Mazda3 VS Kia Picanto
- Fun and funky styling
- Good suspension and steering
- Added safety features and tech
- Carry-over engine feels outdated
- Four-speed transmission grates outside the CBD
- Elements of interior feel cheap
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|
The Kia Picanto is a cheap car. There's no two ways about it. But that doesn't mean what it used to mean.
There was a time, not so long ago, when our cheapest cars sported panels forged from old Coca-Cola cans, were as technologically advanced as a shoe horn and would offer all the structural integrity of an Easter egg should you ever have had the misfortune of being in an accident.
But this new Picanto isn't any of those things. For one, it's nice to look at. Plus, it's filled with clever safety things like a reversing camera and rear parking sensors. And it will mirror your smartphone so you can play your music or display navigation instructions up on the 7.0-inch screen inside.
So it's cheap, then, but not really 'cheap' at all.
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
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 Kia Picanto is now less cheap and more cheerful, adding the technology and safety stuff sorely missing from the outgoing model. For us, the pick has to be the five-speed manual, squeezing the most bang from the little engine.
Could Kia's new Picanto be your next city car? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
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.
It's as perky as your morning cup of coffee, the Picanto. The car's designers - it was a shared job between teams in South Korea and Germany - set out to broaden the car's appeal by strengthening its character relative to the outgoing model, ironing out the sharp crease that ran the length of the body, and making the grille bigger and wider.
We quite like the look of it, especially viewed front-on, which starts narrow at the headlights before widening as it descends into the gaping, whale-shark-mouth grille.
There's a few other blink-and-you'll-miss-them changes, like a redesigned boot handle, C-shaped tail-lights and a new number plate housing. But overall we think it looks rather fetching.
Kia has robbed Peter to pay Paul here. Provided, of course, Peter is riding in the back seat and Paul is sitting up front.
While the Picanto's length and width hasn't changed, it is 5mm higher, and it sits on a 15mm longer wheelbase. And while those numbers seem microscopic, Kia has used them to shake up the interior set-up, adding head, shoulder and legroom for front seat passengers, but stealing a little space from those riding in the back seat.
But the true Tardis is the boot, which now offers up 255 litres (+55 litres) of luggage space with the rear seat in place, and a genuinely impressive 1010 litres (+140 litres) with the 60/40 split rear seat folded flat.
Front seat passengers share two cupholders, and there's a USB, aux and power connection in the dash, along with room in the doors for bottles. Sometimes it's the little things you appreciate, too, like an integrated phone holder under the multimedia screen that's big enough to house one of those new jumbo-sized iPhone Plus smartphones so it won't slide around the cabin when you're plugged in to the USB point.
The backseat is a little barren, though. There's a single seat pocket and a single cupholder for your backseat riders to Hunger Games over, and that's about it. There are no pockets in the doors or pull-down dividers, either, but you do get automatic window controls.
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.
You're not exactly spoiled for choice with the Picanto, with a single trim level (S) on offer, which can be had with an automatic transmission or manual gearbox.
The pricing is slightly mysterious, with an official starting point of $14,190 for the manual version, but with Kia hinting heavily that it will actually be $13,990 drive-away in any of its dealerships. The automatic, however, is a little more straightforward, wearing a simple $15,690 drive-away price tag.
No matter, there's no escaping that it's a price-led offering. The seats are cloth, the 14-inch wheels have hubs caps on them and the interior plastics are rock hard. But there have been some key, and critical, updates inside. The new 7.0-inch touchscreen, mounted high above the dash, is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto equipped, and that means, provided you have a smart phone that's in range, you get standard satellite navigation.
Among the other new stuff is cruise control and automatic headlights, which are tacked onto the (actually, pretty extensive) standard feature list of the outgoing model. So, power windows in both rows, halogen DRLs and keyless entry all still appear, along with a rear fog light, electric (and heated) mirrors and a 2.6-inch driving display screen housed between the traditional dials in the instrument binnacle.
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.
Just the one engine available, a carry-over 1.25-litre petrol unit that will produce a non-pulse-quickening 62kW at 6000rpm, and a slightly improved 122Nm at 4000rpm. It's paired with a new five-speed manual in the cheapest model, or a four-speed automatic in the more expensive version, with both sending power exclusively to the front wheels.
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.
It's impressively frugal. Sipping a miserly 5.0 litres per hundred kilometres on the claimed/combined cycle in the manual car, and 5.8L/100km in the automatic. But even after some, well, vigorous driving on a twisting backroad, the number was still only sitting on 5.8L/100km in the auto, and 4.8 in the manual.
Emissions are pegged at 117 grams per kilometre of C02 in manual vehicles, and 134g/km in the automatic.
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.
Because the last car was really only a case study, Kia never bothered to subject it to the local suspension and steering tuning process it puts the rest of its cars through. But this new Picanto has undergone the full treatment, and the results are very good. If it's not the most dynamic-feeling car in its segment, it's got to be damn close.
But those changes are let down a little by the largely carry-over engine-gearbox combination. The engine feels lethargic on anything steeper than a gentle climb, and the four-speed automatic being fidgety and loud when you've got your foot pinned. Which you will have. A lot.
Things are so much better in the new five-speed manual version, though, where you can wring every ounce of power out of the engine, but Kia tells us the market for self-shifting is miniscule. But if it was us, we'd be taking the cheaper manual every day of the week.
Better still, wait for the incoming sportier version, powered by a clever turbocharged three-cylinder engine (74kW/172Nm) paired with a five-speed manual 'box. Kia confided it's already got a sportier suspension tune waiting and ready for the Picanto - and now they just need the car, which they're pushing for by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, though, the cloth seats are comfortable, but lacking much in the way of bolstering - which becomes pretty apparent when you start pushing it into bends - a task to which the Picanto is surprisingly well suited.
But by far the biggest and most positive change is the new screen perched above the air vents in the centre of the dash. It's big, clear, easy to use and, most importantly, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto equipped, unlocking a world of easy - and free - navigation for budget minded shoppers.
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.
When we drove the old car, we pointed out a lack of key safety kit now generally expected to be present and accounted for, but this new model addresses most of those concerns.
There are six airbags (dual front, front sides and curtain bags) and rear parking sensors, like the old model. But new for 2017 is a reversing camera, a new brake-based torque vectoring system and what Kia calls 'Straight Line Stability' - designed to keep the car tracking straight under heavy braking. Kia is also pushing to introduce AEB sometime this year.
The Kia Picanto is yet to be evaluated by ANCAP in Australia.
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.
Kia's ownership offering really can't be beat, and the Picanto is covered by the brand's seven-year/ unlimited-kilometre warranty with capped-price servicing and roadside assistance for the duration. Which is not just very good, but the best in the Aussie industry.