form of SUV, but was looking at all sorts of cars such as hatches, sportbacks, sedans and wagons.
One of my highest priorities was radar cruise, which was a pain to find in the Euro cars since it is more often than not an option. Trundling through Carsales trying to find that listed as an option is an extremely time-consuming experience. Thankfully, it was standard on the Atenza!
My budget was about $35K, and I was able to buy mine for around that money with less than 10,000km on the clock from a dealership that was only a year old and had the 10,000km service already done. I was prepared to go either petrol or diesel, however I preferred diesel because of its more stable prices and generally better consumption.
However, I did not want a rough, clattery truck-like engine, so it was imperative I test-drove the Mazda before purchase. It is extremely smooth for a diesel, although not as smooth as a lot of the new petrols out there. I have spent a small amount of time in a 2017 petrol Mazda 3 and can confirm that its engine does seem a little smoother and quieter, as expected, but it is only slight.
One of the highlights of this particular engine is its huge torque from just off idle, no doubt due to the 'two-stage variable' turbo set-up it employs. This turbo set-up appears to be a combination of a sequential and compound turbo set-up in that at low rpm, only the small turbo is in operation. At about 2000rpm, the second, larger turbo starts to spool up, but it is in series with the smaller turbo, meaning the air is now being compressed twice.
At higher rpm, the smaller turbo is phased out and only the larger turbo provides all boost. There is no dip in torque during any changeover, and it does seem to provide more boost at very low rpm (under 1500) compared to, say, a Passat that appears to have no boost under 1500rpm, then comes on boost suddenly at this point.
I really think this turbo set-up ought to be used on more diesel cars (and maybe even petrols?) as it is relatively inexpensive (using two single-scroll turbos), and I think it works better than a single VGT set-up. I have since found that quite a few Euro cars use this two-stage variable turbo set-up such as the BMW 335d/535d, Audi SQ5 or A7 Biturbo, Mercedes 2.1L TT diesel, to name a few.
The throttle control is very linear and boost response is almost immediate, unless pushing hard above 2000rpm where it does take a second or two for full boost to hit. However, this is essentially unimportant as the car isn't meant to be pushed hard through the bends (it's not a sports car!). Under normal driving conditions it almost feels like a large-capacity V6. Although it is redlined at 5500rpm, revving the engine much higher than 3500rpm is almost pointless as it still runs out of puff like most other diesels.
I really like how the car drives. It feels like you are sitting 'in' the car rather than 'on' it as so many journos say. Probably because of the high waistline, which personally I do not have a problem with, however I can see that some people may have a problem with this due to reduced visibility when parking or in tight spaces.
The electrically assisted steering does provide good feedback and weighting, although the wheel itself is a little thin for my liking. There are many buttons on the wheel, but I have learned where they all are. I also love the positive touch of the buttons around the iDrive-style rotary controller.
The transmission works very well with the engine. It does try to keep the torque converter locked as much as possible, and thus sometimes feels like a manual or DSG. It makes the car more immediate in its throttle response, because the revs are being held rather than dropping to near idle if the torque converter is not locked. It does mean more engine braking, though.
Incidentally, I have seen the tacho 'lie', in that it is displaying where it would be at that point in time, but I can clearly hear the engine is revving much higher! I have found this is generally after the transmission shifts into second gear when the torque converter has not yet locked. This is just an interesting observation and doesn't really have any impact on the driving experience.
Suspension-wise, the car rides quite comfortably most of the time, but on sharper bumps it can be a little harsh. However, I have found that any car can feel harsh or plush when compared to what you're used to. In my case, I'm used to fairly stiff suspension, however it is never bone-jarring.
I can feel the Mazda's shocks are not as finely tuned as what I would like – for instance, going over steel speed humps in shopping centres. The rear shocks really jolt the rear passengers, whereas in my other car, although it has an overall stiffer set-up, the rear shocks feel more comfortable under certain situations. However, overall, I feel the suspension tune is well sorted and is great on a long journey. I never feel sore or tired after a three-hour-plus drive.
The radar cruise control is brilliant. It is extremely smooth and quite intelligent. For instance, if I am in the left lane waiting to overtake the car in front, and there is a car passing me on the right, I can move into the right lane while that car is closer than the car in front, yet it will accelerate as it realises I am overtaking. It is also quite good at calculating which lane cars are in, so it doesn't needlessly apply brakes when other radar cruises might if they think you are coming up behind a car in another lane.
