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Mazda 3 2021 review: X20 Astina sedan

Mazda's innovative Skyactiv-X powertrain is finally here, but has it been worth the wait?

Daily driver score

3.8/5

Urban score

3.8/5

The Mazda3 is a familiar face, so much so that it was the best-selling passenger car in Australia not all that long ago, but times have changed, and it doesn’t have that coveted title anymore.

Yep, the new-generation Toyota Corolla came out swinging with a serious focus on series-parallel hybrid performance and efficiency, storming ahead as buyers looked towards the benefits of low-emissions motoring.

So, it would make sense that Mazda would respond with an electrified version of the ‘3’, which it has… and hasn’t. See, it’s been spending precious R&D time and money on a petrol engine that acts like a diesel one – and has mild hybridisation.

Of course, this begs the question whether Mazda’s efforts with the so-called 'Skyactiv-X' powertrain were misguided or a stroke of genius. As always, there’s only one way to find out, so read on for our review of the Mazda3 sedan’s new X20 Astina flagship.

Is there anything interesting about its design?

The Mazda3 sedan is a stunner in more ways than one, especially in X20 Astina form.

Up front, the ‘3’ sedan is clearly a Mazda, with the brand’s familiar family face proudly on display, as evidenced by the large grille linked to the X20 Astina’s adaptive LED headlights and daytime running lights by thick chrome trim.

This sleek front fascia leads into the Mazda3 sedan’s almost-as-delightful sides, which are a lesson in simplicity. The roofline, especially, looks sporty but doesn’t buy into the fastback fad. The X20 Astina’s 18-inch alloy wheels with 215/45 tyres also look great.

At the rear, the Mazda3 sedan is arguably at its best, once again looking simple but purposeful. The LED tail-lights are alluring, as are the dual exhaust tailpipes. It’s no longer a foregone conclusion which body-style is the most attractive. Be worried, hatchback.

The Mazda3 sedan is a stunner in more ways than one. The Mazda3 sedan is a stunner in more ways than one.

That said, it’s inside where the Mazda3 sedan blows the competition away. You could easily mistake it for a Mercedes-Benz C-Class or a BMW 3 Series. Hell, it could even be confused with an E-Class or 5 Series, it’s that premium... no, luxurious.

Supple leather-accented upholstery covers the seats, steering wheel, door inserts, central armrest and middle dashboard in the X20 Astina, while soft-touch plastics are used for its door shoulders and upper dashboard. But all of that’s not even half the story…

For example, all of the switchgear feels superb, and the steering wheel’s stalks are beautifully damped. Then there are the generously padded armrests across both rows.

Yes, we could go on and on about how luxurious – that’s beyond premium – the interior is.

Better yet, the driving position is spot on, and a 7.0-inch multifunction display between the tachometer and speedometer is a welcome inclusion , although its functionality is rather limited when to compared to most digital instrument clusters.

At the rear, the Mazda3 sedan is arguably at its best. At the rear, the Mazda3 sedan is arguably at its best.

To the left, though, is a ‘floating’ 8.8-inch display, powered by Mazda’s latest multimedia system, complete with a sharp set of graphics but no touch input method.

Yep, Mazda has doubled down on the rotary controller (with shortcut buttons) that it previously exclusively championed. While somewhat controversial, it’s the right move from a safety perspective, so too is the persistence with a row of physical climate controls.

Not as clear-cut, though, is the widescreen format of the central panel it operates, with it looking particularly skinny when using the X20 Astina’s in-built satellite navigation or smartphone mirroring (wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto).

Similarly, the X20 Astina’s windshield-projected head-up display is almost too small to be legible, which is frustrating because it's otherwise well positioned.

Mazda has doubled down on the rotary controller that it previously exclusively championed. Mazda has doubled down on the rotary controller that it previously exclusively championed.

How practical is the space inside?

Measuring 4660mm long (with a 2725mm wheelbase), 1795mm wide, and 1440mm tall, the Mazda3 is on the large side for a small sedan, which is good news when it comes to practicality.

While a solid 444L of cargo capacity is on offer (149L more than the hatchback), if the 60/40 split-fold rear bench is dropped, even more space is created alongside a small hump in the floor. But the central seatbelt can’t be detached, which is annoying.

That said, the sedan’s configuration isn’t as practical as that of its hatchback sibling when it comes to aperture (it’s wide but short), while it also has a significant load lip to contend with. Both drawbacks make loading/unloading bulkier items more of a challenge.

The boot also lacks tie-down points and bag hooks, meaning loose cargo can fly about more easily. That said, the manual release latches on hand for the rear seats are great… but they still need to be pushed down, and there’s no ski port.

The Mazda3 is on the large side for a small sedan, which is good news when it comes to practicality. The Mazda3 is on the large side for a small sedan, which is good news when it comes to practicality.

While the second row in the Mazda3 sedan is a little tight, it’s definitely roomier than that of its hatchback counterpart. Especially when it comes to headroom thanks to its traditional three-box shape, with about a centimetre available with the X20 Astina’s sunroof in situ.

