Mazda3 VS Holden Commodore
- Comfortable but dynamic chassis
- Strong and smooth 2.0 turbo
- Liftback's boot practicality over a sedan
- Relatively unassuming looks
- V6 not as refined as the 2.0 turbo
- VXR doesn't match the romance of old V8 SS
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|
For many Australians, calling the new ZB a Commodore is tantamount to being forced to call your Mum’s new boyfriend ‘Dad.’
One big reason is that it was always going to be the next Commodore, even before Holden decided to stop building cars in Australia. Yes, it was even set to be built here.
Once the VE/VF Commodore’s Zeta platform was axed during General Motors’ post-GFC rationalisation, the next best thing was to align with the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia designed primarily for Europe.
Holden was actually involved with the new Insignia’s development from the beginning, which has led to some key details for the Commodore version and Australia, and a whole lot of input from our world-renowned Aussie engineering team.
So it’s a whole lot more Commodore than you may realise. Whether it lives up to its reputation is another matter.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
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.
So will the new Commodore become Australia's favourite car? I strongly doubt it, but it's not the car's fault, and it wouldn't be any different if it was a rear-wheel drive, V8, Australian-built sedan. Australian buying habits have just moved on, and diversified into a range of SUVs, small hatches and dual-cab utes.
Taken as an all-new entry in Holden's revitalised line-up though, the new Commodore ticks all the important boxes required of a mid-size to large passenger car these days. It may not be anywhere near as exciting as a 6.2-litre Redline sedan, ute or wagon, but it’s objectively a far better car overall, and you should definitely give it a drive before dismissing it.
The pick of the bunch in my eyes is the $39,490 RS Sportwagon with the 2.0-litre petrol engine. Yep, the best new Commodore is now a four-cylinder station wagon.
Be sure to check out what James Cleary thought of the new Commodore in prototype guise here:
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.
Aside from the move to a front-drive basis, the other key difference between the new Commodore and those of the past is its shift from a classic three-box sedan shape to a sleek, five-door Liftback. Even the Sportwagon has an elegant arc to its roofline, which is arguably their most appealing design element. There are no Ute or Caprice bodystyles, and there never will be.
The European-designed look is less macho than the bulging wheelarches of the VE and VF, but more in line with its European rivals like the Ford Mondeo, Volkswagen Passat and Skoda Superb.
The best way to identify specific models is by their wheels, with the trim levels split between a more elegant body trim on the entry, Calais, Calais-V and Tourer variants, and sportier body kits with side skirts and a rear spoiler on the RS, RS-V and VXR flagship.
The interior look is also best described as elegant, with fresh shapes that flow cohesively into the door trims and centre console. There’s a general air of quality about it, but it’s let down by some cheap-feeling controls and switches, particularly the climate control knobs.
The ZB’s overall size is bigger than you might think, with most dimensions fitting neatly between the VE/VF and the VT-VZ generation that preceded it.
You might be surprised to learn it’s no lightweight either, with the heaviest Calais-V Tourer actually outweighing the portliest VF by 31kg.
Interior dimensions are comparable with its predecessor, with the most significant differences being a narrower back seat thanks to its 36mm thinner body and 13mm less rear headroom in the Liftback (but 3mm more in the wagon).
Before the decision was made to source the new car from Germany, Holden was planning a longer wheelbase for Australia. One specific requirement that did reach fruition is the availability of a V6 engine, which isn’t fitted to European versions.
Under the skin it rides on GM’s E2XX platform, which is a significant evolution of the chassis that underpinned the previous Insignia and the now-defunct Holden Malibu.
Aside from having a say in every step of its design process, Holden engineers covered more than 200,000 kilometres of testing on Australian roads and at the Lang Lang proving ground.
This has been to fine tune the drivetrain calibrations, the steering, suspension, and even details like the sat nav and radio reception to suit our tastes and unique demands.
Specific suspension tunes have been developed for four cylinder models, the V6 Calais, V6 RS-V and the Tourer, with unique setups between Liftback and Sportwagon bodies.
The only version not to score an Australian suspension tune is the VXR, which was treated to a performance-focused setup at the Nürburgring in Germany.
Another traditional Commodore trait to have taken a step backwards is its ability to carry three adults across the back seat. Admittedly only really an issue for taxi use, the ZB will certainly still swallow three, and likely three child seats, but less comfortably and more like the similarly sized Camry.
The Liftback’s reduced headroom didn’t matter for this 172cm tester, but if you were marginal in a VF you’d probably want to avoid spiking your hair.
The cabin ticks all the other important boxes for a modern family car, including twin cupholders front and rear, bottleholders in each door and two ISOFIX child seat mounts in the rear.
All get a good cluster of USB and 12V charge points, while the RS-V models upwards get a big bonus with wireless phone charging.
The Liftback's boot space is only slightly down on before at 490 litres, but the huge opening created by the five-door design is so much more useful in the real world. It also brings a split-fold back seat for the first time in a non-wagon Commodore.
The Sportwagon has lost around 100 litres in capacity though, but is still a very useful 560 litres to seat height or 793 litres to the roof.
