Go back seventy years or so and you’d be likely to find the average family car came equipped with a gearbox that had just three ratios. By the 1960s, an extra ratio had become the norm and 20 years later, many units were boasting a choice of five, with the top slot regarded as an ‘overdrive’, reserved for more relaxed cruising. Nowadays, six ratios are regarded as the optimum number, but the choice can be greater still in cars with automatic transmission.
Having more ratios available is good news because it means gearing can be more closely matched to road conditions, although it’s still possible to find cars with transmissions that seem to be over-geared when you’re tackling gradients. Or lamentably under-geared during motorway cruising, but even though greater choice is better for the driver, the more logical rationale behind it is the fact that gearing is becoming an increasingly critical element in the motor industry’s response to growing environmental and economic pressures.
Making the most of every drop of fuel has always been a fairly high priority for drivers who appreciate the difference just a few extra miles per gallon can make to the annual cost of motoring. And now that pump prices are rocketing once again, operating economy is gaining renewed significance, whether your travel is for business or pleasure.
So with that in mind, I’m delighted to deliver a little heartening news for anyone with an eye on the bottom line: despite rising prices on the forecourts, it is still possible to enjoy quiet, comfortable and relaxed travel without making too much of a dent on the motoring budget. The Mazda3 I’m testing has just proved it in spectacular style after a 3,500-mile escape from miserable UK weather that took in the sunnier sides of France and Spain. Despite rising prices on the forecourts, our car’s commendably modest average of 62mpg means we completed our holiday touring trip on less than 57 gallons of diesel. I know the eagle-eyed will spot that 62mpg falls short of the claimed combined figure by more than 12mpg, but I regard the ability to cover that distance for less than £290 as a pretty good result, particularly so when the car is a such pleasure to drive and feels as comfortable at the end of a 500-mile day as it does at the start.
While driving style has a big part to play in achieving good economy figures, gearing remains the crucial factor and even though the 1.5-litre engine of the 3 has a relatively modest power output, the lusty dollop of torque it produces at around 1,500 revs allows it to work well with the level of gearing you’d expect with a higher-output unit. As a result, this happy marriage of power and gearing means the car romps up quite steep mountain routes in fourth gear and settles into an impressively subdued motorway demeanour in sixth with the engine spinning at little more than 2,000 revs for most of the time.
One detail in Mazda’s revised interior that’s appreciated during long drives is the excellent provision for cupholders in the roomy centre compartment, but it’s a pity the console armrest lid is not adjustable for height.
Date arrived: 31st October 2016
Fuel economy: 74.3mpg (combined) 62.1.mpg (on test)
Plenty of room for big drinks containers in a handy compartment behind the gear lever.
The height of the centre console lid is fixed and a little too low for some drivers.