Among those who choose their own car, the Mazda 3 is currently the most popular model on the Australian market by a long shot.
It may trail the Toyota Corolla by just 21 units on overall year-to-date figures, but the 3 is well ahead in terms of private sales.
So if Australia clearly likes your product, why not boost your chances of reclaiming ‘best-seller’ status by adding a new range-topping diesel variant?
Mazda has done just that with the new Mazda3 XD Astina, shoehorning the strong turbodiesel from the 6 and CX-5 under the 3’s bonnet to create the best performing but also most efficient 3 you can buy.
The third-generation Mazda3 has been without a diesel option since its February arrival, and unlike the previous MZR-CD diesel that sat within the 3’s mainstream offerings, the new XD Astina diesel has been positioned atop the existing 3 SP25 Astina flagship.
Priced from $40,230 in manual guise, the XD Astina sits a full $4040 above the SP25 Astina, and tops out at $42,230 for the automatic version.
This starting point is also $740 more than the last of the hot MPS model that’s yet to be replaced in the third-generation, but Mazda has thrown the full Astina spec sheet at the XD, plus a few unique touches.
It may not be immediately apparent in photos, but the XD Astina comes with a variety of visual tweaks, including an unashamedly VW Golf GTI-esque red outline to the front grille, a shadow chrome finished version of the SP25 18 inch alloys, LED foglights, and the usually unpainted rear bumper lower section is finished in gloss black.
On the inside, grippier Alcantara seat facings are added to the existing leather trim, and a new SkyActiv-D badge has been added to the tail (and floormats), which is destined for other Mazda diesel models in future.
New to Mazda’s Australian lineup is the Active Engine Sound system. Like similar systems from other manufacturers, this aims to add a sporty flavour to the engine noise by playing a synthesised note through the audio speakers.
The XD Astina also sees the first application of the i-Eloop energy recovery system outside of the larger 6, which reduces alternator drag and therefore fuel use by storing electric charge within an on-board capacitor.
Other existing SP25 Astina features include a the MZD Connect multimedia system with satnav and a reversing camera, an electric sunroof, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, heads-up display, heated external mirrors, auto-dimming interior mirror, power driver’s seat and nine-speaker Bose audio.Front and rear parking sensors are a dealer-fit option however.
The XD Astina is also limited to the hatch bodystyle, with Mazda Australia citing a preference for the five-door shape among performance buyers.
Mazda expects the XD Astina to make up only about 2 per cent of the 3’s sales, but the extra volume could be just the ticket to restore the 3’s best-seller status from 2011 and 2012.
Despite being priced near the faster but less efficient VW Golf GTI, Subaru WRX and Ford Focus ST, the XD Astina’s nearest spiritual rival would be the more sport-focused but auto-only and lesser-equipped $39,790 Skoda Octavia RS 135TDI.
The $34,790 VW Golf 110TDI Highline is another diesel model likely to be cross-shopped with the XD Astina, but while starting cheaper, it is also auto-only and trails behind the Mazda in terms of engine outputs and standard features.
ENGINE / TRANMSISSIONS
The XD Astina’s 2.2-litre SkyActiv-D turbodiesel delivers the same 129kW/420Nm as seen in the 6 and CX-5 diesels, but wrapping it within the smaller 3 body promises semi-hot hatch performance levels.
For context, the XD Astina is about 100kg heavier than the SP25 Astina, but about 100kg lighter than the equivalent 6 diesel sedan, and about 200kg lighter than the equivalent CX-5 diesel that also packs a heavier all-wheel drivetrain.
The previous two generations of Mazda 3 diesel were only available with a Europe-preferred manual transmission, but the new model adopts the clever SkyActiv six-speed auto in addition to the six-speed manual found in the rest of the 3 range.
The XD Astina retains the 3’s standard stop/start system, which along with the rest of the suite of SkyActiv efficiency tech, helps the manual achieve an official combined fuel figure of 5.0L/100km and the auto a similarly impressive 5.2L/100km.
These represent a marginal improvement over the best petrol 3 figures of 5.7L/100km for the 2.0-litre, and 6.0L/100km for the 2.5-litre – both of which are conversely achieved with the automatic transmission. The new XD manual’s combined fuel figure is also 0.7L/100km better than the previous 3 MZR-CD diesel.
Despite the XD diesel’s stronger outputs, the petrol engines’ maximum 1200kg tow rating is unchanged.
The XD Astina carries the same five-star ANCAP rating as the rest of the 3 lineup, with dual front, side and full-length curtain airbags, ABS, EBD, and stability control as standard.
Added safety features shared with the SP25 Astina include blind-spot monitoring, forward collision, lane departure and rear cross-traffic alerts, and auto emergency braking.
The 2.2-litre turbodosel is already well regarded from the 6 and CX-5, but the characteristic diesel clatter at idle seems to be better insulated in the XD Astina than we remember in the larger models.
This relative quietness continues when underway, with little diesel groan under load or as revs climb. This perception is no doubt aided by the Active Engine Sound system, which emits a more discreet petrol-engine like noise than any other similar system we’ve experienced.
Quiet diesel engine and synthetic sound aside, there is still more road noise transmitted through the cabin than with the segment benchmark Golf, despite sharing the same Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres as the top Highline Golf variants.
The new 3 diesel’s kilowatt count may be 9kW shy of the cheaper petrol Astina SP25, but the extra 170Nm or torque is its defining feature.
This 420Nm developed from 2000rpm is also 60Nm more than the old MZR-CD diesel, and 40Nm more than the old MPS hot hatch.
Mazda isn’t making any specific performance claims for the XD Astina, but it’s perceptibly faster than the SP25 Astina from rest and point-to point.
We put the new model through its paces over several hundred kilometres of Tasmania’s east coast, taking in some of the roads used in the Targa Tasmania tarmac rally.
The extra torque helped the XD to make short work of the hilly terrain, with enough herbs to confidently take advantage of brief overtaking opportunities.
The six-speed auto is the one to go for if effortless travel is your preference, but the responsiveness of the 2.2-litre and the quality and precision of the six-speed manual’s shift make the manual a surprising delight to row through the gears.
The abundance of torque helps to mask less than ideal gear selections, and the 3’s compact dimensions combined with mountains of underfoot urge evoke memories of V8 Holden Toranas of yesteryear.
Also reminiscent of V8 Toranas, most of the XD’s extra weight is over the front wheels. This mass can be felt through the steering wheel on turn in, but doesn’t significantly impinge on the nimble dynamics the petrol 3s have been praised for.
This extra weight also doesn't seem to have compromised the 3's dirt-road handling, and over an extended stretch of loose gravel, the XD impressed with its balance and predictability at the limit.
Curiously, the only suspension change over petrol models are larger rear shock absorbers with unique settings, but the sharp but composed ride otherwise feels a match for the SP25s with the same wheel and tyre package.