New car review

Mazda 3 saloon SkyActiv-X review

How tempting is a new engine format – and a saloon body style – to potential Mazda 3 buyers?

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Design
8
Comfort
7
Driving experience
7
Value for money
7
Safety
9

Summary

The Mazda 3 saloon is attractive but sales are unlikely to rival its hatchback sibling. The Skyactiv-X petrol engine, however, is a very clever bit of kit.

Summary

The Mazda 3 saloon is attractive but sales are unlikely to rival its hatchback sibling. The Skyactiv-X petrol engine, however, is a very clever bit of kit.
 

60-second summary

What is it?
The four-door version of Mazda’s Focus and Astra rival also debuts new engine technology.

Key features
Four doors and therefore more space in the back, more environmentally-friendly engine.

Our view
The Mazda 3 saloon is an attractive new option for buyers of the brand’s Focus and Astra rival and in some ways more practical, offering more rear-seat and boot space than its hatch sister.

The SkyActiv-X engine, meanwhile, is a major advance, with its diesel-like efficiency wrapped up in a petrol package. Whether one goes for the hatch or saloon version of the Mazda 3, the SkyActiv-X should be the default engine choice.

Similar cars

Audi A3 saloon | Citroën C4 Cactus | Fiat Tipo | Ford Focus | Honda Civic 4-DoorHyundai i30 FastbackKia Ceed | Mercedes-Benz A-Class saloon | Peugeot 308 | Renault Megane | SEAT Leon | Skoda Scala | Skoda Octavia | Toyota Corolla | Vauxhall Astra | Volkswagen Golf


Full review

Introduction

The current Mazda 3 is not new to these pages as we reviewed the new fourth-generation hatchback in June 2019. We liked it then, and that sentiment has been broadly shared by most of the UK motoring media. According to The Car Expert’s unique Expert Rating aggregator, it currently holds a very good Expert Rating of 80%, which is fractionally shy of the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus but better than pretty much everything else in this class (see list above).

This latest version, however, is a body shape that is usually not at all popular in the UK, the four-door saloon format favoured only by buyers of premium brands such as Audi or BMW.

Much more important is the engine debuting with this model but also set to be a major part of sales across the Mazda 3 range. The 2.0-litre unit is the first petrol engine to employ Mazda’s SkyActiv-X format, an evolution of the brand’s against-the-grain environmental advances that eschew downsizing for more efficiency within the engine.

Skyactiv-X uses a new technology called Spark Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI) and Mazda claims, with some justification, that it offers diesel-like economy and emissions, but within a petrol engine.

Visually the saloon model certainly brings something new to the Mazda 3 range. Mazda tells us that the four-door shares only its bonnet and windscreen with the hatchback, but it adheres to the same ‘Kodo – soul in motion’ design language as its sister, and is attractive to the eye.

The saloon also shares its wheelbase with the hatch, but overall is 20cm longer, which should translate to improvements in rear seat and boot space – something we marked down in our hatch review.   

  • 2020 Mazda 3 saloon review – front view | The Car Expert
  • 2020 Mazda 3 saloon review – rear view | The Car Expert

Buying and owning a Mazda 3

 
 

Saloon variants of the Mazda 3 are only offered at present with the Skyactiv-X engine, and in four trim levels, dubbed Sport, Sport Lux, GT Sport and GT Sport Tech. With all trim levels the powertrain can be specified with six-speed manual or auto transmissions and the Skyactiv-X is also now available for the hatchback, following the same trim format.

Cheapest saloon is the Sport at £23,555 in manual form (£25,095 as an auto) while the range-topping GT Sport Tech costs £27,575 for a manual and £29,095 for the auto.

As in the previously reviewed hatch the equipment level across all versions is impressive, especially in terms of technology. All cars, for example, get a head-up display projecting vehicle speed, navigation instructions and traffic signs onto the windscreen.

Navigation is standard through a nine-inch screen, while Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also included. Adaptive cruise control comes supplied too, but you do have to go up a level to the £24,875 Sport Lux to upgrade the parking sensors to a reversing camera and gain keyless entry and start.

The Mazda five-door hatch clocked up a five-star safety rating with crash testers Euro NCAP, earning lots of ‘full points’ comments, and the safety specification is repeated with the saloon. Autonomous emergency braking is part of the radar cruise control on all models while blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert come as standard too.

Spend out on a top-spec cars and you get some useful extra safety tech, including Cruising & Traffic Support (CTS) – a variation of adaptive cruise control that accelerates and decelerates the car in traffic jams while also keeping it in the middle of the lane via small steering movements.

