Mazda3 VS Suzuki Baleno
- Cheap to buy
- Big boot
- Expensive servicing
- Cheap interior
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 fact of the Suzuki Baleno's existence is one of the more puzzling features on the automotive landscape. It's a car that pits itself against all manner of worthy competition - some of it exceedingly so - in the small hatch segment.
People still buy what the industry calls light cars (in ever-diminishing numbers) so perhaps Suzuki thought offering two would be a good idea, as its Swift occupies the same patch of sales ground in this city-sized segment.
In this part of the market, you've really, really got to want it. You need to be stylish, sophisticated and packed with tons of safety gear if you've any hope of so much as laying a fingernail on the Mazda2. Or, let's face it, be dirt cheap to counter Yaris and (the soon to depart) Accent.
The Baleno seems far too tame, timid and, well, blergh. But according to VFacts, Suzuki shifts at least a hundred of these per month, sometimes over 200.
|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 Baleno is a disappointingly dull car from a company that makes plenty of un-dull cars. I suppose it's prudent for Suzuki to at least try to look like a grown-up, but as this car proves, there's no fun in that.
It will no doubt be dependable and if kept in metropolitan areas, will serve its owners well. But it's lacking in key safety gear, the servicing is a bit on the stiff side and the interior feels cheaper than most of its competitors.
And on top of all that, it feels really old.
Is there anything tempting about the Baleno? 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.
Suzuki says the Baleno's look reflects the brand's 'Liquid Flow' design language, but I'd much prefer it if they had stuck with the angular design of its other cars. Almost all of them are far better looking, or at least characterful.
The Baleno's recent facelift, which is mostly a new front bumper and a headlight tweak, was probably supposed to improve the looks but instead the car now appears to have had some fillers pumped into its cheeks.
It's not an attractive car from the front, with the grille overpowered by the lower fascia's sheer breadth. The rear and profile are fairly anonymous and to ensure its anonymity, there is little in the way of adornment. Looks basic, is basic.
Step in to the spacious-for-its-size cabin and you'll be greeted with the usual Suzuki staples of super-hard plastics, hardy carpets and tough cloth trim.
There is a little curvaceousness to the dash design but it just feels a bit half-hearted until the curves run into the centre console's alien-with-flappy-ears effect. There's nothing wrong with it but it does look dated.
Here's some excellent news - there is plenty of space in the Baleno's tiddly sub-four metre frame. The awkwardly-proportioned body has delivered good space for front and rear passengers who would be happier on more comfortable seats, but for city driving, they do just fine.
If you're up to around 180cm tall, there's enough space for you and your legs in the back and headroom is adequate.
Storage is a limited to a couple of open trays but you can put your phone in the same place as the USB port. You get two cupholders at the front and if you don't mind losing the rearmost of your storage trays, the back seat passengers can share it as a solitary cupholder. Each door has a very handy bottle holder that will secure a 1.5-litre vessel.
The boot is a good size for the segment at 355 litres to begin with and 746 with the 60/40 split fold rear seat folded down.
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.
For $16,990 drive away, Suzuki opens the range with this GL. That scores you 15-inch steel wheels with less than fetching hubcaps, a six-speaker stereo, air-conditioning, reversing camera, remote central locking, cruise control, sat nav, auto halogen headlights, power mirrors and windows, and a space-saver spare.
A 7.0-inch touchscreen that you can find in almost every Suzuki handles the sat nav and entertainment duties. It's not a bad piece of hardware except it doesn't have a proper volume knob, but more than makes up for that with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Then ruins it again with tinny sound. You can't have it all, I suppose.
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.
You'll not need to hold on to your hat in the Baleno. The 1.4-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder musters up 68kW at 6000rpm and 130Nm 2000rpm earlier. It's not a lot, but at 915kg, the Baleno isn't doing too badly.
There's an old relic in the transmission department. Power reaches the front wheels via a four-speed automatic transmission. There aren't many of those left in circulation on new car forecourts.
You can't buy a Baleno with the plucky 1.0-litre turbo anymore, which is a bit of shame.
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.
Suzuki says you'll get 5.4L/100km on the combined cycle, which isn't too far off reality, our time delivering around 6.6L/100km. Which was remarkable in itself given how much throttle you have to use to move along.
Another bonus is that even though the fuel tank is just 37 litres, you won't spend half your life filling up.
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.
Most Suzukis are fun to drive even if they're on the slow side. The Jimny bounces around like a fat puppy full of sugar, the Swift is a good laugh and the Vitara is quite handy. The Baleno fails to be any of these things, but it's not all bad news.
The first thing you'll notice is the very light steering that makes a high-pitched noise when you turn it.
The second thing you'll notice is the whine coming from the transmission or somewhere very like it, no matter how much throttle you have on. It shifts smoothly enough, though, which isn't very often given the lack of gears.
It's not often I yearn for a CVT, but that might be the better transmission for this car. Yes, I just checked outside for airborne pigs, too.
The Baleno does feel like it teeters a little on its skinny, high profile tyres. It's not a car to drive with enthusiasm, but if you're happy enough with its almost-lively off-the-mark acceleration, which then fades away rapidly, you'll be perfectly happy.
It's not very quiet, though, with plenty of noise passing through the trademark thin sheetmetal and sparingly damped shell. It's light, but you can hear why - there's not much sound-deadening to weigh it down.
On the open road the Baleno further reinforces its credentials as a city car - it wanders around on the tyres, the steering loses all its feel and the wind noise means you have to turn up the volume to either drown it out or make yourself heard.
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.
Sadly, the Baleno is not among the frontrunners for safety features. It does arrive with six airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls and a reversing camera but misses out on every advanced safety feature we expect to see at least one or two of, such as AEB.
There are two ISOFIX points and three top-tether restraints for the baby and child seats.
The Baleno does not have an ANCAP safety rating.
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.
Suzuki has joined the mainstream market herd with a five year/unlimited kilometre warranty for private use (ie not Uber) but there isn't even a solitary year of roadside assist.
Happily, since we last drove the Baleno, service intervals on the 1.4-litre have improved to 12 months/15,000km (rather than the previous 10,000km) and the company also offers five years of capped pricing up to 90,000km.
Services come in between $239 and $499, unless you've somehow covered 90,000km inside the five year window, and then it blows out to $649. That last figure aside, you can expect to pay $1635 over five years (or $2045 if you go nuts on the mileage). It's not especially cheap.