Isle of Sky

IN FOCUS

WORDS STEPHEN CORBY

SKYACTIV-X ON TOUR

IT WAS AN OFFER WE COULDN’T REFUSE: A SCOTTISH ROAD TRIP TO CHECK UNDER THE SPORRAN OF MAZDA’S SKYACTIV-X ENGINE HEADING OUR WAY

I WAS ALWAYS FAIRLY SURE that Alastair Doak, Mazda’s marketing director in Australia, hates me, but the enormity of the enmity is a surprise. Only someone with a deep dislike of you would force you to dress up like a walrus and then throw you into the frigid and frankly frightening waters of the North Atlantic Ocean off Scotland’s icy Isle of Skye.

Alastair – who wears his Scottish heritage with every elongated vowel and gnurled “r” sound, and an inability to use the word “small” instead of “wee” – swears that I will love the ‘coasteering’ adventure he’s taking me on as part of our Mazda 3 Isle of SkyActiv-X drive, but I know the truth.

The fact is he has never forgiven me for the day, way back in 2002, when I, imperilled by the impetuosity of youth, ruined the Very Important Mazda RX-8 initial launch drive in Japan for everyone, and embarrassed him personally as the Australian PR man, by spinning out, ever so slightly, during our track-based test, and causing the Japanese to shut the whole day down.

As I crept out of the barely damaged car in the pits, the pointedly polite Japanese asked me if I was okay, and whether I would like a drink. When I suggested arsenic, I swear Doak started trying to source some.

Years later, when I hear Doak has suggested the two of us take this trip across Scotland, putting Mazda’s miserly new fuel technology to the test in the home of long pockets and short arms, I know what is coming: revenge.

While I assume he wants to punish me with Scottish weather – also known as water torture – and possibly whisky drinking, an activity I would put in a dead heat with effluent gargling, he has other surprises in mind.

What he doesn’t know is that I haven’t been to Scotland for 20 years, and yet my memories of it are almost entirely wonder-filled, so I’m willing to sign up for whatever wicked ways he wants to have with me.

I’m also very curious about the combination of the new 3 – a rare car in that it was both attractive enough and affordable enough for me to consider buying one – and the revolutionary-sounding SkyActiv-X.

Frankly, I’ve been disturbed at how excited some of my colleagues have been about Mazda’s world-first petrol compression engine. As you’ve no doubt read, this car represents the company’s attempt to save the world from emissions poisoning by reducing the CO2 produced by internal-combustion engines, which everyone can buy right now, rather than planning for the unicorn-fairyland of tomorrow, where everyone drives EVs. And they’re achieving this simple goal by adding complexity.

While every other car company around has engaged in downsizing paired with turbocharging, Mazda is blazing its own trail with a supercharged, mild-hybrid 2.0-litre engine that marries the compression-ignition tech, low-down torque and fuel efficiency of a diesel engine with the high-revving fun of a petrol unit. It’s all intensely clever, and there’s even a screen you can pull up that shows you when the SPCCI (Spark Plug Controlled Compression Ignition) is activating. But what does it feel like, and how much fuel does it use?

While the fuel-efficiency claims of 4.5 litres per 100km seem wildly optimistic, that’s just par for the course with car companies, and at least we’ll be able to test that. As we roll out of Edinburgh – a fantastic town that is basically a collection of perfect pubs scattered around a castle that seems to have grown, organically, out of a rocky mountain top – on our first day of driving, I’m keeping a cynical eye on the fuel gauge and the odometer.

Annoyingly, the gauge simply refuses to move, even as we engage for the first time with the fact that Scotland’s government seems to be too tight to build any road with more than one lane in each direction. This means constant traffic, slow progress and plenty of rowing through the gears of the manual version I’m driving.

It takes 280km before we’ve used an indicated one eighth of a tank, and the distance-to-empty is still reading over 500km. Perhaps almost as important, from an environmental point of view, is the SkyActiv-X’s claimed average CO2 emissions of 96g/km, compared to 144g/km for an equivalent 2.0-litre petrol engine without the clever tech.

But what’s it like to drive, and is 132kW (at a very non-diesel 6000rpm) and 224Nm at 3000rpm enough to impress? It’s 18kW and 24Nm more than the conventional 2.0 from Mazda, but 7kW and 28Nm down on the 2.5-litre engine you can have in a 3.

It’s a strange experience right from the start, driving a small car with a manual gearbox, because I so rarely get to do this in Australia (our two press cars are from Germany, and Doak pretends to be surprised they’re left-hand drive, but I know it’s all part of his plan).

The shift action is great, right up there with an MX-5, but acceleration feels ever-so-slightly doughy, and the much-touted lowdown torque is not in great evidence. I find myself going foot flat to the boards regularly, as I wait for a build of revs to deliver. Still, it’s an involving driving experience at least, and the good news is that the sound – described by some as being like a diesel engine running 200m away – isn’t that bad. Indeed, I got back in a standard 3 when I returned home and found it less throaty and pleasant than the new one.

The big surprise comes when I switch to the six-speed automatic. which seems to invigorate the car’s performance, keeping the engine spinning happily in its sweet spot, and making it feel like there’s always enough grunt on tap to keep things interesting.

Even if we aren’t driving through horizontal rain and clouds two feet off the ground, this would feel like a cold day in Hell, because I honestly find myself preferring an automatic over a manual.

Stranger things than this are happening to our snapper, Thomas Wielecki, however, who has never been to Scotland and is thus unprepared for just how much spectacular scenery it has, and, cruelly, how often it is hidden behind and beneath glowering skies and scudding rain.

