Mazda3 2019 overseas preview drive
The new Mazda3 might be the generation that conquers the small car market.
And Mazda doesn’t have to work too hard to get there, with the existing Mazda3 one of the country's best-selling passenger cars ever since it arrived in 2013, in an everlong battle with the Toyota Corolla and, more recently, the Hyundai i30.
But perhaps the new 3 will transcend itself, chasing benchmarks beyond its own realm.
See, according to Mazda, there was no benchmark for the all-new Mazda3. That is to say, it was not chasing any competitors to make sure this fourth-generation car was good. Insisting the only benchmark it needs is its own theoretical ideal vehicle – built around the mechanism of the human body working in unison, Jinba-ittai – this new Mazda3 might just be the most convincing sign yet that the Japanese maker is going upmarket. Or losing its mind.
The workshop for the Mazda3’s vehicle dynamics was as unorthodox as any. It was orthopaedic. A small-scale human skeleton sat in front of Mazda’s human movement specialist and four wired engineers lay the bones to what would become Skyactiv Vehicle Architecture – the new platform under the Mazda3 and all known coming models will sit on.
The fundamentals are simple in theory – a person walking down the footpath simply pulls out a mobile phone and reads a message without any thought to the fact that it’s easy to do, but we’re told the body is bobbing and swerving with up to 20mm of erratic motion that should result in a blurry mess. Countering all of this stray movement is counter-balance in the human’s vertebrae, hips, and joints.
Why not translate those core body areas – the stabilised upper body and counter-balancing lower part – to the structure of a car, said the engineers. So they did.
Without the Jinba-ittai woffle, vehicles already do this with pliable suspension, dampers, quality rubber tyres and a stiff upper-chassis. And for whatever reason, (probably the 78 per cent stiffer body, 18 per cent softer tyres, thousands of new contact points, bespoke torsion beam rear-end and specially-formulated rubber bushes) the new Mazda3 does indeed feel the better car.
But it’s not just the ride quality that’s changed, it’s the complete package. Noise, vibration and harshness was another focal point, with a new two-wall structural shell separating the cabin from the exterior on newly patented rubber mounts. Much like how a crack in a window will fill a room with noise, engineers went to long lengths to remove the smallest of holes and unnecessary seams – we’re told a hole one per cent the size of the entire body equates to 30 per cent noise transmission inside. It means items like the speakers, nearly always mounted in the doors, are now mounted in the front wheel arch cowl, and tweeters have been specially positioned so there is no cut-out in the door skin.
It results in the audio quality being higher than before and unwanted noises lowered. Even over coarse, poorly finished surfaces with the wider 215mm, 18-inch winter tyres, the sound suppression from the road was very good – probably class leading. And the audio quality in the standard eight-speaker system is very tight, with customised staging for either the driver when alone or the whole cabin to enjoy together, reproducing tracks with clarity on full volume or low. The optional 12-speaker Bose system pushed bass and mid-range fidelity even higher.
For a new model on new architecture with so much new tech, details were surprisingly hard to come by, swept under the rug in favour of all the work done on making the car more human.
For starters, it introduces a Mazda first – driver monitoring assist – that’s similar to Subaru’s similar system but works less intrusively. Using an infrared camera with LEDs it monitors driver facial orientation and eye movement, detecting either drowsiness or distraction (like looking at a mobile phone), and will either alert the driver ior engage safety systems such as forward collision warning earlier if distracted. For now, it won’t tell you to get off your phone.
The design of the cabin also focuses on keeping the driver less distracted – the infotainment system sits higher up and further into the dash than before, and the clear heads-up display incorporates traffic sign recognition that can also automatically set a speed limiter for cruise control as it passes signed speed limits. It also has a full 360-degree birdseye-view camera, something usually reserved for larger vehicles.
In a traffic jam, the Mazda3 introduces semi-autonomous driving assist, that will steer, accelerate and brake the car, following a leading vehicle without lane markings at speeds up to 60km/h.
Add to this front cross-traffic alert, another first, and there’s plenty of new technology being introduced that this segment has not yet seen. We just don’t know what we’ll get in Australia until final specifications are confirmed, including the availability of new engines.
What's it like inside?
The new hatchback’s design, with a wide curved C-pillar that bucks the conservative drop-back style in this segment, made waves when it was first unveiled. For some it was a step too far, for others it is simply handsome. But it’s the sedan, currently making up a smaller proportion of Mazda3 sales, that’s really worth a closer look.
Parked next to the Mazda6 it is not much smaller but conveniently so, growing 75mm longer with a 25mm longer wheelbase (also enjoyed by the hatchback) to 4662mm in total length. The boot grows almost 10 per cent from 408 to 444 litres and there’s a bit more room all-round. Styling-wise, at the rear, it looks contemporary and sharp, and as a workable small family car or a replacement for a small-to-mid-size sedan, it’s an attractive proposition.
Unfortunately, the hatchback goes in the opposite direction, somehow shrinking its boot from 308 to 295-litres – a bit of a faux-pas that also suffers in the current CX-3. Perhaps a sacrifice for that rear-end shape and extended wheelbase.
