New Mazda3 Preview: Driver-centric Dynamics

By Lee Pang Seng
THE third generation Mazda3 to be launched in Japan from November and progressively in other countries is the third SkyActiv model after the Mazda6 and CX-5. With each SkyActiv model, Mazda also introduced new developments that it hopes will enhance the car’s appeal further.

We had a recent preview of what’s to come in Melbourne, Australia, where three pre-production cars were provided for impression drives in comparison with the current Mazda3 models, both sedan and hatchback. As the new Mazda3 was yet to be launched Down Under, the event was conducted in the Australian Automotive Research Centre (AARC), about 150km down of Melbourne and near the point at which the Great Ocean Road was to begin.

The sprawling complex has many tracks, roads and facilities that serve as a proving ground of sorts for some vehicle manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Iveco. We got to drive the Mazda3 advanced prototypes and the current models on two of them: the 4.2km highway circuit and the 2km gradient section with lots of corners of varying curves.

The new Mazda3 is unmistakeably of the new stock as it now carries the family look with the shield or badge-like nose grille. First introduced on the Mazda6 and subsequently the CX-5, Mazda is making an attempt to achieve a standard family image or identity that will impress onlookers immediately to its lineage, something that BMW has successfully done since its inception.

This is part of the Kodo – Soul of Motion – design philosophy that Mazda introduced along with the SkyActiv engineering package more than two years ago. The Mazda3 may be a C-segment car but it sits on a wheelbase similar to the CX-5, which gives it a roomy interior to match. Aerodynamically, the new sedan boasts a value of 0.26 while the hatchback is rated at 0.28, which are among the lowest.

Dimensionally, new against preceding model, the significant increase is in the wheelbase, which is now 2700m against 2640mm. The body length stays the same at 4580mm for the sedan and 4460mm for the hatchback. Both are wider at 1795mm against 1755mm, while slightly shorter in height at 1455mm from 1470mm. Having the same length in body means the overhangs front and rear are shorter at 925mm and 955mm respectively (960mm and 980mm). The hatchback sees a shorter 835mm rear overhang against 860mm previously.

While it felt a bit roomier in elbow room between new and old, the new interior dimensions tell the story better. In the sedan, front is marginally reduced (981mm from 987) while rear headroom is slightly better at 955mm from 953, while the wider car sees better shoulder room front and rear (1452mm from 1395, and 1382mm from 1371). Similarly, front legroom is improved to 1073mm from 1068. At the rear, legroom appears shorter at 909mm from 919 although knee clearance is said to be 16mm now from 13mm previously.

There were some details provided on the SkyActiv engines, namely the outputs of 155PS at 6000rpm and 200Nm at 4200rpm for the 2.0-litre engine and 187PS at 5700rpm and 250Nm at 3250rpm for the 2.5-litre unit. The models, new and old, provided for the drive impression came with six-speed manual for the 2.0-litre hatchback models and six-speed automatic for the 2.5-litre sedans.

Being SkyActiv engines, they feature high compression ratios of 13.0:1, direct fuel injection, light weight structure, reduced mechanical resistance (30 per cent less), and achieve 25 per cent better fuel economy. The 2.0-litre engine with SkyActiv Drive automatic is said to deliver 17.5km/l (5.7 l/100km) on the combined cycle, while the 2.5-litre engine is good for 16.7km/l (6 l/100km). The mid-range torque of the bigger displacement unit is improved by 10-15 per cent over the previous MZR 2.5 engine, while the aluminium block reduces weight by 10 per cent.

Some features typical to SkyActiv engines are the high tumble port (quick combustion, suppress knocking and improves torque); cavity aluminium pistons that reduces cooling losses; electric-powered Dual S-VT (sequential valve timing) that operates the intake and exhaust valves; and 4-2-1 exhaust system that allows the exhaust gas to travel a greater distance before merging. Going retro in this area is said to lower the effect of reflected waves reaching another combustion chamber and the scavenging effect reduces exhaust resistance to allow efficient combustion.

Improving the new Mazda3’s driving dynamics is a key feature to make it a driver’s delight through winding stretches with a more responsive vehicle. Called ‘Jimba Ittai’ driving (merging car and driver), Mazda engineers focused on accelerator control to adjust the amount of time required to reach peak acceleration along with the speed with which the driver presses the accelerator pedal. Mazda says this provides a linear response to accelerator pedal action, whether it is pressed slowly or quickly. This allows the driver to anticipate vehicle response to pedal action and use it to control the shift-timing of the six speed automatic transmission.

