Drive: Mazda3 2.0L Sedan

SKYACTIV technologies go full swing in Mazda's latest C-segment hero

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The third generation Mazda3 made its global debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show last year and instead of shipping its new pride and joy with great caution in a container to the German city, Mazda decided to send eight units on a 16,000km pilgrimage from Hiroshima, where the cars were built. The convoy took over a month to reach its destination and, as exhausting as it sounds, we'd like to think that the drive was made easier by fuel stops that were few and far between.

You see, in a test drive of our own, one that traversed five local districts instead of five countries across two continents, we found the Mazda3 to be the brand's most fitting ambassador for its SKYACTIV suite of efficiency-driven technologies so far – 200km of driving to get the first bar of the fuel gauge to disappear was the convincing factor.

It was not love at first sight though. As sharp as the test unit looked in red, we did not have the time to admire or acclimatise with the car, knowing that we had another immediate appointment in Sepang, some 50km away from Mazda Malaysia's headquarters in Glenmarie.

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Naturally, we drove the car like we had stolen it when the roads opened up, occasionally flattening the throttle on the empty straights to avoid running late. What surprised us was that despite the spirited driving, the fuel economy tab of the multi-info display read 6.8 litres per 100km upon arrival, a figure some segment rivals would love to quote on the spec sheet.

The number was no fluke. We drove predominantly in the city the day after. Normal driving in stop-and-go traffic often culminates in fuel consumption comparable with hard driving on the highway. However, the reading dropped to an even more astounding 6.5 litres per 100km. Mazda is clearly getting things right.

Constantly hard at work to keep fuel consumption down is Mazda's i-ELOOP system which regenerates kinetic energy usually lost upon deceleration and braking. The recycled energy, which is stored in a special capacitor, powers on-board electrical items, consequently reducing the workload of the conventional alternator and, in the process, the car's thirst for petrol.

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Drivers can watch this clever system at work via the Fuel Economy Monitor on the centre console's seven-inch touchscreen. Mazda has obviously put a lot of work into visualising the system on the screen, with crisp and smooth-flowing graphics that will not look out of place in a PlayStation 4 video game.

The touchscreen module itself is a work of art, one that flows beautifully with the rest of modern yet eye-pleasing cockpit. It stands out, but thankfully not in the manner of the iPad-like screens mounted on the centre consoles of some of today's Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Those who prefer physical controls over touchscreens will be delighted the Mazda3 also has an iDrive-inspired knob that's accompanied with clearly marked buttons which are easy to comprehend and operate.

Unfortunately, the lack of features expected of a car like the Mazda3 is as evident. There is no reverse camera to work with the high-definition display, nor are there digital dual-zone air-con controls to accompany the fancy control knobs. The cabin looks futuristic and is glued together very well but missing are the leather seats and rear air-con vents necessary to create a truly upmarket feel.

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Instead, Mazda has taken a very European approach and prioritised life from the driver's seat and earns its badges on the road.

On top of being frugal, the high-compression, 2.0-litre SKYACTIV-G engine whips out 162bhp and 210Nm to the front wheels to generate a good dose of fun to work with on the straights. Although traditional in concept, the 6-speed automatic gearbox helps lift the mood too with silky shifts that are nicely timed with the engine's output.

With harmony established in the capable drivetrain, the Mazda3 pulls into speed in a delightfully smooth manner thanks in part to a surprisingly soft suspension setup. There is a significantly stronger sense of comfort with the way the car is damped – the rear is independently sprung by the way – but balance is maintained nonetheless. It will definitely lean a little into corners taken at speed but Mazda's handling traits are still evident in this sedan, with steering feedback being quite accurate and well-weighted despite being electrically controlled.

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This brings us back to the Mazda3 being more for the driver than for the occupants. Mazda may have tried to soften the ride but the balance of comfort and performance is mostly enjoyed by the driver. The fluidic way in which the car's body is sculpted takes away some headroom from the rear quarters. Factor in the fabric seats and the lack of rear blowers and there really isn't much for the passenger at the back to shout about at all.

However, if Mazda Malaysia really had to choose just one variant for the Malaysian market, it made the right choice by bringing in the sedan. It may not have the most spacious rear seats in its class but the Mazda3's boot is still cavernous and useful. This will appeal to family car traditionalists while those with a penchant for hatchbacks, yours truly included, should be able to appreciate the beautiful flow of the rear quarters responsible for the aforementioned lack of headroom.

At RM139k, the Mazda3 is defeated by most of its Japanese peers in the price war, making its lack of kit stand out as the biggest flaw in the package. However, we are sold by its yet-to-be-rivalled balance of performance and fuel efficiency derived from Mazda's SKYACTIV technologies that shine brighter here than in any other vehicle in the stable. Others are likely sold on looks alone.

Engine: 1,998cc 4-cylinder in-line, 162bhp, 210Nm, FWD
Fuel consumption: N/A
Performance: N/A
Weight: 1,292kg
Price: RM138,935

Author: Daryl Loy