There’s an eye on detail elsewhere though, with the wipers hiding under the bonnet and an increasing wiper blade angle as they move to more effectively sweep away water.
The interior is ergonomically and visually better too, with an upmarket and refined feel. Soft double-stitch suede material crosses the dash and shapely curves on top incorporate a much nicer 8.8-inch infotainment screen.
The entertainment system also brings a new iteration of Mazda Connect software that is easier to use and looks slick, adding handy features like the complete owner’s manual in digital format at the push of a button. It’s also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible.
Buttons and switches have likewise been overhauled, with nicer touch points that are solid in use and with less of a plastic clickety feel. The rotary controller has more functions to bring up menu items and the volume knob can also be pushed to the sides to either skip tracks or hold and fast forward music.
The seat offers more adjustment in this generation, designed to feel more comfortable and naturally fitting, and with an additional 70mm of telescopic range the small car is good for accommodating most size bodies (Mazda says there is a natural for fit for anyone between 1500-1900mm tall). And the steering wheel itself has some simple elegance about it.
The materials selected work nicely together, including Mazda’s new spin on beige and grey tones – ‘greige’ – but it remains to be seen how potentially sparse the base model will feel.
What's it like to drive?
We drove the new hatchback and sedan, powered by the Skyactiv-G 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre engines with six-speed manual and automatic transmissions respectively.
The Skyactiv-G engines are similar to the current powertrain line-up – nothing like the innovative Skyactiv-X that is coming late-2019. However, the 2.0-litre, a naturally-aspirated petrol motor producing 114kW and 200Nm, will be available with the new ‘M Hybrid’ system that also compliments the 2.0-litre Skyactiv-X engine.
Essentially a very mild electric hybrid that uses a larger 24volt lithium-ion battery and belt-driven integrated starter generator, it powers both the electrical system and supplements low-end torque requirements to improve fuel efficiency. In this configuration, the engine produces a milder 90kW of power but gruntier 213Nm of torque.
Mated to a six-speed manual it is a spritely engine, with a free-revving nature and good power in the middle of the rev range. It's breathless up top, slowing at high speeds on the test loop’s mountain pass, but good around town and when not pushing on enthusiastically, resulting in a combined fuel consumption rating of 6.3L/100km.
The hybrid system is barely noticeable, including when the engine stop-starts - a benefit of these systems as the starter motor doesn’t kick over abruptly. The manual transmission is also very slick, with a solid mechanical operation through the gate and nice clutch feel.
The 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, also naturally-aspirated, gains 1kW and 2Nm to produce 139kW and 252Nm in a revised state of tune. With a retuned six-speed automatic – the same unit Mazda has been using for years – it has more punch than the 2.0-litre, particularly at higher engine speeds, but with less charm, and it doesn’t gain any of the M Hybrid technology to improve fuel efficiency.
Naturally less engaging than the manual, the automatic can be controlled via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but they don’t equate to a rapid change of gear. It is, however, a cruisy and smooth transmission that operates without fuss on suburban roads.
Wheel options are either 16-inch or 18-inch alloys, fitted with 205/50 and 215/45 rubber respectively. While expecting a harsher ride on the larger alloys the compliance was well damped, and the compromise between dynamic ability and bump absorption feels nicely balanced. Pushing around corners there is sharp, concise and smooth steering feel from the front with quick and predictable response to corrections and bumps.
The 2.5-litre sedan and 2.0-litre hatch on test were in different US and Europe specifications, which affects the steering calibration that was nicer on the Euro-tune hatch than the US-spec sedan, but both share the same McPherson strut front-end with a torsion beam rear. The latter differs to the usual setup as it has been designed to incorporate the upcoming all-wheel-drive system – potentially coming to Australia though yet to be confirmed.
Adding the significant improvement in noise supression when cruising and the overall driving experience is much more pleasant than before, with the underpinnings of a dynamic car that, for now, only lacks better punch and poise to scare warm and hot hatch rivals in the segment.
What';s the first impression?
While yet to be revealed with its much anticipated Skyactiv-X engine in final specification, the new Mazda3 already feels like it will bring the same well-rounded polish as the CX-5 did when it triumphed in the mid-size SUV market. The focus on refinement has raised the bar for the small car segment in some areas, particularly NVH, and its look, regardless of opinion, is brave and stands completely unique.
Working against Australian-spec vehicles could be limited drivetrain options until the Skyactiv-X engine arrives, with the 2.0-litre motor we tested potentially arriving without M Hybrid, which is a more sedate feeling buzz box mated to the automatic transmission in standard tune.
Either way, the new Mazda3 is a breakaway model in Mazda’s passenger car lineup, setting the tone for a more sophisticated future.
2019 Mazda3 Price and Specifications
Price: From $25,000 (estimated)
On-sale: April, 2019
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol / 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 114kW / 139kW
Torque: 200Nm / 252Nm
Transmission: Six-speed manual/automatic, FWD
Fuel use: 6.3L/100km
Alex Rae is Drive’s Melbourne based reporter with over 10 years’ experience in the automotive industry as a photographer and journalist. Having studied both engineering and the arts, Alex understands what makes things tick while appreciating that sometimes it’s all about form over matter…