I’m a big fan of Mazda and what they’re doing at the moment. They’re the plucky underdog in the mainstream market fighting against mediocrity. The small company from Hiroshima has been producing some of the best looking, best handling, and most interesting cars in the segments they compete in for the last few years and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. 

Mazda knows a thing or two about producing a good engine. Their rotary engines have become icons in the Japanese car scene, the RENESIS engine in the RX-8 even taking home the title of ‘World Engine of the Year’ in 2003. The 2.3 inline-four turbo found in the MPS cars from the early 00s had power figures comparable to today’s fast turbos fours. 

To add to their list of accomplishments Mazda sought out to perfect the internal combustion engine with their new SkyActiv-X petrol engine. This isn’t a fresh idea, Mercedes had a similar idea back in 2007 with the F700 DiesOtto Concept which used a similar idea promising the benefits and economy of a diesel engine but using unleaded petrol. 

What’s SkyActiv-X? 

Unlike a petrol engine which works by igniting a spark to the fuel-air from the spark plug, it works more similarly to a diesel engine where a leaner fuel-air mixture is compressed and ignited from the pressure and heat alone without the need for a spark. SkyActiv-X makes use of the new Spark Controlled Compression Ignition technology which works by using a leaner fuel-air mixture at a much higher 16.3:1 ratio compared to a regular petrol engine and using a spark to ignite only a small, dense amount of the mixture in the cylinder. It’s also able to switch to a regular spark ignition system under heavy stress. 

It’s not much different to driving a regular petrol engine. It doesn’t behave like a diesel where all the torque is down low and it runs out of steam as you rev it out. It does behave like a rev happy petrol, only one that’s much quieter. No, seriously at idle there’s hardly any vibrations or noise that’d suggest the car is switched on. It’s almost hybrid levels of quiet. It’s amazing. 

Don’t expect crazy power figures, the 2.0-litre naturally aspirated SkyActiv-X engine pumps out 132kW and 240NM of torque, a healthy amount more than the 114kW and 200NM compared to the equivalent 2.0 SkyActiv-G engine. It’s adequate but just doesn’t give you the punch you’d expect from something billed as having ‘turbo diesel pulling power’. The good thing of it being a naturally-aspirated petrol engine though is that it is responsive. It could definitely benefit from hybrid or turbo assistance, which is entirely possible as Mazda designed this engine to be future-proof and work with electrification. 

Mazda’s approach isn’t a shortcut to electrification, they understand to reduce emissions the industry has to continue to perfect and refine the internal combustion engine, thus reducing the overall emissions of a car’s entire life cycle. Mazda believes internal combustion engines will continue to be the base power unit for 85 percent of cars up until 2035. 

The most impressive thing about the SkyActiv-X engine in the Mazda3 was just how close I got to the claimed fuel economy figures. Mazda is all about real-world economy, not controlled tests. Mazda claims an average of 5.2L/100km on the motorway and I got a best of 5.5L/100km. Mazda claims an average of 7.2L/100km in the city and I got a best of 7.3L/100km. Mazda claims a total average of 5.8L/100km and I got a best of 6.8L/100km, which isn’t bad considering I was hardly trying to drive economically. For a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine, that’s mighty impressive. 

How’s the car it’s attached to?

The rest of the new Mazda3 is also mighty impressive. It’s got nice neutral planted handling and rides fairly well. The suspension dampens out smaller bumps well but stumbles on harsher imperfections on the road. You can feel it’s definitely been tuned on the firmer side for more composed handling rather than out and out comfort. That said, I didn’t find it as sharp as the previous generation. That might have something to do with the switch to a torsion bean set up for the rear suspension. The trade off is it’s now softer and rounder around the edges. This is the Mazda3 grown up. 

It’s a solid car and one that’s very likeable. The interior is a huge step up from its predecessor which wasn’t exactly a prison cell to begin with. Materials feel premium and a notable step up (which reflects the step up in price too) though they feel like they’ll last a lifetime. Mazda’s new infotainment screen is crisp and modern while the larger heads-up display is very useful. Thank god for Apple CarPlay being standard. 

As this is supposed to be a practical family hatchback, there’s decent space in the back for three adults at a pinch. You’ll fit a human adult on the middle seat but perhaps it’s better for shorter trips. The stylish tapered rear windows give it a dark claustrophobic feel sitting in the back, however the boot is a decent size at 444L.

Anything you didn’t like? 

I wasn’t too keen on was the thick c-pillar but thank god for blind spot assist. The radar cruise is a nice feature to have but a bit slow to respond if a car pulled away and left too big of a gap people would cut in front causing it slam on the brake. For some bizarre reason my test car’s i-stop kicked in too early. The engine would cut off while coasting to stop before I was completely stationary, which I found infuriating. It’s not something I’ve noticed before in other Mazdas so perhaps this was an isolated fault. 

Should I get one then?

Mazda says SkyActiv-X will be available in New Zealand by the end of the year and will be available in the Mazda3 and CX-30. It depends on pricing because while running costs will be less than the regular SkyActiv-G and won’t require road user charges like a SkyActiv-D. If the outright price is too high it’ll offset any gains you’d get from the better fuel economy. In Japan, there’s a $8,000 difference from the equivalent G and X engine Mazda3. We’ll have to wait and see how Mazda New Zealand will price the SkyActiv-X and for a full road test on Kiwi roads in the near future. But for now, the SkyActiv-X is something we should all look at very closely.

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