Other than using less fuel we haven't seen any real need to buy turbo-diesel engines in small or mid-size cars - until now. That sudden change of mind happened within seconds of us getting behind the wheel of a Mazda 3 with a 2.2-litre SkyActive-D diesel engine. The engine is smooth, has minimal lag and revs far more readily than diesels from all other marques. A sports diesel? Yes, it certainly is.
The big-grille that's such a feature of Mazda's latest styling theme plays a major part in its sales success on every model on which it's used. The all-new Mazda3 is the best iteration yet of this interesting style, at least in my humble opinion.
While it's lower than its predecessors, the third generation Mazda3 is longer overall and in its wheelbase. The resulting shorter overhangs to give it a sportier look. The longer wheelbase makes for more interior space.
The sleek new body not only looks good, but also provides best-in-class coefficient of drag, at 0.28 for the hatch. Part of this low number is due to an 'active' radiator grille shutter that opens just enough to provide just the correct amount of cooling no matter what the outside air temperature.
The exciting new Mazda turbodiesel engine puts out 129kW and 420Nm, numbers that are well above those we normally see in an engine of this type.
Response is spread throughout the rev range by using twin turbochargers. A small unit operates at low engine speeds, it then works with a large turbo at mid-range speeds. At higher speeds the large unit takes over to supply boost to the greater mass of air the engine demands.
This, coupled with a very low compression ratio, it's just 14:1 compared with conventional units that require at least 17:1, to give a nice balance between performance and economy.
The new turbodiesel shows an improvement of up to 12 per cent in fuel efficiency over the previous diesel engine. Mazda's brake energy regeneration system plays its part in this drop in fuel use and emissions.
The i-stop system automatically cuts out the engine after the vehicle comes to a stop. When the brake is released, fuel is injected into the cylinder to make for a smoother restart of the engine than is normal in other four-cylinder units, petrol or diesel.
Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions are offered, our test car had the automatic. Tagged SkyActive-Drive, the auto has a computer link to the engine and cuts engine torque during changes so the car has quick gear changes with minimal shift shock.
In addition to crash protection items, this Mazda3 does its best to stop you crashing in the first place. Major features included Dynamic Stability Control, Anti-lock Braking and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. Then there is Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, High Lane Departure Warning, Forward Obstruction Warning and City Brake Support. A reversing camera cuts the risk of running over someone or something in the driveway.
Mazda3 has a head-up display that projects driving information onto the windscreen directly. We are told the focal point is about 1.5 metres in front of the driver's eye point, we can certainly report that it requires minimal eye movement to focus. The display includes vehicle speed, automatic cruise control speed settings, and navigation.
Also aboard a Mazda3 for the first time is 'commander control', with a central knob and cluster of switches, it's linked to the 7-inch display screen on the central dashboard. Operation requires minimum hand and eye movement and some of the functions also come with voice control. As usual, voice control is in its early days and seldom works well.
Body rigidity on the third generation '3 has been increased by 30 per cent compared to the previous Mazda3. This shows in a solid feel that's almost to the standard of the best Germans in this class. Indeed, you could slot the Mazda into the next level up in terms of sophistication and luxury.
However, on some surfaces tyre noise intrusions – a longtime problem in some Mazdas – spoils cabin ambience. Try for yourself if you're going to be doing a lot of work on coarse-chip surfaces.
Handling is sharp and positive, a further benefit of a stronger chassis on which the suspension components are mounted. You wouldn't call this diesel Mazda3 a sports sedan, but it comes a lot closer than anticipated.
Mazda says the XD is capable of getting fuel consumption as low as 5.0L/100km on the combined urban/highway cycle. However in real life driving we found the figures to be around eight to nine litres per hundred during around town driving, while five to sixes were the norm on the open road. Not bad numbers when you keep in mind this is a sporting vehicle, not an economy special.