As we drive into Glencoe, which for me is right up there with the Grand Canyon in terms of jaw-whopping scenery (and not just because I loved the movie Highlander so much that I named my son Connor MacLeod Corby), there are enough tiny breaks in the weather to at least hint at the majesty of the soaring yet soft mountains and the smooth valleys between them. We round one particularly picturesque bend to find ourselves confronted with a vast, ground-level rainbow, stretched over some of the most dramatically sparse yet colourful countryside you could ever see. At first I think the sound of weeping I hear is tears of joy from Wielecki as he surveys the scene, but I later realise it is the automatic windscreen wipers, begging for mercy.

Alastair was just 13 when his family left grungy Glasgow for tropical Turramurra in Sydney. After a brief detour into geology, which involved him almost roasting alive and being eaten by snakes in the Pilbara – an experience about as foreign to a Scotsman as wearing underwear – he fell into a kind of accidental career as a motoring journalist and thence into PR at Mazda in Melbourne.

“I never wanted to be a journalist, for me it was just all about the cars. I’ve always loved cars and been fascinated by the industry, and being a journalist really got me that insight,” Doak recalls.

At our 1813th photo stop for the morning, I ask Alastair whether living in Melbourne helps him avoid being homesick for Scotland, because the weather seems quite similar, but he can’t hear me, because the rain is at such a vicious angle that it quickly fills up our ears.

On the day that we drive to the north tip of the soaring, greencliffed marvel that is the Isle of Skye – a mere six-hour drive from Edinburgh – I gave a lift to a willing participant in the coasteering Doak was forcing me to do. Bri Fischer, from Washington DC, was stunned that she was in a Mazda: “But it just looks so expensive,” she said, pouring music into Doak’s ears.

Coasteering is also known as tombstoning, and is a very Scottish practice that involves pouring yourself into a whale-blubber-thick wetsuit, pulling on rubber booties, a flotation vest and a helmet (but no gloves, sadly) and then hurling yourself off steep, tombstonelike cliffs into an ocean the colour of malignant evil.

“This is all your (expletive) fault, Alastair!” I shout, repeatedly, as we are smashed back into said cliffs by the clearly offended ocean, and told to cling on until the tide surges away and leaves us hanging.

I say it again later as we are flushed, like large turds, through a tight and tiny cave system, chortling in fear in the pitch darkness. All right, to be fair, by the time we get to our last leap, off a six-metre-high ledge, I find myself enjoying the whole thing immensely. But then, I’m not quite right in the head. Doak, who admits to being scared of heights, hurls himself at the activity with something approaching abandon.

Never have I loved a set of seat heaters so much. What also strikes me, over the next two days of non-stop photography, and hearing myself wow out the word “waterfall” a billion times (all that rain causes those massive mountains, which look a bit like Uluru if it had grass and moss all over it, to cover themselves in vast rivulets) is how smooth the start/stop system is in the 3; noticeably more so than the non-X-factored SkyActiv engines.

This, Doak explains, is one of the party tricks of the 24-volt, mild-hybrid system, which is a very slim preview of the EVs and plug-in hybrids that Mazda is about to start rolling out.

While it is packed with enough technology to make Elon Musk sit up and take notice, what impresses about the 3 over our 1500-odd kilometres together is just how normal it feels to drive. It can cruise effortlessly and economically, like a diesel, but without the unappealing diesel noise, and it can also, if you insist, rev and reward you with driver involvement.

As for fuel economy, the on-board computer insists we’ve been averaging around 6.0L/100km (and, in fact the auto does average 6.18L/100km over one 266km stretch), but overall, the manual manages 7.15 and the auto 6.86.

To be fair, there’s been almost no freeway cruising, and there has been a lot of stopping, and no small number of mountains to climb. Our return journey takes us past many places that make my heart sing, particularly the spectacular Eilean Donan Castle, on Loch Alsh, which is where the original Connor MacLeod was memorably banished for being immortal/ possessed by Satan.

On our final leg, we are fortunate enough to pass back through Glencoe during one of those rare, 10-minute periods each year where the rain pauses for a moment, and the clouds almost clear. As a result, I now know, unfortunately, what it’s like to sit very close to another man while he has an orgasm, or a series of them. Wielecki may never, ever recover from the wondrousness overload that is the Scottish Highlands.

Rather more happily, by journey’s end, I realise that I might have been wrong about Doak. He only made me drink one glass of whisky, and it was surprisingly tasty, and the coasteering was a hit, in the end. Perhaps all he really wanted was to show off his home country. I can certainly see why.

IN FOCUS

How frugal?

Mid-6s appear to be the magic number

Wheels’ own John Carey recently had a chance to test the efficiency of the SkyActiv-X engine, driving a six-speed manual 3 over 1000km in the UK. “There were plenty of short trips of 10km to 30km, longer cross-country expeditions that meant frequent crawling through congested town centres, and some quick motorway journeys,” says Carey. “We saw 6.4L/100km, which is an impressive number, taking into account the mix of conditions and given the car was driven normally, avoiding fuel-saving strategies that would maximise economy.”

SPECS

Model Mazda 3 SkyActiv-X hatch

Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, supercharged

Max power 132kW @ 6000rpm

Max torque 224Nm @ 3000rpm

Transmission 6-speed manual

L/W/H/W-B 4460/1795/1435/2725mm

Weight 1350kg 

0-100km/h 8.0sec (claimed)

Economy 5.8L/100km

Price $32,000 (estimated)

On sale Q2 2020