Mazda3 VS Subaru WRX
- Terrific engine
- Surprisingly livable ride
- Unusual and great hydraulic steering
- No Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
- Spec.R value questionable
- Lack of AEB/rear parking sensors
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|
It's funny how some brands break through into the collective consciousness. Subaru Technica International could be absolutely anything, really, but thanks to the efforts of a few chaps flinging WRXs down muddy forest roads and the PlayStation juggernaut that is Gran Turismo, just about everyone has at least heard of STi, and knows it means something fast and furious.
As part of this year's facelifted range of six WRXs, Subaru has presented us with the WRX STi Spec.R. Before you get too excited and start looking for phrases like "power is up..." or "weight is down...", the Spec.R is an STi with Recaro seats and a big wing. That doesn't mean it's not worth reading on, however, because an STi badge is never anything less than interesting. And invigorating.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium 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.
Is the Spec.R worth the extra few grand over the Premium? Not really, but it's not like you're buying an STi with your accountant's blessing. The Recaros are good but they aren't amazing and the whopping rear wing is a little embarassing if you want to keep a low profile. But if you must have the top of the range, the STi is certainly far better than the WRX on which it's based and worth the extra dollars and thirst for 98 RON fuel. It's easier to live with and more fun to drive, something I'm still questioning as I type it. I expected the latter but not the former.
You can get the "basic" STi for almost $10,000 less and still get pretty much the same effect, but you'll have to move the seat yourself, live without a few luxuries and go without Battlestar Galactica glued to the bootlid.
Is the STi on your list or does the the all-wheel drive Euro set have its fingers on your money?
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.
Well, yes. That rear wing really dominates the STi, hanging off the back like it's searching for aliens, so they can land their spaceships on it. It's a hefty-looking unit but is actually so big that it does little to ruin rearward vision. You certainly make an entrance in a Spec.R.
The rest of the car is fairly conventional WRX - pumped and vented front guards, big but not stupid-big wheels and blacked out front and rear splitters.
It's classic Impreza in here, so it's not a bad place for you and your things. Front and rear headroom are good and, for this segment, rear accommodation isn't bad at all, even if it lacks its own set of air-con vents.
The boot will take 460 litres, with the rear seats folding in the usual 60/40 fashion. Front and rear passengers each have two cupholders and two bottle holders, bringing the totals to four apiece.
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.
The STI range kicks off at $51,190, climing to $55,490 for the Premium and then on to $57,690 for the Spec.R. I had the all-singing and dancing Spec.R for a week.
Based on the Premium's specifcation, the R arrives with 19-inch alloys wrapped in Yokohama Advan tyres, bright yellow six-pot Brembo calipers gripping drilled discs, an eight-speaker Harmon Kardon stereo, dual-zone climate control, front, side and rear vision cameras, keyless entry and start, auto wipers, active auto LED headlights, cruise control, sat nav, partial leather trim, power everything, sunroof and a space-saver spare.
The R in Spec.R stands for Recaro, the famous bottom-holding company supplying the heated front seats in part leather, part alcantara. Irritatingly, the seats don't fix the too-high positioning of the WRX's front pews, but you can't have everything. The R could also stand for ruddy great rear wing, which comes as standard and is as impressive/obnoxious as ever (delete where appropriate).
The eight-speaker stereo is a vast improvement on the six-speaker unit in the WRX (which is tinny) but the Starlink screen (all 5.9-inches of it) still doesn't feature Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The sat nav is welcome, though, and means the lack of proper smartphone integration isn't as annoying.
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.
The STi continues with the larger 2.5-litre turbo boxer four, producing an unchanged 221kW (at 6000rpm) and 407Nm. Power hits the road via all four wheels in a fairly attacking fashion, with the centre differential switched out from the viscous coupled one in automatic to a driver-configurable version called "DCCD".
The 0 to 100km/h sprint for the 1572kg STi is dispatched in 5.2 seconds, lopping 0.8 seconds off the standard car's time, which is significant.
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.
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.
There are a number of significant differences between the basic WRX and the STi. For a start, the steering in the STi is old-school hydraulic, and it shows. While it might follow ruts a little more assiduously than I'd like, it's much better than the electric rack in the WRX.
The engine is half a litre bigger, with 221kW and 407Nm, the centre diff is driver controllable, the gear ratios are different and there is a shorter final drive for extra punch. The all-wheel-drive grip is further augmented with a set of delightfully sticky Yokohama tyres wrapped around 19-inch alloys.
If you want, you can also have a ludicrously large rear wing. Well, on the Spec.R, you've got it as standard. If you're a bit of a wallflower, you might want to delete that. There are also a set of bright yellow six-pot Brembo brakes, properly high-vis yellow, gripping drilled discs.
The standard WRX was a hard-rider, with a difficult clutch and gearshift. Surely the harder, more focused STi will be a less appealing day-to-day machine?
Nope. I know, it makes no sense, but it's true.
The real revelation is the ride. The WRX's disjointed suspension setup makes for an unholy experience on poor suburban roads while (mercifully) delivering in the twisty stuff. Both the city and getting-up-to-mischief rides in the STi are excellent. It's not soft, but the concretey feel of the WRX has been replaced with a more compliant, less busy ride. And that's despite bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres and a bit more weight.
On top of that, the hydraulic steering is way better, with more feel, more communication and more precision, apart from a slight wooliness a couple of degrees either side of dead-ahead. While the WRX is better in the faster stuff than the slow, the STi is more comfortable and usable everywhere. The extra power and torque is easy to feel and use and the clutch and gearbox are much more interested in not making you look like a goose.
The torque curve does seem a bit different to the 2.0-litre machine - you can't bumble along in a high gear, you will have to keep the left arm and leg working to maintain stately forward progression. Get lazy and you'll be bumping and shunting a bit, but again, the shift and clutch are far less obstreperous. And this is a car for people who want to drive, and be involved, anyway.
In the fun stuff, the STi is a joy. It really hooks up and you don't need to fiddle with the diff setting, which seems like a silly gimmick. Just leave it in auto and enjoy the taut, responsive chassis, the way it grips and grips and grips, and with a bit of power shuffling, resists understeer like a vegan fails to resist telling you about their veganism.
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.
The WRX has seven airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, reversing camera and brake assist. The STi picks up lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert, lane change assist and high beam assist. There's also a camera that looks forward down the side of the car to help you park and a front-facing camera.
ANCAP awarded the WRX a five star ANCAP safety rating in March 2014.
EyeSight is not available on manual WRXs and you can't get a CVT STi, so no camera-based cleverness for you.
The front-facing camera hangs off the left-hand door mirror and for some reason points forward. It's not especially helpful for parking.
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.
Subaru offers a three year/unlimited kilomtre warranty with matching roadside assist.
Servicing is capped for the first three years/75,000km on the WRX (Subaru appears to be in some kind of transition to a different style of service pricing). Intervals weigh in at six months/12,500km with prices ranging from $302 to $604 for a total service bill of $2295.72 or $765.24 per year. Oddly, the STi's service pricing is slightly cheaper than the base WRX.