Holden’s local team has also developed a range of optional accessories for the Commodore, which includes a bonnet protector, weather shield, towbar, boot liner, floor mats, headlight protectors, sill guards, locking wheel nuts, roof racks and a cargo net, but there’s no sign of a cargo barrier, nudge bar or bullbar at this stage.
Price and features
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.
Aligning with the Insignia’s European platform has bumped the Commodore right up to speed with the current status quo of features expected in such a family car.
Available Commodore firsts include standard auto emergency braking (AEB) on all models, adaptive cruise control, 360-degree / surround-view cameras, massage and ventilated seats, heated rear seats, wireless phone charging, LED headlights and a power tailgate on the wagons. Like most new cars, there’s no more CD player or DVD player with the radio and other multimedia options.
The broad model range is split into LT, RS, RS-V, Calais, Calais-V, VXR trim levels, while the off-road flavoured Tourer is split into Calais and Calais-V versions.
All bar the Tourer and VXR are available with either Liftback or Sportwagon ($2200 extra) bodystyles, while the 2.0-litre turbo engine is standard in the LT, RS and Calais. The V6 with all-wheel drive is available in the RS, RS-V, Calais-V, VXR and both Tourer trims, while the diesel engine is limited to the LT and Calais.
The base LT Liftback drops the Commodore entry point by $1800 with a list price of $33,690. The diesel engine is available in either bodystyle for an extra $3000.
Standard features include the aforementioned AEB, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in addition to Bluetooth connectivity with a 7.0-inch multimedia screen, reversing camera, auto parking, a leather steering wheel, an eight-way power driver’s seat, proximity keys, auto headlights and wipers, air conditioning and 17-inch alloy rims.
The RS kicks off at $37,290, or $40,790 in V6 AWD guise, and brings sports front seats, steering wheel and body kit, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and bigger 18-inch alloys, while the Sportwagon version gets a power tailgate.
The V6 AWD RS-V commands $46,990, and adds leather seats, heated front seats, paddle shifters a larger 8.0-inch multimedia screen with built-in GPS navigation system and DAB+ digital radio, a colour head-up display, wireless phone charger, interior ambient lighting, upgraded Hi Per strut suspension and a sportier rear bumper.
The $40,990 Calais is also available with the diesel engine for an extra $3000, or as the V6 AWD Tourer wagon for $45,990.
The Calais sits closer to the LT on features, but adds leather trim, front seat heaters, 8-inch multimedia screen with built-in GPS navigation system and DAB+ digital radio, wireless phone charging, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and 18-inch alloys.
The Calais Tourer scores a ride height lift (overall height up 42mm) and off-road styled unpainted wheel-arch moulds and bumper caps.
The $51,990 Calais-V adds a Bose premium sound system, ventilated front seats, a massage function and powered side bolsters for the driver’s seat, heated rear seats, a sports steering wheel with paddle shifters, 360 degree cameras, colour head-up display, adaptive LED headlights and 20-inch alloys. The Liftback version gets an electronic sunroof, while the Tourer version gets a panoramic glass roof.
The top-spec VXR is closest to the RS-V in terms of features, but for $55,990 it adds VXR-specific sports seats with power adjustable bolsters and ventilation up front, heated rear seats, Bose premium audio, adaptive suspension, adaptive cruise control, Brembo brakes, VXR floor mats and sill plates, active LED headlights, 360-degree camera, electric sunroof, and 20-inch alloy wheels.
From launch, Holden is offering drive-away pricing across several models, with on-road costs included. The LT petrol Liftback is available for $35,990, while the RS Liftaback is being offered for $38,990 with the 2.0-litre turbo and $42,490 with the V6. The Calais Tourer is also being offered for $47,990 drive away.
The available colours are spread across two whites, two reds, silver, grey, black and blue, with some only available on certain models. All bar the non-metallic white and red will cost you an extra $550, but there’s no sign of the green, purple, orange, or yellow we’ve seen over the past decade.
Engine & trans
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.
No, there’s no more V8, manual transmission or rear wheel drive, but the ZB’s options are more in sync with its newer rivals.
For the first time since the VH, or 1984, the base engine is a four-cylinder petrol unit, but uses modern tech like direct injection and a turbo to boost power statistics to more than triple that of the infamous Starfire engine. Also seen in the Equinox, the new turbo motor’s 191kW is also notably 6kW more than the 5.0-litre V8 in the VL Group A SS (Walkinshaw), and 1kW more than the 3.6-litre V6 was making in top-spec VZ Commodores – so pretty good horsepower for its engine size.
The real story is its healthy 350Nm of torque, which is also more than what the same VZs were making, but on tap from a useful 3000-4000rpm.
The latest version of the 3.6-litre Alloytec V6 that’s seen duty in VZ, VE and VF models makes a reappearance as the new performance leader, but mounted sideways and turning all four wheels this time. In ZB trim, it produces 235kW and 381Nm, the latter from 5200rpm.
For the first time, you can also choose a diesel option with LT and Calais trims, which is a version of the engine used in the previous Opel Insignia. You’ll also find it under the bonnet of the Jeep Cherokee and Compass, and its applications spread as wide as the Alfa Romeo 159 that ended production in 2011. In Commodore guise, the turbo 2.0-litre engine specs are 125kW and 400Nm (available from 1750-2500rpm), and therefore taking out the torque trophy for the ZB range.
