September 21, 2014 @ 05:57 PM

Mazda3 - best Mazda four-door car ever?

One complaint that I keep hearing about the 2.0-litre SkyActiv engine is that it has slow pickup. But what if you put the same mill in a lighter body? Words: Chris Ng

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Words & Photography: Chris Ng

There’s a problem, not chronic but no less confounding. Ever since I started the engine, I have not stopped driving except when faced with immense emergency – like filling up the tank and emptying the bladders. I’ve already driven some 400 kilometres in one sitting and it isn’t likely that I will stop anytime soon. I have done two mountains and now on a back road looking for more back roads. By all accounts, this should not have happened, not especially with a car like this.
 
The last time I was this enthusiastic was behind the wheel of a very yellow Porsche Boxster S. Worlds apart isn’t it? Yet, here I am, feeling the same kind of buzz in a Mazda3. In essence, the Mazda3 is a C-segment car, a bread-and-butter product made to churn money in the carmaker’s direction, which usually equate to cars that please the average consumer and don’t make too much of an effort to stand out of the crowd. To cut it short – boring.
 
With that said, the new slew of C-segment cars have shells that are attractive to look at, have features that attempts to make it look upscale, drive decently and return good fuel economy. The Mazda3 has all that but somehow Mazda has made the car better.
 
By now, you should be familiar with the design of the Mazda6; there is quite a number on the road. The Mazda3 isn’t any different from the 6 except that it is smaller in every way – almost as if someone halved everything in the 6 to make the 3. Not everything, mind you, the quality remains high and the finishing is still as precise.  
 
Unlike the Mazda6, the 3 only comes in one engine and one variant. It is the 2.0-litre SkyActiv engine. You really have to give props to Mazda. There exist very few car companies that have courage to develop new engine technologies, much less stick with it. They could have gone with just bolting on turbochargers to their engine to make it sprightly and still yield good mileage. Except that they didn’t.
 
Instead, they’ve turned their backs on any form of force induction and stuck their guns with the good ‘ole naturally aspirated engine.  But it isn’t just any run-of-the-mill engine. These engines have astronomical compression rate of 14.0:1 – something other automobile manufacturers have tried to achieve but ultimately failed to accomplish.
In order to achieve that, Mazda had to redesign the engine itself. While the usual exercise of adding lightness to the engine has been done, it is the rethinking of the piston heads that made it all possible. 
 
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the 2.0-litre mill. You’ll find the same one under the bonnet of the CX-5 and the Mazda6. In both cases, the acceleration of the cars I tested didn’t quite set the blood on fire. It accumulates speed like a steadily-building movie plot that didn’t quite deliver the bang before the credits roll. Both needed the bigger 2.5-litre mill. So, do understand that I was expecting much of the same from the Mazda3 with its 2.0-litre engine.
 
But expectations can be a funny thing because the 3 performed quite the opposite. Simply put, the car is faster everywhere. The acceleration may not be turbo-charge quick, but it picks up speed at an un-boring pace; typical of well-engineered, free-revving NA engines that used to dominate the streets in the 90’s. Unlike the engine of the 90’s, the SkyActiv saved fuel too, greatly aided in part by the i-ELOOP and i-Stop technology. It is as if the 2.0-litre engine was designed and machined specifically for the Mazda3.
 
The six-speed auto – called SkyActiv Drive – shuffles and distributes the 162bhp and 210Nm of torque to the front wheels without hitch. The gearbox dives into the ratios without hesitation and neatly puts the first two gears to work, which gets dispatched quickly without the usual mush of conventional automatics. And it remains creamy all the way to the sixth and final drive.
 
Right about now, the eagle-eyed of us will spot a few things off – compression rate and the power figures don’t quite match up. And you’re right. The 2.0-litre in the Mazda6 has the 13.0:1 compression rate and produces 151hp and 200Nm of torque; all due to the Japanese carmaker not being too sure how our fuel will affect the SkyActiv engines.  Now that Mazda has more confidence in our fuel quality, they’ve decided that the 3 gets the works. Which means, it’ll have the stratospheric 14.0:1 compression ratio and accompanying increase in power. 
 
It’s not a completely different engine. The physical components – conrod, engine block and pistons, for example – are the same. Through clever manipulations of the software with a tweak of the engine’s timing and valve opening and closing. It explains the added quickness of the Mazda3.
 
Then, there’s the issue of the weight. OK, so it is unfair to compare this car to the portlier Mazda6, the 3 weighs 1,292kg light. You’ll feel it especially in the corners. Or rather, you won’t feel it because there isn’t much tilt to combat. Even the understeer has been dialed back plenty, showing only when summoned on purpose. Partner all that with an alert steering and you’ll get chuckable sedan. Funny how it wasn’t too long ago, only small hatches are the only things that can be chucked around. 
 
One more good-bit: it doesn’t ride like a fridge sliding down a flight of steps. That said, the chassis is firm, but you don’t need to stuff pillows down the back of your jeans before driving on choppy roads at speed. There’s plenty of room for the front struts and multilink rears to travel before knocking your stomach up to your lungs.
 
Thus far, Mazda has kept to their Zoom-Zoom philosophy quite well. You have a lively car in terms of power and handling, which doesn’t consume much fuel, and looks like a spaceship. So it is odd that there’s nothing Zoom-Zoom done to the cabin. 
 
Don’t worry, there’s nothing damning about the quality and the comfort levels are delightfully agreeable. I suspect that the interior designer follows the minimalism movement closely, brushing away the usual media buttons, leaving only the three knobs for air conditioning. But here’s the bit that rubbed me raw – the LCD display. It is mounted on the dash just as how premium German brands wont to do these days. It’s really unsightly and feels more like an aftermarket afterthought; might as well get used to it. Nothing wrong with how it works; it might catch a glare from time to time but it is generally easy to read under harsh light. 
 
Another obviously German-inspired is the chrome knob that controls the media screen. It’s called Commander Control and it is more Mercedes-Benz COMAND rather than BMW i-Drive. The device is easy to use and you’ll don’t have to spend an entire afternoon just to get used to the system; it is that user-friendly. Speaking of which, the navigation is surprisingly easy to use and changes graphics when you enter a tunnel or turn the lights on. Ah, but I can’t get over the LCD display.
 
Yet, when you start driving the Mazda3, none of the interior so-called faults matter. The eyes will be fixed on the road, only peeping that the speedo occasionally just to see how fast you’re going around the corner. Astonishing how each facet of the Mazda3 has been designed just to give you that driving-buzz whenever you’re behind the wheel. And the best thing about this – it gets very addictive. 
 
Perhaps, a C-segment sedan does not need to be boring after all. Mazda has proven that you can still drive an everyday car without pulling a long face.

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