Ever tightening legislation governing tailpipe emissions is prompting car makers to put a new spin on the old motto that small is beautiful, with a fresh breed of lower friction, more efficient turbocharged three-cylinder engines. But instead of downsizing their power units, boffins at Mazda have taken a different approach to making their cars kinder to the environment, as well as going further on every gallon.
It’s not the first time the firm has bucked the trend in the way it approaches solving problems. Long after the rest of the motor industry gave up working on the Wankel rotary engine, Mazda’s inscrutable engineers persisted with efforts to find solutions to a catalogue of difficult technical issues relating to emissions, economy and reliability. It took them a long time, but their diligence paid off with some exciting, high-revving sports models, and this year, they are expected to unveil a new generation rotary motor. Seen as the next stage in the companyís SkyActiv engineering programme, and thought likely to go under the bonnet of an RX-8 replacement ñ the production version of the slinky two-door RX-Vision concept car revealed at the 2015 Tokyo motor show. The latest engine is set to break cover after half a century of painstaking work to perfect the rotary principle.
But back to the present. The Mazda3 I’m driving may well feature less dramatic features from the SkyActiv repertoire, but they’re proving to be nonetheless effective in terms of fuel-stretching. Work carried out on a raft of measures to cut friction has resulted in a motor that still employs four cylinders, but runs much more smoothly and is more efficient by a considerable margin, with consistent average returns on the better side of 60mpg. Another sign of increased efficiency is the short space of time it takes the motor to reach operating temperature after being started from cold. This is another one of those details that becomes important in the quest for maximum economy, and Iím impressed that after the engine is fired up in sub-zero conditions, heat soon begins to come from the air vents to warm the cabin and the blue temperature tell-tale light on the instrument panel goes out after around one mile. Thatís a far cry from the three or even four miles Iíve noted from other diesel cars in the not too distant past, and very welcome at this time of the year.
Notably well behaved, this 1.5-litre unit is also exceptionally quiet and plays a key role in driver engagement, making the 3 a rewarding car to drive by displaying the characteristics of a petrol engine in its smooth-running, willingness to spin and subdued demeanour throughout much of its rev range. Except for a slight and distant rumble on initial start-up, it performs with such a high degree of overall refinement that so far, most of the passengers I’ve carried have expressed surprise when theyíve seen me reaching for the black pump at the filling station.
A welcome detail in the cabin is the provision of twin USB connection points inside the armrest, which means two items can be powered at the same time, although it is a pity that thereís no connection point provided in the boot.
Date arrived: 31st October 2016
Fuel economy: 74.3mpg (combined) 60.3mpg (on test)
The armrest houses not one, but two USB outlets.
There’s no provision for plugging in an electrical cool box in the boot.