Honda City VS Mazda3
- Roomy enough to fit four adults
- Huge boot
- Handsome looks
- Underdone engine
- Average CVT performance
- Multimedia system is a disaster
Honda built its four-wheeled automotive empire on the back of small cars, flying in the face of 1970s convention that bigger was better. As the ubiquitous Civic grew larger and larger, a niche for a smaller car appeared, and that niche was subsequently filled by the City in sedan guise, and the Jazz hatch that sits alongside it.
The buying public, however, is simply not as interested as it once was in small hatches and sedans, and Honda, along with other importers, is feeling the pinch when it comes to slumping sales for its smaller models.
We’re trying the range-topping, $21,590 VTi-L to see what we may have been missing.
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
We all know that X means buried treasure in the world of children’s book pirates, but it’s looking like it could hold similar relevance for what lies under the bonnet of future Mazdas.
We first officially heard about Mazda’s industry-leading Skyactiv-X technology at the brand’s Global Tech Forum in Germany two years ago, but now we’ve ventured back to Germany to drive it in production form ahead of its Australian arrival aboard a new flagship version of the Mazda3 early next year.
No other manufacturer has managed to productionise compression ignition for a petrol engine, and with an underlying intention to make the combustion engine work better for everyday driving, in the face of the electric-focus of all other global brands, this could be the most exciting technological development of my career.
Why invest so much in combustion engines if every other major brand is beginning to treat them like yesterday’s news? While the Japanese government predicts that 52 per cent of new cars sold in 2030 will use some form of electrification in their drivetrain, the same data suggests 90 per cent will still use an internal combustion engine as at least an element of their drivetrain. That’s 90 per cent of the market, more than a decade from now.
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
Small sedan sales are on the wane, and as a result, the cars that remain in the market often aren’t the best in a brand’s lineup.
The underdone steering, too, makes the car uncomfortable for passengers more often than not, while the buggy, hard-to-use multimedia system is unforgivable in an almost-$22,000 car.
Are small sedans off your shopping list, or does the Honda City still hold appeal?
Unlike most big technological advancements, this isn’t about extra performance or reinventing the wheel, it’s about Mazda’s bigger picture approach to deliver the best mobility solutions for right now, while still planning for electric and fuel cell vehicles in the future.
That may sound like a line straight out of the Skyactiv-X press release, but Mazda’s realistic approach to our continued dependence on combustion engines is commendable.
My final judgement will have to wait until we know how much more it will cost over a regular Mazda3, but I can say the technology works really well and should really suit Australian conditions.
Note: CarsGuide attended this event as a guest of the manufacturer, with travel and meals provided.
The City does a good job of disguising the fact that it’s a micro-sized sedan; at first glance, the revised front bar and grille that’s meant to mimic the one on the new Civic does such a good job that some people will need to look at the bootlid badge to find out it’s not a Civic.
A high waistline and a solid yet stylish sweep over the roof keep the City from looking overly twee, and even though the 16-inch wheels look a bit narrow, the overall impression is one of a larger car.
The interior, too, is spacious and airy, while the controls and steering wheel give the City an upmarket feel. There’s a little too much grey plastic inside, and hard plastics aren’t difficult to spot, but the City presents well, on the whole.
Aside from the stunning good looks of the new Mazda3, the only visual distinctions the Skyactiv-X version scores over a regular high-sec model are bigger exhaust tips like those seen on the latest version of the Mazda6, and a Skyactiv-X badge in place of the regular models’ Skyactiv-G.
Up front, the City is a great fit even for taller drivers, and its height-adjustable seat also means that the, err, less vertically inclined pilot can find a comfortable position behind the tilt-and-reach adjustable wheel.
A regular gear shifter and manual handbrake means the two cupholders are squashed under the centre console, but there are bottle holders in all four doors, as well as two more cupholders in the rear centre armrest in the VTi-L.
The VTi-L also gains two extra 12-volt accessory power points in the rear to complement the USB and a third 12V point up front, while the keyless entry system is not something you’d usually find on a car at this price point.
Sadly, the City’s multimedia system lets the side down - big time. Try as we might, we couldn’t connect a phone to our tester, no matter what we did, and it’s just utterly unintuitive to use in most situations.
It’s a bit of a rude shock, actually; most manufacturers have media systems sorted, but there’s simply not a even a half-decent one in any Honda that’s currently on sale. And there's no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, though you can find those mirroring systems in the larger Civic.
Rear seating has adequate headroom – just – for taller teens, and there isn’t a lot of compromise required from front seaters to comfortably accommodate four people. Five? That’s getting crowded, but it can be done.
Two ISOFIX baby seat fixtures are present, along with three top-tether mounts. Boot space measures 536 litres - which is actually 12 litres bigger than that of the new Camry - while both rear seats fold flat(ish) to increase load capacity further.
A good point; the seats can be unlatched via boot-mounted buttons. A bad point; you still have to reach in and push the seats down by hand. A space saver spare nestles under the boot floor, as well.