Top-spec GT Sport Tech variants also add a braking function to the rear cross-traffic alert, while the standard-fit driver attention alert is upgraded to a monitoring system that uses an interior camera to watch the driver’s face, particularly their eye movements, and gauges whether they might be about to fall asleep at the wheel, alerting them accordingly. 

Inside the Mazda 3 saloon

When we slipped inside the Mazda 3 hatch we liked the quality of construction, with its upmarket-feeling surfaces, and we liked the minimalist driver’s cockpit, which of course is replicated in the saloon.

  • Mazda 3 review 2019 – interior and dashboard | The Car Expert
  • Mazda 3 review 2019 – infotainment and Apple CarPlay | The Car Expert
  • Mazda 3 review 2019 – front seats | The Car Expert
  • Mazda 3 review 2019 – rear seats | The Car Expert

The driver’s essential information is transmitted by three large, traditional dials (though in digital format) mounted in a large pod behind the steering wheel, which is very user-friendly. The infotainment screen is right atop the centre console and so close to the driver’s eye line, but it’s not a touchscreen, operated by a single rotary control which Mazda claims is less distracting than prodding one’s finger on the glass.

What we liked less in the hatch was the interior space, which particularly in the back was somewhat cosy, especially for taller occupants, and with a boot of just 351 litres in capacity. The saloon boot is extended to 444 litres, and the rear seats are generally easier to access, thanks to larger doors. A slightly higher roof line helps free up more space in the rear cabin, and generally it’s more comfortable to travel in the back of the saloon than in the hatch. 

Driving the Mazda 3

So that engine then – Skyactiv-X is set to have a big input into the entire Mazda powertrain line-up (predicted to take 60% of sales) due to its Spark Controlled Compression Ignition. It is also matched to the same mild-hybrid system used by the more conventional Skyactiv-G petrol engine, adding to the efficiency.

Without getting too technical, SCCI allows use of a highly lean and emissions-efficient air to fuel mix, and the engine can switch seamlessly between conventional spark compression and combustion ignition, by using the spark plug to trigger both types of compression in different ways.

Using a precisely injected richer zone of atomised fuel to combust the earlier added lean mixture of fuel and air results in more efficient ignition and as a result significant gains in economy and emissions – the best figures (depending on transmission, wheel sizes and such) are 52.3mpg and just 96g/km of CO2, which are very much in diesel territory.

The engine does not feel like a diesel on the road – in fact at most times it feels no different to a conventional petrol unit. There’s no diesel-like rattle, but neither is there the low-down torque one gets in a diesel. Proper pulling power doesn’t come in until around 3000rpm, although that is better than the 4000rpm of the Skyactiv-G petrol unit.

  • Mazda 3 saloon road test – rear view | The Car Expert
  • Mazda 3 saloon road test – front view | The Car Expert

Acceleration is smooth if not particularly urgent, while cruising along in normal motoring the powertrain is very well behaved.  And if you do tackle that challenging B road the Skyactiv-X will return some of the enrthusiasm that the Skyactiv-G distinctly lacks – though it’s not that exciting…

In terms of handling the saloon behaves no differently to the hatch. In other words it’s highly competent and with a pleasing ride quality that is slightly stiff but not too much. Overall it’s an impressive package. 

Summary

The saloon is an attractive addition to the Mazda 3 choices but it remains to be seen whether it will score with buyers in a way four-door models previously haven’t.

The Skyactiv-X petrol engine, however, will very likely become the most popular powertrain option across the Mazda 3 range as it ticks all the boxes, offering the kind of economy and emissions one expects from a diesel but with none of the stigma now associated with diesel.  

Good points

  • More efficient engine
  • Bigger read and boot space
  • Attractive exterior shape

Bad points

  • Not particularly powerful
  • Innocuous handling

Key specifications

Model as tested: Mazda 3 saloon Sport Lux
Price (on-road): £24,875
Engine: 2.0-litre petrol
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Power: 180 hp
Torque: 224 Nm
0-62mph: 8.2 sec
Top speed: 134 mph
Fuel economy (combined): 50.4 mpg (WLTP)
CO2 emissions: 102 g/km
Insurance group: F/22E
Euro NCAP rating: 5 stars (2019)

Design
8
Comfort
7
Driving experience
7
Value for money
7
Safety
9

Summary

The Mazda 3 saloon is attractive but sales are unlikely to rival its hatchback sibling. The Skyactiv-X petrol engine, however, is a very clever bit of kit.
Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.

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