The Mazda3 Fastback boldly goes where few cars have sold before. In considering this lightly improved version, Jonathan Crouch wonders whether this small saloon can change the script.
Ten Second Review
The Mazda3 makes all kinds of sense as a hatchback, but as a Fastback saloon? Most buyers won't be so sure. But in an effort to convince them, Mazda has pulled out all the stops. The Fastback offers more luggage space, is more efficient and is arguably better looking. In this improved version, the brand's latest 'SKYACTIV-VEHICLE DYNAMICS' 'G-Vectoring Control' system improves the handling, plus there's a smarter cabin and enhanced safety tech.
It's a fact. Turn a family hatchback into a saloon car and you'll suddenly decimate its sales chances, in the UK at least. It's strange because the opposite is true on the other side of the pond, where sedans are viewed as more upmarket propositions than hatches, so you see all sorts of unlikely vehicles sprouting trunks from their posteriors. So while we've had some very good small saloons, they tend to be viewed with suspicion and it's a script that Mazda will need to do very well to change with its Mazda3 Fastback.
The Mazda3 story to date is fairly straightforward. The first generation car appeared in 2003, based largely on Ford Focus underpinnings. That model was replaced by a sleeker and more modern hatch in 2009, and now we're on generation three, a design first launched in 2013, then updated in the Autumn of 2016 to reate the version we're looking at here. The one thing that unites all these models is that they look nothing like each other. Always an underachiever, the Mazda3 offers a broad range, and a closer look at this improved Fastback model suggests that this breadth certainly hasn't come at the expense of depth.
Unlike the hatchback version, the Mazda3 Fastback doesn't get the entry-level 100PS 1.5-litre petrol powerplant and it also does without the 165PS 2.0-litre. So that means buyers get a restricted choice of one 2.0-litre petrol engine and two diesels (a 1.5 and a 2.2-litre unit). The 2.2-litre diesel will cover the sprint to 62mph in 8.1 seconds, thanks to its punchy 150PS output. The 2.0-litre petrol engine is good for 120PS. Performance? Think rest to 62mph in 8.9 seconds for the manual version and a few tenths slower for the six-speed automatic models. Both engines are high quality units. Mazda predicts the petrol engine will account for the greater proportion of sales, but the diesel's 380Nm of torque is hard to resist.
A key dynamic change for this improved Mazda 3 is the addition of what the brand calls 'GVC' - or 'G-Vectoring Control', parts of its 'SKYACTIV-VEHICLE DYNAMICS' range of technology systems. This is essentially one of those torque vectoring set-ups, this one able to vary engine torque to optimise the load on each wheel, providing more precise handling as well as a smoother ride under virtually any driving conditions. Diesel-powered models get high-precision boost control, which enhances accelerator responsiveness, along with 'Natural Sound Frequency Control' and what's called a 'Natural Sound Smoother' to improve refinement.
Design and Build
Most four-door versions of five-door hatches look distinctly ungainly, with a clumsy relationship between the rear roofline and boot. There are exceptions, such as the Audi A3 saloon, but by and large there's often a hefty dose of 'not quite right' about them. The Mazda3 is different. In fact, look at the hatch and the Fastback side by side and you'd swear the hatch was a modified version of the four door. There's decent luggage space as well, something that the stubby boot hardly hints at. Where the hatch offers 350-litres of capacity before you drop the seats, there's a massive 419-litres on offer in the Fastback. The seats fold as well, so you'll be able to get long loads in there, just not things like tumble dryers. What's more, you can access the luggage bay on very hot or cold days without losing all the climate controlled air from inside the car.
Interior updates include higher-quality switch panels and handle bezels on the doors, plus a newly designed trim insert on the dashboard. The adoption of an electric parking brake creates space for a more practical centre console, while another highlight is a new leather steering wheel design that enhances feel and style, and if combined with leather seats is heated. There's also the option of an enhanced 'Active Driving Display' featuring a high quality full-colour screen. This Head-up display eases communicating information to drivers without any need for them to take their eyes off the road. Otherwise, things are much as before, with strong standards of interior space.
Market and Model
Prices are identical to those of the hatchback which means that the Fastback range kicks off at around £17,500 and tops out at around £23,000. Within that £5,500 window are a considerable number of different trim, engine and transmission combinations, based around five trims, two transmissions and three engines. The trim levels open with SE, step up through SE Nav, SE-L, and SE-L Nav, topping out with the Sport model.
Buyers can get refinements like a head-up display, touch-screen satellite-navigation and mobile internet connectivity. The mobile system is particularly interesting, following the likes of Toyota into the market with a system that allows the car to pair with a smartphone and display Facebook and Twitter updates. A nine-speaker Bose audio system is also available. Safety equipment hasn't been neglected either, with the latest Mazda3 featuring a forward warning system which monitors vehicles in front, smart braking which primes the brakes if it senses they may be needed and rear vehicle monitoring which checks your three-quarter blind spot. There's also a high beam control that automatically dips your lights when it senses oncoming traffic.
Cost of Ownership
You may have heard Mazda making great play of its SKYACTIV technology and you're probably used to such nonsense buzzwords, but bear with this one because there's real merit behind it. SKYACTIV aims to improve efficiency by reducing weight and utilising smart functions such as capturing waste energy to power things like the air-conditioning when the car is stationary. It even extends to functions like an active shutter front grille which closes for better aerodynamics when the engine isn't in immediate need of cooling.
That technology means that fuel and CO2 figures are knocking on the door of best in class. As an example, the 2.2-litre 150PS SKYACTIV-D diesel version can return 107g/km of CO2 and 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and even the 2.0-litre 120PS SKYACTIV-G petrol model manages 55.4mpg and 119g/km. For the 1.5-litre SKYACTIV-D diesel variant, the figures are mre impressive still, 99g/km and 74.3mpg.
The Mazda3 Fastback is still a thoroughly likeable vehicle. It offers more luggage space with the rear seats in place than the hatch, is arguably better looking and, in diesel form at least, is a little more efficient. The downsides? You don't get quite the flexibility to lug big boxes that you'd enjoy with the hatch and the engine range isn't as big. The Fastback shares with the hatch the same high quality cabin, excellent refinement and keen value for money.
As for the changes made to this more refined, slightly more sophisticated model, well the updates in the interior are welcome but overall, this car is still going to appeal to the same slightly niche compact mainstream saloon market the previous version did. If you do happen to be buying in that segment though, this is one contender worth including on your list.