High-­achieving engine gives Mazda3 wings

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The new Mazda3 has adopted a European attitude to active and passive safety measure applications. Photos supplied

The quality of a given technology is surely proven when a key rival is driven to seek to buy into it.

That seems the future for Mazda's SkyActiv technologies, which centre on petrol engines that run at higher than usual compression and diesels that go the other way, to achieve superior economy and performance efficiency.

Introduced during recent economic hard times, when all other makers were belt­-tightening, Mazda's SkyActiv was a bold stroke that required a complete overhaul of the company's production line, its global manufacturing footprint and its product.

Now Mazda's leap of faith is reaping rich results, with the rollout of the SkyActiv suite of powertrain, chassis and body technologies perfectly timed with an improved economic climate and there has been high acceptance.

The customers aren't just car buyers either, with the potential golden ticket being Toyota's interest in the SkyActiv technology: within a couple of days of New Zealand's most important SkyActiv moment ­ the release of the Mazda3 ­ came news from an American specialist publication that Japan's No.1 wants a SkyActiv engine for the next Yaris.

That will be further good news for Mazda, which is already en route to announcing an unprecedented profit on the back of a stellar year of performance globally.

One star market ­ at least in percentage terms ­ has been New Zealand. Mazda here has been a particular winner during a period of fantastic growth for new­car sales. Last year's result was a 12.6% gain on the 2012 tally, in a period when the national average was 12.4%. This year looks to offer even better prospects.

Standout luminaries of the past 12 months have been the cars that have done Mazda proud internationally ­ the CX­5 compact SUV, the 6 (in defiance of a depressed medium market) and the BT­50 in the booming one­tonne ute sector.

But these, by Mazda NZ's own admission, are supporting players. The true driver is the Mazda3.

This small (by category ­ it's more medium by size) sedan and hatch is the brand's global No.1, with four million sold.

Mazda NZ has declined to be specific about its sales forecast for the just-­landed third­-generation model, yet the pricing and model provisioning of a big model line now comprising four sedans and five hatchbacks in 2.0­litre GLX and 2.5­litre GSX, SP25, SP25 Limited trim, all but one (a manual SP25) matched to a six-­speed auto, speaks volumes for its expectations.

While the SkyActiv technology and Kodo ''Soul of Motion'' styling are the headline advancements, what impressed equally during a first drive of New Zealand­-spec cars is that this product has adopted a European attitude to active and passive safety measure applications.

In addition to having all the usual acronyms, it joins the Focus, Golf and Volvo V40 in the availability of forward-­facing radar, which can alert the driver to an imminent collision and even apply the brakes automatically in an emergency, and integrated active cruise control. Most versions have rear vehicle monitoring and lane departure warning systems that also use sensors to help avoid collisions. (Interestingly, Mazda has eschewed the Euro trio's auto parking feature that would not have been too difficult to implement, as it also uses those sensors).

On top of this, there's a solid five­-star Ancap crash test score with an impressive, near­-to-­perfect 36.4 out of a possible 37.

The Kodo ethos sits especially handsomely here. The sharp headlamps, bold grille and rakish profile suit the relatively pert dimensions (mainly unchanged from the previous model, though a longer wheelbase and improved packaging means there's more space in all dimensions for passengers). The notchback sedan is as handsome as the hatch.

The interior generally takes a big step forward in terms of interior presentation and the perception of quality. The furry headlining and hard lower plastics are old­school but all you face and touch most ­ metal-­look highlights, nicely textured plastics and a clear but detailed instrument cluster ­is very smart.

The ace feature is a seven-­inch tablet­-style centre screen mounted atop the dash that is mainly operated by using a control wheel and buttons near the handbrake but touch­-enabled when you are parked. The top trim levels also get a flip-­up heads-­up display, projecting information on the windscreen into the driver's line of sight.

Standardising the centre screen also allows Mazda NZ to offer app­-based internet radio, still rare fare here, and sat nav. Only the fleet-­ready GLX lacks mapping as standard, but as the hardware is in­built, activation simply requires a data­-loaded, dealer­-sold SD card for $800. This encrypts specifically to the chosen car, so avoiding potential for illegal copying or car­-to-­car sharing.

The 3's chassis has great delicacy and balance, as befitting its sporty look; despite a big difference in tyres, the GLX hatch mainly felt as secure nipping and tucking through bends as the SP25 Limited sedan on a fatter, grippier compound.

One aspect that will require further consideration at road­test time is the feel of the electric power steering at speed: it goes from being light at slow pace to almost becoming over­heavy at dead centre when pushing along. While the GLX's 16­inch wheels look too small for the body, they lend a suppleness less obvious on the 18­-inch-shod showboat.

Will tables turn on powerplant choice? Both engines are rev­happy and sound sweet, yet the 2.5­-litre emphatically demonstrated a richer, broader torque band and so partners more confidently with the automatic. It's not a lot heavier for fuel burn and, of course, idle stop­start is also standard.

High-­achieving engine gives Mazda3 wings
At a Glance

MAZDA3

Prices: $32,795 to $47,495

Engines: 1998cc four­-cylinder direct injection 16­valve DOHC, maximum power 114kW@6000rpm, maximum torque 200Nm@4000rpm; 2488cc four­cylinder 16­valve DOHC, maximum power 138kW@3800rpm, maximum torque 250Nm@3250rpm

Transmission: Six-­speed manual (SP25 Limited), six-­speed automatic

Brakes and stability systems: Disc/disc, ABS, SBS, EBA, ESC

Wheels, tyres: 205/60 R16 to 215/45 R18

Fuel and economy: 5.8 to 6.5 litres per 100km on Australian Design Rules cycle; capacity 51 litres

Dimensions (sedan/hatch): Length 4580/4460mm, width 1795mm, height 1450mm