The headlights are also excellent. They are a quasi-matrix-style LED set-up with two beams per side that can individually fade in and out according to what the camera thinks are other cars. Sometimes it is fooled by cats' eyes or street lights, but for the most part it is great. They are by far the best lights I have ever used. The high beams must travel several hundred metres and flood the road at a very wide angle on either side too.
The sound system is quite good given the price of the car and that it is the standard system. It has plenty of bass, although I think the placement of the woofers in the front doors is the cause of many rattles. Underneath the front seats à la BMW would have been a better idea. Also, the bass extension (lower frequency response) is not great, but the amount of bass is plentiful even on the 'flat' bass/treble settings.
The use of a front centre speaker rounds out the sound stage, so that it doesn't sound like you're listening to two distinct left/right hand speakers, but it could do with a bit more directionality. This is being extremely picky, however, and I am sure the system will please the majority out there. I do not feel the need to upgrade it, but I am simply comparing it to other (optional, more expensive) systems, which is a little unfair given this is a standard system. I would rate it quite highly for a standard system.
There are a few little nitpicking points I would like to raise. No car is perfect! These are just some things I feel should be addressed given the RRP of this car.
1. No puddle lights. This is a 'nice to have', but to me they are extremely useful. Reading the user manual, there should be a way to have the lights turn on when the unlock button is pressed on the keyfob, however I have not yet been able to get this function to work.
2. The infotainment system is sometimes a little buggy and slow. I have just had the firmware updated and this appears to have fixed most bugs. Once particularly annoying bug was the fact that it would not reconnect to my phone's WiFi in order to display online data such as live traffic or weather. It would connect the first time, then refuse to connect every time after that.
In the end I gave up trying and have not retested after the firmware update, since my free trial of online services has expired. Another annoying bug was where my music would start from the first file on my USB key rather than resuming from where it last let off. I suspect this may have been due to the length of some of the tracks I was listening to, however it appears to have been fixed in the firmware update.
3. Seat cushions are a little short. I am about 180cm tall and I feel that my thighs need a little more support from the seat base. Mazda should consider adjustable-length seat bases like a few Euro cars use.
4. No front passenger adjustable lumbar support. I find this a little inexcusable on a car of this price. It was enough to make my dad complain on an hour-long journey!
5. No rear door or footwell lights. Again, this is something that should be standard on a car of this price. It just cheapens the look and feel of the car slightly.
6. No way to reset the 'low oil pressure' light. The user manual states that in the diesel (only), this light can double as an oil quality light, which in itself is a little daft given there is a 7.0-inch touchscreen perfectly capable of displaying errors. In fact, to make matters worse, the touch screen does mention that a warning light is lit, but it still doesn't tell the driver whether it is due to low oil pressure or poor oil quality!
As it turns out, if the car has not been serviced at a Mazda dealership, the light may come on prematurely, meaning that the workshop who performed the last service was unable to clear the oil quality light. When the light appeared 1500km prior to my scheduled service, I decided to take my car into my preferred workshop to be doubly sure it wasn't some other problem. The workshop said they'd performed whatever oil light reset procedure their computer could do, but couldn't guarantee it would work.
The user manual also states a method to clear this light, however it does not work either. As it turned out, the light did turn itself off after a couple of hours of driving after the workshop service, where they had replaced the oil, however I had already booked myself into the Mazda dealership to have them reset the light. When I questioned the Mazda dealership about why the user manual procedure did not work, they said that the procedure was for "something else" and that "only Mazda dealerships can perform this reset procedure", which is unacceptable to me. They charged me 30 minutes labour ($70) to reset the oil light! This should not be allowed.
7. The active DPF (Diesel Particular Filter) regen uses a lot of fuel, essentially destroying your fuel economy. It will use nearly double the normal fuel use for about 10 mins if driving on the highway, or possibly 20-plus minutes if in stop-start driving with shorter trips. I can tell when the regen is happening as the i-Stop light disappears. The engine also becomes noticeably rougher under load, under 2000rpm. However, it appears to idle much smoother.
8. Road noise on rough tarmac. This is something that has been mentioned by journalists for many years, and it appears that Mazda doesn't want to address it. It is intrusive on some surfaces to the point that I need to turn the music up quite loud, and on a long trip this does become tiresome. On smooth tarmac, there is little wind or road noise.
Time to wind this review up! It may appear that I have a lot of bad points marked against the car, but truth be told, I think it is an excellent car for the money. Yes, there is definitely room for improvement, but overall I feel that this is a very high quality, well built and reliable car, and excellent value for money.