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Mazda 3 2020 review: X20 Astina Skyactiv-X

You'd never know this Mazda3 hides revolutionary engine tech under its hood.
EXPERT RATING
8.3
It's not often manufacturers go out of their way these days to extend the life of humble naturally aspirated engines. Mazda has tackled the issue head-on, but will you be able to tell the difference? We find out.

You get exposed to a lot of cutting-edge technology doing this job.

We get to drive new drivetrain technology all the time as manufacturers are racing to get their emissions down – usually it has to do with electrification or hybridization.

What’s especially rare about the new tech sitting under the bonnet of this unassuming Mazda3 is its sole purpose seems to be extending the life of the combustion engine beyond its previously imagined use-by date.

It does so by blending some of the principles of diesel combustion technology with the latest in computer-controlled fuel-injection methods.

It’s a distinctly different approach to the future from the Japanese brand, so what’s ‘SkyActiv-X’ all about? Will you notice a difference? Does it drive well? And, what else is in the box?

We tested a Mazda3 SkyActiv-X for several days at its Australian launch to answer these questions, and more.

Mazda 3 2020: X20 Astina M Hybrid
Safety rating
Engine Type2.0L
Fuel TypeRegular Unleaded Petrol
Fuel Efficiency—L/100km
Seating5 seats
Price from$41,590

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?   7/10

The future isn’t cheap, and the new Mazda3 wasn’t a cheap car to begin with.

The new SkyActiv-X engine will be sold in just one trim level, the top-spec Astina, and will carry a $3000 premium over an identical car with the old naturally aspirated 2.5-litre ‘G25’ powertrain.

It makes for an MSRP of $41,590 in automatic form, as tested here. Mazda’s new premium push has compounded with the extra cost of the new engine to put the price dangerously close to premium car levels. A new BMW 1 Series, for example, can be had for $45,990.

It has to be said at this Astina grade, Mazda packs in the equipment. Standard fitment includes 18-inch 'gunmetal' alloy wheels, an 8.8-inch multimedia display (not a touchscreen) with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, built-in nav, digital radio, and Bluetooth connectivity, a slick Bose audio system, leather interior trim, full LED front lighting, heated auto-folding wing mirrors, push-start ignition, keyless entry, a sunroof, and a 360-degree top-down reversing camera.

  • The headlights are LEDs. The headlights are LEDs.
  • The X20 Astina comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels. The X20 Astina comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels.
  • The 8.8-inch multimedia display is not a touchscreen. The 8.8-inch multimedia display is not a touchscreen.
  • Behind the steering wheel is a semi-digital dash. Behind the steering wheel is a semi-digital dash.

There are some above and beyond additions, too, like a holographic head-up display, semi-digital dash, and a truly thorough safety suite. Alarmingly though, despite the electrical system overhaul, this Mazda is still missing advanced connectivity like USB-C and wireless charging. Seems like a petty complaint, but still one I’m going to make in the context of an over $40K hatchback.

The SkyActiv-X grade has a mild-hybrid system backed by a lithium ion battery which helps to power on-board auxiliary systems and "assist the engine." Unlike hybrid tech from Hyundai or Toyota, however, this system does not directly drive the wheels.

This is the clincher, really. The problem this car will face is being unable to take buyers away from hybrid Toyotas which are far more competitively priced, boasting even better fuel consumption.

Is there anything interesting about its design?   8/10

There’s nothing interesting about the SkyActiv X’s design at all. In fact, from the outside, the only way you’d be able to tell this car apart from a regular Astina is the SkyActiv X badge on the back. There are no funky eco-look wheels, coloured pinstripes, or sticker-work as some other brands choose to go with.

From the outside, the only way you’d be able to tell this car apart from a regular Astina is the SkyActiv X badge on the back. From the outside, the only way you’d be able to tell this car apart from a regular Astina is the SkyActiv X badge on the back.

I hope you weren’t trying to impress your neighbors with your damn-fangled engine tech then, because they’ll be none the wiser. Then again, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell a Hybrid Corolla apart from a regular one, so maybe subtlety is key here.

Inside is the same deal. There are no badges, alternate trims, or coloured highlights to let you know you’re in something a bit different.

The most significant change on the inside is buried two menus deep in the multimedia system. It’s a new energy monitoring screen to add to the fuel monitoring suite which shows you how power is being used in the car, and importantly, whether or not the engine is using the special combustion technology. There are some conditions on it which we’ll explain later.

Inside, the X20 Astina is the same as any other high spec Mazda 3. Inside, the X20 Astina is the same as any other high spec Mazda 3.