Either way, there are three or four centimetres of legroom available behind my 184cm driving position, but toe-room is quite limited with the power-adjustable driver’s seat set to its lowest position.

Three adults will only want to travel abreast on shorter journeys, with shoulder-room for them not only limited, but the large transmission tunnel eats into footwell space, which is a precious commodity. However, children will be fine no matter the length of their stay.

Speaking of which, the sedan has two ISOFIX and three top-tether anchorage points for child seats across the rear bench, but it’d be best to test drive your required set-up.

While the second row in the Mazda3 sedan is a little tight, it’s definitely roomier than that of its hatchback counterpart. While the second row in the Mazda3 sedan is a little tight, it’s definitely roomier than that of its hatchback counterpart.

Other second-row amenities include central air vents but not USB ports or any other connectivity option. That said, there’s a fold-down armrest with two cupholders, while the rear door bins can also take one regular bottle each.

Up front, things are a lot better, with a single USB-A port located in the centre stack, while another one is hidden in the large central bin with a 12V power outlet (and a divider).

Other in-cabin storage options include a decently sized glove box, a sunglasses holder overhead and a tiny fold-out cubby near the driver’s right knee.

A smartphone-ready space is located ahead of the two cupholders positioned in front of the gear selector, while the front door bins can accommodate one large bottle apiece.

A solid 444L of cargo capacity is on offer in the boot. A solid 444L of cargo capacity is on offer in the boot.

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

Priced from an eye-watering $41,590 plus on road costs, the automatic X20 Astina is the most expensive Mazda3 sedan money can buy, by some margin.

It commands a $3000 premium over the previous flagship automatic G25 Astina, with its revolutionary petrol engine and 24V mild-hybrid system the reason for the stark price difference, but more on that combination later.

Standard equipment not already mentioned in the X20 Astina includes dusk-sensing lights, rain-sensing wipers, auto-folding side mirrors with heating, a space-saver spare wheel, digital radio, a 12-speaker Bose sound system, a heated steering wheel, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.

The automatic X20 Astina is the most expensive Mazda3 sedan money can buy, by some margin. The automatic X20 Astina is the most expensive Mazda3 sedan money can buy, by some margin.

The only option here is paintwork (our test vehicle was finished in no-cost 'Snowflake White'), so you get a comprehensive set of features for your money. That said, a wireless smartphone charger is a notable omission.

Rivals for the Mazda3 X20 Astina sedan include Toyota’s Corolla SX Hybrid sedan ($30,795) and Prius i-Tech ($45,825) as well as the more comparable Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid Premium ($40,390). Mind you, all three are proper series-parallel hybrids, not very mild ones…

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

Welcome to the revolution. Well, that’s what Mazda would like you to think. In reality, it’s more of an evolution, and arguably, a misguided one at that.

While the aforementioned G25 Astina has a 139kW/250Nm 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine, the X20 Astina ‘upgrades’ to a 2.0-litre unit that’s technically supercharged (it acts like more of an air compressor, but more on that in a moment).

All in all, the X20 Astina produces an inferior 132kW of power at 6000rpm and 224Nm of torque at 3000rpm. However, an upcoming update will boost these outputs to 140kW/240Nm, with even existing owners set to be offered the upgrade.

So, what is this Skyactiv-X powertrain all about? Well, it’s a bit technical, but the main thing you need to know is it’s the latest twist on the internal-combustion engine, which will be legislated out of existence in the coming decades.

The X20 Astina ‘upgrades’ to a 2.0-litre unit that’s technically supercharged. The X20 Astina ‘upgrades’ to a 2.0-litre unit that’s technically supercharged.

Compared to a traditional petrol unit, the Skyactiv-X powertrain uses compression ignition – or 'Spark Controlled Compression Ignition' (SCCI) in Mazda speak – to deliver diesel levels of efficiency in what is claimed to be a world first for series production.

Specifically, the fuel-air mixture ignites when compressed by the piston at a high ratio – but only if the Skyactiv-X powertrain is basically in its mid-range. At very low speeds, and when under a heavy load, conventional spark plugs do the igniting instead. Half-baked? Perhaps.

As mentioned, the Skyactiv-X is also technically a ‘mild hybrid’, with its 24V electric system (including a lithium-ion battery) powering the X20 Astina’s auxiliaries and starter motor (to make idle-stop almost imperceptible), but not any of its axles. The mildest of mild, then.

While a six-speed manual is standard with the Skyactiv-X powertrain, our test vehicle was fitted with the optional ($1000) six-speed torque-converter automatic (with paddle-shifters). Either way, drive is sent to the front wheels.

How much fuel does it consume?

The X20 Astina’s fuel consumption on the combined-cycle test (ADR 81/02) is a relatively impressive 5.5L per 100km (so it should be), while its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are 132g per km. Comparatively, the G25 Astina claims 6.5L/100km and 152g/km.

That said, in two weeks of real-world testing with the X20 Astina, we averaged a not so impressive 7.8L/100km over 310km of driving that was skewed towards city roads over highways.

