I don’t know if there has been any other manufacturer which has received praise on such a lavish basis in these columns in recent years as Mazda – and for very good reason.
The Japanese manufacturer has – year on year – delivered a range of cars which have increased the popularity and profile of the brand and introduced a level of design, engineering and mechanical ingenuity few others regularly match.
More often than not Mazda has bucked established and emerging trends in each of the fields of endeavour mentioned above to a degree which has not only astonished the opposition — both at home in Japan and elsewhere — but put rivals the back foot in terms of their own breakthroughs (or lack of them, as the case might be).
Models such as the regulars like the 2, 3 and , 6, as well as SUV contenders like the CX-3 and CX-5 — not to mention the latest version of the cracking MX-5 which we reviewed here recently — have established Mazda among a growing band of buyers as one of the most innovative and creative automotive forces there is out there.
This week we are trying two new Mazdas and, as might not really have been expected, one of them is a rip-roaring success and the other, well, is something that gave us cause for moderate concern.
The first of these cars is the excellent Mazda 3 three saloon and the second is the brand new and somewhat confusing CX-30. Why confusing? Well, the CX-30 is the third Mazda SUV/crossover and it fits into the range in between the CX-3 and CX-5.
That being so, you might reasonably conclude that the obvious name for the car is the CX-4.
But no, and the reason Mazda did not take the simple route and simply call this the CX-4 is explained away by the fact that a CX-4 already exists, but only sold in China.
Despite the naming glitch, the CX-30, on the surface appears a nailed-on superstar, but the model that arrived in my driveway and was subsequently given a rigorous test on roads it should have revelled in, revealed a beast which was not in any way a darling to drive.
Although very classy to look at, what with its statement grille, elegance aplenty, plenty of chrome and slit-eyed lights and also blessed with a cracking, if slightly minimalist, interior, the CX-30 may have some excellent variants available, but the one they sent me was not one of them.
It was the upmarket spec SkyActiv-X (the X designates Mazda’s innovative new spark controlled compressed ignition petrol engine) which boasts an output of some 180 bhp and a decent enough torque figure of 224 Nm at 3,000 rpm.
It will dash to 100 kph in a workmanlike 8.5 seconds and top speed is 204 kph. It will also return a consumption figure of 5.9 l/100 km (47.4 mpg) and cost €190 a year to tax thanks to its 105 g/km emission figure. All of the above is good, as is the fact we also had 4WD as standard and the positive driving traits of the Mazda3 (the CX-30 shares the same platform) such as the beautifully accurate steering, top drawer ride quality and handling which is at the upper end of the class norm thanks largely to Mazda’s refined G-Vectoring Control system which matches engine outputs and steering inputs to provide excellent cornering balance.
Unfortunately the tester was fitted with Mazda’s six-speed automatic gearbox and I have to say that in this car it was a terrible disappointment. It held onto cogs way too long and didn’t seem to be too inclined to kick-down when you wanted it to either.
In the normal course of events I am disposed to leaving automatic ‘boxes do their own thing and rarely resort to using the paddle shifters as I find most such systems to be only really useful on performance cars and not on cars which will ply their trade in the day-to-day humdrum of life.
In the case of this CX-30, I found that using the shifters was the only way of making the gearbox approximate anything like the functions it is supposed to carry out.
This is nearly unforgivable for an auto. These things are supposed to be intuitive and mindful of what is required of them. This one had a mind all of its own and was a serious disappointment.
On top of that I found the brakes to be spongy and completely lacking in any natural sort of feel – to the point where you really had to stomp on them to activate any willingness to slow down.
This is something you might get used to in time, but during my time with the car I found it disconcerting and not at all what I was used to from the company.
Otherwise the CX-30 was really nice to live with – that interior is really classy – but the boot wasn’t huge and the available leg room in the rear was a little tight, even without a tall driver or front seat passenger.
The mild disappointment of the CX-30 aside (I’m sure there are models within the line-up that are very good, but the one I was given didn’t live up to expectations), the Mazda3 saloon, on the other hand, was a pleasure to drive.
In my view even smarter looking than the hatch, the four-door model truly looks classy, modern and clean-cut, whilst also having the demeanour of something that is actually bigger than it actually is.
Ride and handling are as per both the hatch and the CX-30 (i.e. excellent) and the interior layout is one of the most miniminalistically intuitive and yet sophisticated this side of a Volvo.
The materials utilised in the cabin are top drawer for the class and again you get the feeling that you are not only in a bigger class of car than is the case, but a more expensive one to boot.
The new engine here is the same as was in its SUV/crossover sibling and while Mazda’s innovating DNA has sought to find new answers to old problems without reverting to old solutions, the engine here does need a bit of hard love to extract the most from it.
Without having resorted to the old ‘throw a turbo at it’ resolution adopted by most companies, Mazda has come up with some complex engineering results and while they do not really impact on the driveability of the car, they do present drivers with something with needs to be adapted to and this might take some people quite a while.
That said, the engine drives pretty normally, but you do have to be aware that the engineers, in their quest for economy from a pretty large petrol motor, have sacrificed not so much performance but enthusiasm, which is somewhat curious in a Mazda.
That said, the sweet six speed manual gearbox was a joy to live with.
Of the two cars here, then, I’d be leaning heavily towards the saloon rather than the crossover for the reasons outlined above.
I will, however, reserve further judgement on the CX-30 until I get into a manual version.