So, it’s not special to look at, but does it need to be? Most people would say no. We all know the Mazda3 is a great looking car (arguably one of the best in this segment) whether you choose the sedan or hatch, so at least you won’t have to make a drastic style choice either way.

How practical is the space inside?   7/10

Again, no major changes to report here. The Mazda3 remains the same as before inside and out when it comes to dimensions. This means healthy space for front occupants, complete with lovely soft leather-clad trims on the doorcards and centre console for your elbows.

There are two smallish cupholders somewhat clumsily placed in front of the shift lever, a small binnacle in front of that, a large centre console box, and useful bins in the doors.

The pared back design makes for ergonomic button controls. Mazda’s dial-controlled media system takes a bit of getting used to, especially when using CarPlay or Android Auto, but some prefer it. Rear visibility is less compromised in the sedan as tested compared to the closed-in space which features on the hatch.

Back seat occupants get average legroom for the class. Back seat occupants get average legroom for the class.

Back seat occupants get average legroom for the class, although they will benefit from the same relatively lavish soft leather-trimmed surfaces.

Boot space continues to be an issue for the hatchback with 295L, while opting for the sedan as tested here will well and truly solve the issue as it offers 444L.

Boot space in the sedan is rated at 444 litres. Boot space in the sedan is rated at 444 litres.

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?   9/10

Here’s where it gets interesting. The SkyActiv-X X20 drivetrain is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder non-turbo petrol engine.

The trick? It blends the principles of spark plug ignition with that of diesel combustion ignition. Now to be clear, sparkless ignition would be the holy grail here, and that’s not quite what this engine does.

Mazda calls the tech spark-controlled compression ignition. It works by blending a lean mix of predominantly oxygen on the intake stroke in with a second injection of much richer fuel when the cylinder reaches close to its maximum compression. The spark plug then fires, and Mazda says this fuel mixture will then more fully combust thanks to the extra compression present.

The SkyActiv-X 2.0-litre four-cylinder produces 132kW/224Nm. The SkyActiv-X 2.0-litre four-cylinder produces 132kW/224Nm.

According to Mazda at least, this means less wastage, more power, and cleaner emissions which are free of unburnt or partially burnt fuel.

Previous information had this engine feature a supercharger, and the brand's representatives confirm that some form of supercharging is present, however it is mainly "used as an air pump" for "ensuring an adequate supply of air is created" so that this new combustion cycle can take place.

Power has been boosted to 132kW/224Nm from the normal 2.0-litre’s 114kW/200Nm. Importantly, the peak torque figure arrives 1000rpm lower at just 2000rpm, getting close to the responsiveness of a turbo unit.

The SkyActiv-X is front-wheel drive only via an updated version of the brand’s six-speed torque converter automatic which is promised to be even more refined than its predecessor.

The new engine is also paired with a 24-volt mild-hybrid system which does not drive the wheels directly but assists the engine and auxiliary systems in the car.

How much fuel does it consume?   9/10

All this new technology claims to cut 1.1-litres per 100km from the combined cycle fuel figure of an equivalent 2.5-litre Mazda3, down to a total of 5.5L/100km for the automatic (as tested).

Real world figures tell an interesting story. While my recent test of the 2.5-litre car produced a blow-out of 8.4L/100km, three days of driving the SkyActiv-X around in mixed conditions had it produce a much lower figure of 6.4L/100km.

So not only was the new engine more responsive, it was much closer to its claimed number on fuel, too. Emissions (often the real reason for advances in engine tech these days… ) have also dropped markedly from 152g/km of CO2 to 135g/km.

Originally, it was suggest the SkyActiv-X engine could run on unleaded 91, but instead the unit requires 95 RON. Originally, it was suggest the SkyActiv-X engine could run on unleaded 91, but instead the unit requires 95 RON.

Interestingly, the SkyActiv-X engine requires 95 RON mid-grade unleaded petrol in Australia, contrary to previous information which suggested not only would the technology run on base 91, but it would actually run better.

Mazda says the 95 requirement is due to the high sulfur content of our entry-level fuel (a comment frustratingly echoed by other manufacturers), and it’s more a durability issue than one of octane. The brand’s representatives assured us 95 RON does not significantly affect the combustion ignition process.

As with all Mazda3s the SkyActiv-X has a 51 litre fuel tank.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?   9/10

The same excellent suite of active safety items available on other Mazda3 Astina variants is offered here, meaning freeway-speed auto emergency braking (AEB), reverse AEB, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, rear AND front cross traffic alert (uses sensors to see around objects which might block your view when pulling out), traffic sign recognition, as well as adaptive cruise control with stop and go function.

