Mazda’s first hybrid uses Toyota Prius technology, but drives better. The Japanese brand has finally joined the growing list of brands to offer hybrid power. The new Mazda3 hybrid sedan uses the same electric drive motor and battery pack technology as Toyota, thanks to a tie-up between the two Japanese brands.
Although the power outputs of the petrol engines in the Toyota Prius and the Mazda3 hybrid sedan are eerily similar, Mazda uses its own super-efficient “Skyactiv” 2.0-litre petrol engine (albeit detuned), which has the highest compression ratio in the automotive world.
Both cars share the same electric motor and battery technology. But the battery pack in the Mazda is mounted vertically behind the back seat, which blocks porthole access and is the reason Mazda does not offer the hybrid as a hatch.
The net result is that the battery robs the Mazda3 of some boot space. Cargo capacity is reduced to 312 litres, but there is still plenty of usable storage area.
As with the Prius, the Mazda3 can travel up to 2km on electric power alone when driven in ideal conditions.
In practice, however, the electric motor serves as a means to boost acceleration up to 40km/h before the petrol engine takes over.
The battery pack is recharged on the move, when the car is travelling downhill or when the brakes are applied.
There is no plug-in version of the Mazda3 available (the plug-in version of the Toyota Prius sold in Japan and North America can travel 20km on battery power before switching to the petrol engine) but the technology would be easily adapted to future models.
Apart from the discreet hybrid badge on the boot, there is no way to distinguish the petrol-electric Mazda3 from the regular version.
This is a mixed blessing and something Mazda is grappling with. Much of the success of the world’s biggest selling hybrid car, the Toyota Prius, is attributed to its unique futuristic looks. Hybrid cars that look like their regular petrol-powered counterparts have been less successful.
Six airbags, a five-star safety rating and several systems that automatically shut down the hybrid hardware in the event of a crash. Safety authorities in Australia are regularly trained in the cables to cut — and to avoid — in hybrid car crashes.
The electric cars that have made headlines after catching fire in North America have much larger, lithium-ion battery packs which are much more vulnerable.
The petrol-electric Mazda3 drives just like any other hybrid, except the transition between the two motors is more seamless. And the brake pedal lacks the sharp, uncomfortable bite so common in hybrid cars.
We only got to sample the Mazda3 hybrid on a 9km stretch of road crossing the Tokyo Bay, so it was not put through the usual paces. Or much pace for that matter.
But we can attest the smoothness and relative refinement of the hybrid system. It’s a class act but, then again, that shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Mazda has adapted proven technology developed by Toyota over the past decade.
Riding on 16-inch wheels and tyres, the Mazda3 hybrid soaked up bumps and thumps — and expansion joins on bridges — with ease.
The only people who don’t seem that keen on the Mazda3 hybrid are the people at Mazda Australia.
“Most hybrids in Australia are sold into government or oddball fleets,” says Mazda Australia boss Martin Benders. “There’s no money in that business so I don’t want to chase it. There would have to be natural demand from private buyers before we’d consider it, and I don’t think the Australian market is there yet.”
Price: $29,990 (estimated)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and electric motor
Power: 100kW (combined), 73kW/142Nm (petrol engine), 60kW/207Nm (electric motor)
Transmission: CVT automatic
Safety: Six airbags, five star ANCAP rating
Cargo space: 312 litres
Turning circle: 10.6m
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km
Battery warranty: N/A