And for what it’s worth, previous experiences show the G25 Astina would’ve only been about 1.0L/100km off that mark, so it would take a very, very long time to make up the cost difference in fuel savings.

For reference, the X20 Astina’s 51L fuel tank takes 95RON petrol at minimum, whereas the G25 Astina is happing taking cheaper 91RON, so it also has that working against it.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

ANCAP awarded the entire Mazda3 range its maximum five-star safety rating in April 2019.

Advanced driver-assist systems in the X20 Astina are extensive, with front and rear autonomous emergency braking, steering assist, blind-spot monitoring, front and rear cross-traffic alert, high-beam assist, traffic sign recognition, driver attention alert, surround-view cameras and front and rear parking sensors all included.

ANCAP awarded the entire Mazda3 range its maximum five-star safety rating in April 2019. ANCAP awarded the entire Mazda3 range its maximum five-star safety rating in April 2019.

Two others aren’t as good as they should be, though, with lane-keep assist more reactive than proactive and adaptive cruise control (with stop and go functionality) not at all smooth when automatically slowing. Park assist’s also missing, but we digress.

Other standard safety equipment includes seven airbags (dual front, front-side and curtain plus driver’s knee) and the usual electronic stability and traction control systems.

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

As with all Mazda models, the Mazda3 comes with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with five years of roadside assistance, both of which are average when compared to Kia’s market-leading seven-year terms with ‘no strings attached’.

The X20 Astina’s service intervals are on the short side when it comes to distance, at every year or 10,000km, whichever comes first. That said, capped-price servicing is available for the first five visits, costing $1780 in total, which is more than reasonable.

What's it like to drive around town?

Let’s cut to the chase: the Skyactiv-X powertrain is better than the Mazda3 sedan’s two other petrol engine options. As mentioned, it’s more efficient, but it’s also the better drive, particularly around town.

In fact, the difference in refinement is immediately noticeable, with the Skyactiv-X powertrain not only quieter, but also nice and smooth off the line, and it even produces a great little noise – nothing overtly sporty, but enjoyable nonetheless.

That said, the Skyactiv-X engine isn’t the higher-performing option many have been clamouring for – on paper and in reality.

Down low, it’s lacking the turbocharged oomph of many of its rivals, with meaningful progress only achieved from the mid-range onwards.

What’s much better, is the Mazda3 sedan’s ride and handling. What’s much better, is the Mazda3 sedan’s ride and handling.

The six-speed torque-converter automatic transmission in our test vehicle is nothing short of dependable, though, providing smooth gear changes that aren’t lightning fast – just like the acceleration.

While you’d think engaging its Sport mode would add some much-needed vigour, you’ll be let down as the shift points are just moved to higher engine speeds, so it’s not really ‘faster’. It'll kick down readily when needed, though.

What’s much better, is the Mazda3 sedan’s ride and handling. Yes, this is the case despite the controversial shift away from independent multi links to a torsion beam for the rear suspension.

The MacPherson-strut front end is wonderfully supple, with initial contact with city-road imperfections absorbed with aplomb… but its opposite is predictably less composed in the same conditions. That said, overall ride comfort is sublime, especially at higher speeds.

Another highlight is the weighting of the electric power steering when going faster. Another highlight is the weighting of the electric power steering when going faster.

In spite of its suspension’s so-called soft tune, the Mazda3 sedan still tackles corners with the best of them. While not as sharp as some rivals, it still exhibits strong body control through the twisty stuff at speed, dealing with the X20 Astina’s 1439kg kerb weight with confidence.

Another highlight is the weighting of the electric power steering when going faster. But it is too heavy at lower speeds, making common manoeuvres like U-turns and parking in the urban jungle more difficult than they need to be.

Nonetheless, the set-up’s direct ratio serves to enhance the Mazda3 sedan’s darty nature, while its solid feedback is complemented by a communicative chassis. So, not bad at all when you take the opportunity to head out of town.

However, it’s worth noting the X20 Astina’s brake pedal is just about as wooden as it gets, even though braking performance is perfectly adequate. It’s something you’ll immediately notice and dislike, although you will get used to it.

While Mazda should be congratulated for developing the Skyactiv-X powertrain that is the focal point of this review, it most certainly isn’t worth the premium it currently attracts.

In the years to come, there's no doubt the technology will proliferate down the ‘3’ range and further across Mazda’s model line-up (it’s already in the CX-30 small SUV), but it has to become significantly more affordable to be considered worthy.

And even so, the real-world advantages it has over the Mazda3 sedan’s other petrol engine options are slim at best. So, for now, save your $3000 and avoid disappointment.

Overall, the Mazda3 sedan is still a very convincing small car, and its Astina grade is as luxurious as it gets, be it in G25 or X20 guise, so go for the former and you will be very, very pleased – for the most part. Yep, it’ll still cost a bit to get into…

$41,590

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

3.8/5

Urban score

3.8/5
Price Guide

$41,590

Based on new car retail price