When developing the chassis, the engineers worked at achieving smooth pitch and roll throughout the car’s dynamic action, whether it is for cruising, cornering or stopping. During cornering, the load is transferred to the front wheels when the driver brakes and then to the outside front wheel as the car changes direction.

The engineers also looked at the audible area during acceleration: by increasing the rigidity of the powertrain, the flexural resonance is suppressed. What happens is that the muffled noise caused by vibration-induced resonance that increases as the engine revs up is eliminated. Likewise, the engine intake and exhaust systems were optimised to curb the amount of ‘unpleasant’ noise that infiltrates the cabin when the accelerator is floored. Mazda says a powerful sound with a frequency near 300Hz is achieved.

The suspension geometry and steering system were also revised as part of the lightweight SkyActiv chassis to provide a linear feeling to changes in cornering G-force. The front MacPherson strut suspension is mounted on a new perimeter frame with increased caster angle and trail to deliver greater self-aligning torque and better stability. The rear multi-link set-up adopts new link positioning and bushing hardness that increases the tyre’s lateral grip. A faster gear ratio at low to mid-range speeds increases yaw gain for a lighter feel to the electric steering operations.

The ‘driver-centric’ focus is also extended to the convenience features inside the car. Called the HMI (Human Machine Interface) connectivity system, the first is an active head-up display using a foldable see-through plastic on top of the dashboard where the instrument panel is. It shows the speed and the Smart City Brake Support in the form of bars to indicate proximity to the vehicle in front. This is probably a more cost effective system compared to those used in BMWs, which use the base of the windscreen to display relevant driving information.

The Smart City Brake Support, which is part of the car’s iActivsense system, is primarily for city driving and uses a near-infrared sensor to detect vehicles. It determines the risk of collision between speeds of 4km/h and 30km/h, and pressurise the brakes if a possibility is detected so that braking is more effective when the driver hits the brake pedal. The Blind Spot Monitoring System is another item in the iActivsense package.

There is also the feature of a control knob on the central console, again similar to that used in some German cars, but in a simpler form. Called the Commander control, its location is made to fall naturally in place for the driver to reach and use without taking his eyes off the road. Made available in the Mazda3 for the first time, it allows the selection of mobile communication, music, GPS, among other facilities on the seven-inch centre display on the dashboard.

Drive Impressions
We started with the new Mazda3 hatchback 2.0-litre model and were encouraged to enjoy the acceleration performance up to the ‘mandatory’ 100km/h, after which we could gauge its feel on the 4km-plus highway oval. The SkyActiv engine proved willing to rev easily and we upshifted to third gear through the manual gearbox at a little over 6000rpm. It didn’t sound as ‘powerful’ as we would have expected but it was good enough.

When we moved to the ‘old’ model that is currently sold, the engine was almost as lively and the sharper whine didn’t sound too bad either. While cruising at 100-110km/h, there was a slight difference in engine speed of about 200rpm in maintaining that speed in the top two gears. That means the SkyActiv engine works at a lower speed and that should promote better fuel economy on long drives.

The ‘Jimba Ittai’ character was felt through the winding 2km gradient course. The new Mazda3 took the tight turns well, acting instinctively to transfer the G-force and dynamic load so that we could drive through at good speeds without having to correct the steering and easing off the accelerator pedal. As we were allowed three laps in each car, we could reinforce that feeling in successive laps.

There was more understeer with the current Mazda3 for the same speed through the respective corners (and we were driving above the recommended 40-60km/h speed), leading to tyre squeals and steering wheel correction. It certainly moved and rolled more from the intended course through the corners than the new model.

The dynamic driving impression was similar with the 2.5-litre automatic sedans. Engine speed at cruising was about the same though the ‘powerful’ note on acceleration was more civilised than racy. We couldn’t decide which engine noise sounded better but with the 2.5-litre’s ease in gaining speed on the straights, we often cruised effortlessly at 120-140km/h. The new Mazda3 generally sounded more refined and quieter with its better aerodynamics and improved body structure.

Photo Gallery