LTT Reflections: Mazda3 2.2d SportNav Fastback

A few months after having left my now ex-go-to-work wheels in a Skoda dealer’s customer parking bay, I thought I should put a full-stop on the sporadic LTT that I sometimes provided on these pages.  

Mazda3 Fastback
Ex-machina – I liked the looks, even if the colour was less interesting than I had hoped.

Time and the opportunity to compare it with the Octavia which replaced it provide context and perspective on my views. I spent just over two years and 33,000 miles with my Titanium Flash Mica hued Mazda saloon. To recap, I bought the car with the original intent of swapping my C6 in for it, but instead, through the benevolence of my family, I was able to keep the slightly exotic and eccentric Citroen ‘for pleasure’ and have the Mazda to take the burden of my extended daily commute.

I bought the car pre-registered and was fortunate to find one in the spec and colour I wanted. My ultimate preference would have been to have the ivory and black leather trim option, which would have lifted the ambiance of the interior, but the cash saving more than made up for that.

If interested, you can read my more detailed thoughts about the car in previous LTT reviews, but it is safe to say that I became a great fan of how the car drove and the exterior styling, as well as its fuel economy and the infotainment system. The downsides were the gloomy interior (especially in the rear where the view out the side windows is pretty restricted for most humans), road noise (almost as bad as our recently acquired FIAT 500, pointlessly road tested not long ago) and the perceived / surface quality of some aspects of the car, especially inside. Overall, though, I liked it very much.

Now that the car has gone, and that tint of ownership bias has passed, my views have a different clarity and owning a direct competitor (of sorts) provides new perspective. To be fair to myself, I can appreciate better how Mazda’s designers and engineers prioritised giving their mid-range compact model a specific identity and, in so doing, encountered some more negative consequences of going that route. It should be said, though, that some of the negative aspects could have been avoided without taking anything from that identity.

Starting with the positives, the engine in the Octavia – a 2.0L diesel (I know, I have committed a crime against humanity!) – highlights what an excellent engine Mazda’s 2.2L diesel ‘Sky-active’ unit really is. By comparison, the Mazda had a thumping wodge of immediate torque on which the car could surge forward at barely above idle speeds. Furthermore, the Mazda was super-refined, revved more smoothly and quietly and was very well mannered – I am tempted to add ‘for a diesel’, but I’ve driven petrol engine cars, including the 1.4L Turbo currently in the Vauxhall Astra, which were less pleasant to use.

It was supported by an excellently weighted and actioned gear-change (the best I’ve come across) which was a joy. Moreover, that change felt like it was created to be used by enthusiasts, not just to be a pain-free. I write that as the Skoda’s ‘change is very competent and I’d probably think it quite excellent in isolation; however, it’s rather lifeless and remote feeling when compared with that in the Mazda.

The only less favourable perspective I now have on the Mazda is that I had thought its fuel economy truly outstanding. Over the time I had the car, it had averaged just under 57 MPG; I’ve now done almost 9,000 miles in the Skoda and it has averaged 61.5 MPG (which included taking us on the two-week holiday in Devon, which is never a favourable environment for being parsimonious with fuel).

The handling and steering on the Mazda were also sources of great joy and pleasure – reminding me of a Mk1 Focus, and praise does not come any higher from this quarter when it comes to front-drive compact saloons.  The price was a firm ride, which these days now seems very firm, and pretty shocking road noise. I did not think I would write this, but, although I really do lament the loss of the Mazda’s feelsome steering, I think the Skoda, even with its torsion bar rear suspension, provides 75% of the handling panache but has a 50% better ride and is much quieter on any given road surface.

Overall, I’d say that, given they are both pitched as family cars, Mazda errs a bit too far towards being the selfish preserve of the driver in terms of ride/ handling balance. Back on the credit side of the balance sheet, one special mention has to go to tyre wear; I had the car serviced at 30,000 miles and there was still 50% tread left on the fronts and 80% on the rears (Dunlop SportMaxx, in case you were wondering).

WP_20150819_005
One of the Mazda3’s worst aspects – a dingy rear compartment with little to distract passengers from the road noise.

However, it is on the subject of the interior that I realise I was wearing the largest blinkers. In every way bar one the Skoda beats the Mazda. The windows are larger and deeper, giving a much airier and more pleasant feel inside. The quality of the plastics everywhere, the seat coverings, the level of seat comfort and the clarity of the layout of the dashboard and instrument display are from another class.

I miss the Head-Up Display, but not the naff way it was delivered via a small flip-up panel of Perspex. As for space, the Mazda felt cramped, more than it was in reality – the Skoda is commodious in a way that I thought did not exist anymore. The only thing I miss in an unqualified manner is the rotary controller for the infotainment and the more intuitive, informative and helpful satnav. Touch screen-only systems are much, much less safe to use on the go, even if they can (as in the case of the Skoda) look lovely.

I am still pleased that I owned the Mazda. I enjoyed the looks, the originality and, most of all, I miss the pleasure to be had from the way it eagerly and confidently carved and flowed down a clear road. Nothing at all went wrong, it was faultlessly reliable. Only a slight misalignment of the rear door on the driver’s side and paint that seemed to chip quite easily were real world build quality gripes.

I realise now just how much I had put up with high road noise and a rather claustrophobic and average quality interior. Having sat in a new-shape CX-5, it seems that Mazda has caught onto one or two of these short-comings (but the side window-line is still way too high) and they should be fixable whilst retaining Mazda’s distinct identity. I can tell too that I’m now a bit of a fan of the marque; I said at the start of this LTT series that I liked the idea of what Mazda was trying to achieve and, post ownership, my time with the Mazda3 has enhanced that enthusiasm.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

3 thoughts on “LTT Reflections: Mazda3 2.2d SportNav Fastback”

  1. Having recently had a Mazda 3 as a rental car, I can immediately relate with some of the things you mention; especially the cramped interior and very bad visibility towards the back as well as the harsh ride. For me, these two things alone would be enough to rule out every car, however pleasant it might be in other aspects. (This reminds me of my own DS5 test, by the way.)

    Regarding gearchange and driving characteristics, I was rather indifferent; not much opportunity to test them. The engine was a bit of a disappointment, it was a Petrol unit of rather sluggish character. What overshadowed everything, though was the (mal)function of the touchscreen display. This froze on different opportunities, leaving me unable to even change the radio volume, let alone use the satnav. It could only be fixed by re-starting the car. The head-up display is rather a joke, as you mention. Very tiny and mounted so low that you could as well look at the actual instruments.

    All in all, this experience has cured me from whatever interest I might have had in looking for a Mazda.

    1. One assumes the high levels of road generated noise are a price the customer pays for Mazda’s commitment to weight paring, but what appears to be clear from the piece itself and the comment above is that it isn’t necessarily one the customer is content to live with.

      It’s disheartening to hear about the Mazda’s failings, because like the author, I applaud their approach. The unfortunate thing is that as a relative outlier, Mazda needs to be more than there or thereabouts – in order to even get on people’s shopping lists, it needs to offer a complete package.

      The irony of course is that Skoda was once as much as an outlier, but look at them now. They haven’t sat on their hands at Mladá Boleslav, but being part of the seemingly well-funded V.AG mothership can’t hurt either.

    2. The thing is that most of the problems seem fairly easy to fix – and as I wrote, the new CX-5 demonstrates Mazda seems to understand that too. The most difficult aspect in some respects is the styling vs. rear side window-line.

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