Price and features
The top shelf VTi-L is the best of a two-model lineup, and costs $21,590 plus on-road costs. It comes with an 88kW 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and a continuously variable transmission driving the front wheels, as well as LED daytime lamps, a part-leather interior, push-button start and smart key, climate control air conditioning, 16-inch alloys and a 7.0-inch touchscreen multimedia system with sat nav and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming.
It also has a leather-bound steering wheel and gear shifter, and map pockets on both seat backs.
It does miss out on a lot of other stuff, though, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, automatic lights (remember when a car last beeped at you to turn off the lights? Me neither...) and automatic wipers, and it also misses out on driver aids like auto emergency braking (AEB).
It starts to look a bit dear when you look at similarly priced cars - even from the next size sector up - that do offer inclusions like AEB and automatic headlights, though the small sedan is a bit of a rarity in the Aussie market now.
Its only like-for-like rivals in the space are the Mazda2 sedan and the Hyundai Accent sedan. Other potential competitors like the Ford Fiesta sedan and, more recently, the Toyota Yaris sedan have been deleted from local line-ups after years of declining sales, while the subsequent rise of the compact SUV will continue to have an impact on the so-called 'light car' market.
This is probably the biggest question mark above the Mazda3 Skyactiv-X’s head for now, with all we know being Mazda Australia’s plan to launch it as a new top-spec version, so sit above the existing $36,990 G25 Astina flagship.
How far above will be the clincher, and given it’s not likely to quite match the performance of the G25, it will depend on what value you place on outright driveability and a marginal fuel saving over the base 2.0-litre engine.
Engine & trans
The i-VTEC four-cylinder 1.5-litre single cam engine is naturally aspirated, and it makes its 88kW at a high 6600rpm, while its modest 145Nm of torque peaks at 4600rpm.
It means the CVT gearbox needs to work pretty hard to get the best from the engine, which has been superseded by a twin-cam version in other markets.
What’s compression ignition again? It’s basically how a diesel engine works, by using extreme pressure instead of spark plugs to burn fuel. Skyactiv-X still uses spark plugs, but only to kick off the ignition process and act as a safety net for cold starts and other edge cases, while extreme compression makes for much more effective combustion, which means improved efficiency.
This combustion efficiency means the engine can use a much leaner fuel-to-air mixture, and make more power and torque with less fuel and even less wasted fuel out the exhaust. Mazda describes it as delivering diesel-like torque and fuel consumption, with the power, responsiveness and refinement of a petrol. Or in other words, one step away from turning water into wine...
Mazda is calling the process Spark Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI), and the extreme pressures required to make it all happen are created by higher static compression ratio (but less than a typical diesel), much higher fuel pressure and boosted air pressure entering the combustion chamber.
Key to managing all these heightened parameters (and the very technological advancement that makes it all possible) is an ultra sensitive in-cylinder pressure sensor that has been developed specifically for this task.
Delivering the boosted air pressure is a Roots-type supercharger - or what Mazda describes as a high-response air supply - which was chosen over other air pump designs like a turbocharger or the Miller-cycle supercharger previously used in Eunos models because of its instantaneous boost delivery and breadth of efficiency.
Speaking of breadth of efficiency, perhaps the biggest plus for average motorists is that the engine’s efficiency zone has multiplied, meaning the difference between city and highway consumption, leadfoot drivers and my Dad, heavy and empty loads etc will be far less than a typical petrol engine.
This all represents a continuation of core principles we’ve seen from the start of Mazda’s Skyactiv era. That is, to make an existing engine type work better under everyday driving conditions rather than targeting outright performance.
The Skyactiv-X era starts with a 2.0-litre based on the regular Skyactiv-G engine, with the same 1998cc capacity. Other capacities are planned, with the eventual reborn rotary looking increasingly Skyactiv-X along with a straight-six version for a new CX-9 in a couple of years. Smaller versions are unlikely due to the economies of scale involved with such technology in a smaller and therefore cheaper car.
Mazda is making two versions of the Skyactiv-X 2.0-litre for now, one with 16.3:1 compression designed for Europe that favours Premium unleaded petrol, and one 15:1 version aimed at the US with their abundance of lower grade unleaded.
Unlike conventional engines, it’s the lower compression version that will deliver the biggest benefits, because Skyactiv-X relies on the usually “bad thing” pinging to do its best.
We’re set to get the Euro-spec one in Australia, which unfortunately means we won’t quite be getting the very best Skyactiv tech again.
The Euro-spec engine puts out 132kW at 6000rpm and 224Nm from just 3000rpm, which on paper sounds about halfway between the existing Skyactiv-G 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre and 139kW/252Nm 2.5-litre petrol engines.
The engine also incorporates a mild hybrid system, but don't be confused by the H-word, there's no electric drive element. It simply means its got a cleaver alternator that only engages when needed and on deceleration to reduce efficiency-sapping drivetrain friction,
Pop the bonnet and you’re confronted by the biggest engine cover you’ve ever seen, but unlike most, this one is equipped with labeled latches that encourage you to have a look underneath. This encouragement continues with a clever little retention hook to hold the cover up against the bonnet while you’re poking around.
