First Drive: Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X

If Mazda has anything to do with it, you’ll be hearing a lot more of Skyactiv-X over the coming years, and not just in the new 3 hatch and saloon.

After years of appearing to be falling behind the push to improve the environmental credentials of its cars, Mazda is pushing forward in a big way, and it’s Skyactiv-X in the 3 that’s the opening salvo.

The Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X and a horse.

What you’re looking at might appear to be the regular Mazda 3, a smart saloon that is amongst the best in its class. It’s practical enough and offers a genuinely premium feel when driving it, with a suitably stylish exterior that makes a Ford Focus look a bit frumpy.

But it’s what’s under the bonnet that makes this different. There’s a petrol engine, but it behaves like a diesel. Not that you can see it though, as it’s encased in a plastic cocoon so that it warms up more quickly, and therefore improves efficiency.

That’s just one small part of the steps Mazda’s taken to make this petrol engine as efficient as possible. The big news is how it works with fuel. A regular petrol engine gets fuel and air injected into the engine, it’s compressed, and then a spark creates a rapidly expanding burn to push the piston down. It’s this movement that provides power.

Mazda 3 Skayactiv-X engine

Mazda takes this and adds more tech. Known dryly as Spark Controlled Compression Ignition, it takes less fuel and more air, compresses it around 60% more than normal, and then finally squirts a tiny extra bit of fuel and air near the spark plug. This is ignited, which increases the pressure in the cylinder further, and all the fuel and air then goes boom.

That might not sound particularly impressive, but it’s a technical achievement that numerous manufacturers have been working towards for decades and, so far, only Mazda has managed to make it work.

Display details hat the Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X engine is doing.

The end result is that, under normal conditions, you get petrol refinement, low CO2 and NOx emissions, low particulates, and diesel-like economy.

That’s still not enough for Mazda, which has fitted a 24-volt mild-hybrid system to the car as well. This uses a combined starter motor and generator to recover energy when braking or slowing, and releases that back into the drivetrain to give the engine a free boost.

That means this 2.0-litre petrol-powered family car produces a healthy 180hp, keeps emissions as low as 122g/km, and promises fuel economy of up to 52.3mpg. I’m currently driving a diesel-engined Honda Civic that has 60bhp less power, higher emissions and worse economy.

Real-world results are what really matters though. It’s good news to start with, as it’s near impossible to tell that the Mazda Skyactiv-X engine in the 3 is anything special at all. It’s… normal. Accelerate hard and, thanks to some more technical wizardry, it behaves like a normal petrol car, and uses more fuel as it does so. Stick to what most would consider being normal driving and the engine note is similar to any other engine, with just a slight metallic rasp coming from the distance.

There’s little power at low revs, and it runs out of puff very early at the top end, but that’s to miss the point of the motor. This isn’t a sports car designed to entertain but is a regular family or commuter car that’s going to spend its days shuffling between schools, stations, shopping centres and so on.

And that’s where it’s exactly the same as the usual Mazda 3, which is high praise indeed. The only identifiable difference is an extra display on the dashboard-mounted infotainment display that shows how frequently you’re in the new SCCI mode (Mazda reckons about 80%, and that feels about right) and therefore saving fuel.

It handles fine, if not quite class leadingly. It’s comfortable if not quite the very best. It’s spacious, although some cars are slightly more spacious. It does everything you need such a car to do, and it does it very well, if never quite better than anything else. But as an overall package, the Mazda 3 is right at the top of the class. That there’s now more poke, better economy and lower emissions make it even easier to recommend.

Mazda is convinced the internal combustion engine has a lot of life left in it yet, and this is just the first step along the path to improving its environmental impact. There is a pure-electric car coming from Mazda soon, as well as hybrids and hydrogen fuel-cell-powered models.

Mazda wasn’t falling behind its rivals after all. It was just waiting until it got everything right.

Model Tested: Mazda 3 Skyactiv-X Sport Lux Saloon
Price: £25,600
Range: £21,840 – £32,365
Top speed: 134 mph
0-62 mph: 8.2 seconds
Power: 180 PS (178 bhp)
Torque: 224 Nm (165 lb ft)
Monthly PCP*: £350
Official economy: 52.3 mpg
Road test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 122 g/km
Car Tax: £145
Insurance group: 22E

* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36-month term, 5% APR, final payment of 40%.