As assassins go, this one doesn't look threatening - along the lines of some of the prettier femme-fatale James Bond villains - but the Mazda3 has the killer modus operandi, just ask Holden.

We're sampling the brand's Skyactiv pre-cursor, which has a new engine and automatic transmission to market for better fuel consumption and emissions performance.

Value

The SP20 Luxury version of the Mazda3 five-door hatchback starts at $27,990 - and there's no transmission choice now, it's a six-speed auto only.

The Mazda's features list includes a trip computer, satellite navigation, cruise control (with wheel-mounted controls), power windows and mirrors, Bluetooth phone and audio link (all controlled from the helm), dual-zone climate control, reach and rake adjustable steering, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, 16in alloy wheels (down from the SP25's 17in alloy), fog lamps, a leather-wrapped gearshift knob and steering wheel and LED tail lights.

The Luxury option box was ticked on the test car car - for $3000 - which adds bi-xenon headlights, a sliding centre armrest lid, leather trim and a Bose 10-speaker (including a sub-woofer) sound system.

Technology

The Skyactiv term applies to a broad range of techniques and technologies designed to improve fuel efficiency within Mazda - the SP20 is just an entree. The two-litre four-cylinder packs a higher compression ratio, 16 (with variably-timed intake) valves, double overhead cams and direct-injection, as well as the i-stop fuel-saver system.

It has nine fewer kiloWatts than the SP25's 122kW output and 33Nm less - but 113kW and 194Nm is up a little on the two-litre engine in the 3 range but uses 25 per cent less fuel and more than enough to get the SP20 humming along at a reasonable rate. Where it makes up ground on the SP25 is the 6.1 litres per 100km claimed fuel use - down by 2.5l/100km on the SP25's larger four-cylinder.

The six-speed auto has been equipped with an upgraded lock-up clutch system to give the Skyactiv auto a more direct feel for the driver (which has contributed to the drivetrain's strong flexibility), without losing the smooth shifts offered by a torque-converter as well as improved fuel economy. The i-stop system conserves fuel by shutting down the engine when the brake pedal is pressed and the car is stopped,  automatically restarting it when the brake pedal is released again to resume driving.

Where the Mazda system is different to the normal idle-stop systems is it doesn't use the conventional ignition system to restart the engine - it uses the combustion process to kick-start the engine by means of an intake of fresh air. Mazda says the restart takes approximately 0.35 seconds, half the time of a normal idle-stop system.

Design

Park one next to an older Mazda3 and you'll still need to look hard for changes - the svelte little hatchback still has the looks department sewn up, albeit with minor changes to the front and rear bumpers, the grille has also been altered slightly and the alloy wheels have new designs.

The cabin has had some minor trim changes and some of the graphics for the infotainment system have been changed to white for improved visibility. The Skyactiv can be further distinguished by the blue metallic engine cover a transparent blue ring around the headlight.

Safety

The 3 is a five-star NCAP car and has stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assistance, active front head restraints, dual front, front-side and curtain airbags and seatbelts with pre-tensioners and load-limiters.

Driving

If this is the direction Mazda wants to go with being frugal, it's OK by me and plenty of others, if sales figures are any indication. There's no question it's a good-looking little car - the styling works on a small car (but not on an LCV) - and the drivetrain gets it zipping around town without it being asked to work hard.

But even when driven with scant regard for fuel economy and mostly around the metropolitan area, it's fuel use numbers are still decent. The six-speed auto and the two-litre engine work together to provide a flexible powertrain - there's no rubbery power delivery and - if it's given a proper, solid shove of the righthand pedal - it responds.

Mazda says its aiming for "toitsukan," which apparently is Japanese for a "consistent and linear feel." The steering is light and accurate but the car is let down a little in the ride department when dealing second-rate (and that's sometimes being generous) roads, the payoff coming in the bends.

Firing into the hills backroads, the SP20 exhibits enthusiasm in the corners with good body control, only pushing wide and forcing the tyres into noisy protest and a little understeer. Cabin space is within the realms of the class, two adults and two kids or four small-ish adults have enough room to get comfortable on the Luxury model's leather-trimmed seats.

The satnav screen small but still somewhat useful, but the reflection on the windscreen at night takes some familiarisation. The bootspace in the Luxury drops from a normal hatch's 300 litres to 276 litres in the rump of the Luxury Hatch - not the best in class (Corolla claims 283 litres and the Cruze hatch has 325 litres when endowed with a spare tyre) but still useful.

Dislikes include the absence of a USB input, rear three-quarter vision and an overly-hard ride quality and the lack of a sport mode on the automatic - it's straight from full auto to a manual change, but at least it does hold a gear when required.