Unless you’re a Mazda engineer you’re likely to be baffled by the array of hoses, ducts and wiring, but you might get a kick out of spotting the supercharger.
There’s less to be said for the transmissions though, with versions of the existing six speed manual and torque converter automatics deemed up to the task, with the new engine’s increased efficiency zone negating any increase to the ratio count. The ratios have been adjusted to suit the new output characteristics, and while the ratios are yet to be published, there’s a narrower spread across the six with what feels to be taller first and sixth gears.
A 320km test loop netted us a dash-indicated figure of 6.3 litres per 100km, which is impressively close.
The 40-litre fuel tank is happy to accept standard unleaded petrol, too.
All this hooha about fuel savings, and Mazda is yet to confirm an actual figure for Australia. We do know the hatch is rated at 4.5L/100km in manual and 5.3L/100km in auto according to the NEDC, which is historically close to the figures generated by the ADR 81/02 test we go by in Australia.
If it comes close to matching the NEDC figure it will be a win, sitting comfortably under the 6.4L/100km (manual) and 6.2L/100km (auto) figures currently applied to the Skyactiv-G 2.0-litre Mazda3 hatch.
While the Australian-spec Skyactiv-X engine is expected to align with Europe rather than the US, and therefore be tuned to deal with Premium 95 RON unleaded, it’s still unclear if it will accept the cheaper Regular 91 RON unleaded.
Weighing just 1100kg, you’d expect the 1.5-litre powered City to have a bit of get up and go… but unfortunately it’s already gotten up and left by the time you drive off.
The 1.5-litre naturally aspirated engine is a carryover unit from the previous generation, and it feels like it, too. It’s also teamed with a CVT gearbox that isn’t a patch on more up-to-date trannies from the likes of Subaru and Toyota.
On any sort of incline, the CVT ups the revs of the engine to a point between bloody annoying and mildly painful, too. The VTi can be ordered with a manual gearbox, which has to be better than the CVT in this example.
The underdamped suspension tune is adequate for light duties around town, but the electric steering feel very odd underhand, especially at the very beginning of a turn.
There’s a big initial motion at the front wheels when you start to turn which then quickly tapers off, meaning that you have to be ultra precise with your steering to prevent the City from lurching into the corner and falling over its soft suspension.
On light throttle, with no hills and few corners, though, the City is just fine…
What’s probably most amazing about Skyactiv-X is that you can’t really tell there’s anything special going on under the bonnet.
Push the start button and it gets going like any other petrol Mazda, although perhaps quieter.
Move off from rest and there’s no significant difference to the way it feels.
When I drove the prototype version of this drivetrain, there was a slight pinging under light throttle as it transitioned from spark to compression ignition, but I’m pleased to confirm that the extra two years of calibration has tuned this down to the tiniest occasional diesel sound, and it all feels a bit like a smooth diesel that’s more responsive than you expect.
The European-spec Skyactiv-X 2.0-litre’s outputs suggest it should be closer to the existing 2.5-litre in terms of performance, but in reality it feels closer to the 2.0 litre.
My perception is likely to be clouded by the Skyactiv-X’s specific transmission gearing, but it could also be because it’s able to do the same job with less revs and therefore not sound like it’s working so hard.
First gear feels quite tall with either transmission, and we also found the auto and manual were only sitting on 3500rpm in sixth at 160km/h on the Autobahn.
Mazda doesn’t specify performance figures, so it would be handy to put all three alongside each other from a standing start. But then, that’s not what Skyactiv-X is all about, it’s more about performing better under light throttle and incidental bursts of acceleration.
We can’t wait to put it to the test over some hilly terrain and familiar territory when it hits Australia early next year.
Full-length curtain airbags are offered along with dual front and front side 'bags, and there's a reversing camera. The City holds a maximum five-star ANCAP rating, which it has had since it was tested back in 2014.
The existing Mazda3’s maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating will almost certainly be carried over, and the high level of safety gear fitted to the existing G25 Astina is also likely to be matched.
Honda sells the City with a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, while a no-catch seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty is occasionally offered with its cars, along with premium roadside assistance for the life of the longer warranty.
Both warranties are also transferable to the next owner, should you sell your car before the warranty expires.
A fixed-price servicing regime is in place for the City, too, starting at $259 and peaking at $297. But Honda asks for the City to be serviced every six months or 10,000km, which does add to the cost of running the car.
Service pricing is also yet to be confirmed, but Mazda engine development boss Eiji Nakai assures CarsGuide that the new engine will not need servicing more frequently or cost any more to service than existing Skyactiv-G engines.
So expect the same 12month/10,000km intervals, with five year/50,000km capped servicing plan totalling just under $2000 over that period.
Like all new Mazdas, the recently upgraded five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty will apply to the 3 Skyactiv-X.