On the expected side of things there are seven airbags, the expected brake, stability, and traction controls, as well as dual ISOFIX and three top-tether child seat mounting points across the rear seat.

Unsurprisingly, the Mazda3 carries a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating as of 2019.

Warranty & Safety Rating

Basic Warranty

5 years / unlimited km warranty

ANCAP Safety Rating

ANCAP logo

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?   8/10

All Mazda3s, including this new variant, carry a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty promise competitive with competitor marques, including five years of roadside assist.

Service pricing was not available at the time of launch, although Mazda told us it shouldn’t stray far from the current 2.5-litre engine option which costs between $315 and $359 on alternating years for the life of the warranty.

Service intervals should also remain the same at 10,000km or 12 months whichever occurs first.

What's it like to drive?   9/10

I wasn’t sure what to expect. How does a different injection method feel?

After three days behind the wheel I can confidently say most people won’t really be able to tell the difference, but that’s not to say there isn’t one.

Quite the opposite in fact. This new engine’s bump in power and more readily available peak torque are notable.

I spent most of my drive time with the energy monitor screen set, so I could try to understand how this new engine reacted to my inputs. The combustion ignition (SPCCI) mode is working most of the time. It doesn’t run at idle, and Mazda says it won’t run at ‘high loads’, but it seems to always be on past about 1200rpm in normal driving.

Once it reaches that point, the revs surge up quickly, almost like a turbocharged engine. It’s not quite as full-on with its surge of power, but it is very noticeable.

It gives this car a kind of comfortable pulling power kick which is at least on-par, but probably better, than the equivalent 2.5-litre engine (without being able to test them side-by-side), despite its higher power figures.

The X20 Astina really lives up to Mazda’s current ethos of constantly tweaking and improving what it has to work with. The X20 Astina really lives up to Mazda’s current ethos of constantly tweaking and improving what it has to work with.

I wish I could tell you there was some big ‘wow factor’ moment here. Like it sounds really great once it’s on song, or it has a snapping-on feeling like Honda’s once-lauded VTEC. But it doesn’t. This engine has a unique tone, sure, but it’s quiet and subtle, and the delivery of power is quite linear.

In fact, the whole drive is notably smooth and refined. A cut above the rest of the Mazda3 range. The engine sounds distant, even when pushed, and the transmission has been smoothed out further between gears and re-calibrated to better deal with the new powerplant’s readily available bump in power.

As always, Mazda’s 'i-Stop' stop/start technology is one of the best on the market, to the point where you won’t even notice it’s there. The efficiency of this system has apparently been given a boost by the new 24V hybrid system, but again, there’s little tangible difference in terms of how it feels.

The energy monitor really made me wish this car was just a traditional hybrid. I don’t doubt whatever comes next will be. it would be a truly fantastic step forward to blend the benefits of this engine with a true hybrid drive for even lower consumption.

The drive experience imparts a sense the SkyActiv-X simply does what it claims to do. It’s a shame there’s nothing particularly exciting for driving enthusiasts (apart from how cool the tech is), but it really lives Mazda’s current ethos of constantly tweaking and improving what it has to work with, without any radical changes to what consumers expect behind the wheel.

Verdict

The SkyActiv-X pushes the Mazda3 to new heights of refinement and reinforces the fact it’s still one of the best cars behind the wheel amongst its peers.

Mazda has made it subtle to a fault, so people will just have to believe you when you tell them this expensive little car pushes the bounds of how a non-turbo 2.0-litre engine can feel.

It’s great to see this new tech really does what it says it will do though, so we’re keen to see where Mazda can take it from here.

Pricing guides

$33,415
Based on Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)
Lowest Price
$25,240
Highest Price
$41,590

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
G20 Evolve 2.0L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $27,940 2020 Mazda 3 2020 G20 Evolve Pricing and Specs
G20 Evolve Vision 2.0L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $29,440 2020 Mazda 3 2020 G20 Evolve Vision Pricing and Specs
G20 Pure 2.0L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $26,240 2020 Mazda 3 2020 G20 Pure Pricing and Specs
G20 Pure Vision 2.0L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $27,740 2020 Mazda 3 2020 G20 Pure Vision Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
8.3
Price and features7
Design8
Practicality7
Engine & trans9
Fuel consumption9
Safety9
Ownership8
Driving9
Tom White
Journalist

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Pricing Guide

$41,590

Lowest price, based on new car retail price

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