New Mazda earns high praise on a low road in the Highlands
A Mazda sales slump may be coming to an end with new models. Frederic Manby tests a smart contender on a dreary day.
CAITHNESS. The week of storms. Mazda’s British wing chose the north-east corner of Scotland for the Press launch of its new compact car, the Mazda3. Wick airport was the landing ground – a terrain of ancient corrugated sheds which set the scene for what on a bleak winter day sums up the word “dreich”.
The scenery is variously wild and magnificent and lonesome. This was the week that Scotland learnt, once again, that its alcohol consumption and related deaths was the highest in Britain. We were warned the “poliss” were having a pre-Christmas crack-down by testing drivers in the mornings.
The roads are wet, greasy, icy, a bit flooded, for much of the year. Surfaces veer from decent to dire. One was so pitted and holed that I silently admired Mazda for letting us try the car on such a bad road.
The red car remained absurdly composed and civilised but in fact the onboard navigation system had got its satellites in a twist and led us up the wrong track to some de-construction site.
This region, with Thurso and Wick as its key towns, has quiet roads with cambers and humps that test car, driver and passenger. Land Rover, Alfa Romeo, Fiat and BMW have all seen these before, as has Mazda. None of the cars I’ve tried had the handling manners of this new Mazda.
The marque remains the only Japanese brand to win the Le Mans 24-hour race, a feat which its bigger compatriots at Toyota and Nissan have not been able to repeat – blocked by the dominant Audi squad.
Mazda revels in using Japanese words in its sales literature. One such word is kodo. It may sound like a type of dragon or an exotic lady’s dress but is to do with the energy of the body design. I think. Actually, I don’t care what it means. It’s a bit of window flannel. Its international catchphrase is Zoom Zoom. Its bonnet badge is a stylised flying M.
What matters is the end product, and the Mazda3 matters a lot for Mazda UK, as it pulls out of a sales trough (ageing models etc) which saw it pitch from 50,000 a year in Britain in 2007 to 25,000 in 2012. The 2013 total to the end of November was up nearly 19 per cent to nudge 30,000. Next year I’d expect another 5,000. It will be bigger as its energysaving measures, known as Skyactiv, are incorporated in new models. By the end of the decade it says it will have a petrol engine that rivals an electric vehicle for economy.
No doubt in some hi-tech, optimistic shed its idealists are still working on perfecting the Wankel-type rotary engine – the system which gave it that Le Mans win in 1991. Good luck, chaps.
So, sales are rising. Its sweet MX-5 is the world’s bestselling two-seater sports car. I think the public still need alerting to the brand.
The name Skyactiv system certainly gives results. Better economy is achieved using high compression, comparatively large engines (more of which later) and the familiar weight reduction and brake scavenging, low friction systems.
In the new Mazda3, for example, the only diesel engine is 2.2 litres, with 148bhp and great flexibility. The core petrol engine is a 2-litre in two power ratings. On paper they are often beaten for economy and emissions by smaller engined rivals (Focus, Golf) but Mazda claims that in real driving (backed by figures achieved by What Car?) its bigger engines come out in front.
Of course, the customer will not be able to prove that until the car has been bought. We tried a 118bhp 2-litre with manual and automatic gears, and the diesel with manual gears. The diesel has more guts, as expected, but Mazda expect the petrol models to take the bulk of sales. I liked the easy-going automatic and it gave the highest economy of 39 miles a gallon. The manual petrol and the diesel each returned 38mpg, which is good for a 2-litre petrol engine, a bit worryingly high from a diesel – more so since Mazda s showroom brochure gives a combined 72mpg (and 104g/km CO2). Showroom averages for the 118bhp petrol are around 55mpg (manual) and 50mpg (automatic).
The other 2-litre petrol has a pokey 163bhp. The base engine, expected to be a small seller, is a 99bhp 1.5 petrol. This is a new engine and will be a key engine in the next Mazda2. In the Mazda3 it is rated at the same 119g/km CO2 but at £16,695 is £300 less than the entry 2-litre petrol.
Verdict: The new Mazda3 looks, err, zoomy, and rides and handles as well as anything in its class. Ford’s Focus has a new challenger. Kit count is high.
GOOD MANNERS: Absurdly composed and civilised on a road that puts Land Rovers to the test in Scotland.