2019 Mazda 3 prototype first drive: Almost ready, but rough around the edges
Mazda wasted no time stuffing its new SPCCI engine into a suitable cradle to show off its capabilities. After a short drive in a prototype, I returned about 15 percent better mileage than in a similar Mazda 3 hatchback, made more impressive considering I didn’t know I was trying.
To be fair, Mazda says we should eventually expect about 25 percent better mileage and about 25 percent more power, as well. These were prototypes, Mazda tells us, and more gains are to be had.
“It feels pretty much like a normal engine,” I told the engineers. “Good,” they said.
It doesn’t quite sound normal, though. The 2.0-liter SPCCI four (are we going to have to start saying that all the time?) has a deep growl on acceleration, with a little diesel clatter when you really put your foot into it. Mazda said this supercharged four made 190 hp. It didn’t quite feel like that much by the seat of the pants. However, Mazda reminded us again that this was still an early version.
Sidenote: Remember that supercharger isn’t really for power, it’s more to keep the exterior pressure right for the compression ignition to happen. There’s none of the telltale whine you might get in a Hellcat.
The 3 hatch also rode on the company’s new chassis, which, like the MX-5, falls under the Jinba-Ittai philosophy: horse and rider as one. Mazda, with help from the Hiroshima University/Tokyo Institute of Technology, dug deep into what makes a car both entertaining and comfortable to drive.
Mazda calls it the “human-centered concept,” and it has to do with how human bodies sit, walk and see. Say you’re walking down a curved line toward a stopping point. Your head looks at the goal as your chest/body continues perpendicular along the line. As you approach the goal, your neck and chest come back into alignment. It’s basically the same when driving around a turn.
As for traveling over a rough road, “dynamic balance is kept with the head motion suppressed,” according to Mazda. Your body basically acts as a damper for your head. If you’re sitting in the proper position, with the spine in its natural “S” state, your pelvis picks up whatever bumps enter the cabin and dissipates them before they reach your head. Mazda upgraded the rigidity in the parts of the seats that delay that transfer of motion to the pelvis and otherwise.
We were able to test that theory in the prototype 3. It felt a little stiffer than the current example, if memory serves me. At high speeds on the unlimited section of the autobahn, it felt stable with a little harmonic wobble over the small amount of bumpy pavement. The steering setup felt similar, if not identical, and the brake feel was strong, too — but so was the outgoing model.
Mazda also added more stiffening “ring structures” into the new platform, which transfer energy both in a crash and under normal driving circumstances. All of that is to smooth the energy transfer to the sprung mass, which is everything above the dampers, including your body. It also reduced the sidewall stiffness of the tires, again to absorb some of that road impact.
Mazda knows driving. Basically, everything the company makes has some sort of motoring soul. That includes the CX-9, which is not only good-looking inside and out, it might be the only three-row SUV on the market that’s not a bore to drive. And this next generation, beginning in 2019 with the SPCCI engine, should only give us more of that.