Both petrol engines are paired with a nine-speed torque converter automatic transmission, while the diesel has an eight-speed gearbox. Both four-cylinder engines are front-wheel drive, while all V6 variants are all-wheel drive.
The all-wheel drive system is actually quite clever, using what’s called a Twinster twin-clutch rear differential for finite torque vectoring, or sending the just the right amount of power to each wheel. The system varies torque distribution between 100 per cent front and a 50/50 split.
If you think the Commodore has gone soft, its towing capacity ratings also suggest otherwise, with a 2100kg maximum braked rating for V6 models matching the best offered previously. The four cylinder models are rated at 1800kg, which is 200kg better than what the previous 3.0-litre V6 and LPG models carried.
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.
As you’d hope, the ZB sets a new Commodore benchmark for fuel consumption, with the diesel models managing a best official combined figure of 5.6L/100km. The petrol four-cylinder models also pip the VF’s best combined fuel economy figure of 8.3L/100km with 7.4 and 7.6L/100km for the LT, RS and Calais Liftbacks respectively. The Sportwagon versions wear 7.7 and 7.9L/100km figures, while V6 versions span 8.9-9.3L/100km combined ratings.
It’s worth noting that the petrol four-cylinder engine needs premium 95RON unleaded to do its best, while the V6 is happy to run on regular 91RON unleaded. All versions have a 61.7-litre fuel tank.
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.
The Commodore we know and most of us love is just as famous for its quality driving experience as its local production and motorsport successes. So, the ZB has some big shoes to fill in this area.
At the ZB’s media launch, we drove everything aside from the base LT or any diesel variant, over several hundred kilometres of pretty much every road condition.
I’ll cut to the chase. There’s a genuine quality to the way they handle Australian road conditions. We drove them back to back with a UK-spec model at Lang Lang, and while you’d expect the local car to excel at its own test facility, the rear and front suspension work in harmony to handle mid-corner bumps with far greater stability than the alternative. The electric power steering weighting was also lighter, but it didn’t seem to lose any precision.
You probably wouldn’t notice it driving to the shops every day or cruising on the highway, but this on-limit controllability could easily be the difference between life and death in an emergency.
The turbo four is a surprisingly capable and refined package, and would honestly be my pick if I were in the market. It’s smoother and more tractable than the V6, so feels like it would deliver speed more readily than the bigger engine unless you were going flat out.
Holden isn’t quoting official 0-100km/h acceleration figures, but we hear the petrol four is good for a 7.0 second-ish time, and the V6 will manage just over 6.0sec. So there’s really not much in it outright.
Therefore it’s a shame you can’t get the Tourer with the petrol four, but because the combination is available in Europe, Holden could shift the line-up if there’s enough demand.
The nine-speed auto does a pretty good job with either engine, and its electronic brain does a slick job of seamlessly adjusting its shift behaviour to your driving style.
Holden isn’t quoting ground clearance figures, but all have enough to handle dirt roads, and while the 17-inch wheel equipped models match the VF II’s 11.4m turning circle, be aware that the 18-inch wheel variants blow out to 11.7m, the 19s are 12.7m, and Holden doesn’t quote a figure for the 20-inch equipped Calais-V Liftback and VXR.
The only other surprise among the group we drove is the Calais-V Liftback, which is likely to be a bit too sharp in its ride for some luxury buyers on its big 20-inch alloy wheels. The Calais or one of the Tourers would be your best bet for comfort.
The VXR performance flagship is a completely different personality to the SS models of the past. It’s nowhere near as fast, but is more of a grownup package that’s easier to get the best out of.
Its more demure than the brash final VF IIs, and the V6 does make a pretty sweet note, even if half of it is coming from the speakers.
Nothing was ever going to replicate the romance and pride of the last SS, but all is not lost for fans of fast Holdens.
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.
All versions of the new Commodore come with a maximum five star ANCAP safety rating, which has been measured against 2017 standards. The VF’s five star rating was based on 2013 standards.
As mentioned above, all versions get standard AEB and ISOFIX child seat mounts, plus features like lane keep assist and departure warning, auto parking, a reversing camera with front and rear sensors and six airbags covering both rows of seats.
All versions also get a novel following distance indicator to help you gauge a safe distance from the car in front. This could serve as excellent driver training, and worth having a go with on a test drive.
RS variants upwards get blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, while only the Calais-V and VXR get 360-degree /surround-view camera setups.
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.
Holden is currently offering a seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty with roadside assistance to help boost sales, but be on the lookout for the return of this deal if you miss out this time. Normally, the Commodore carries the standard three year/100,000km warranty.
Service intervals are now 12month/12,000km, which have shifted from the previous 9month/15,000km terms.
Service costs are capped for the first seven trips to the workshop, with petrol models costing $259, $299, $259, $359, $359, $359 and $259, or a total of $2153 over seven years or 84,000km. The diesel is actually slightly better value at $259, $359, $259, $399, $359 and $399, or $2134 over the same period.