IN THE wake of Holden and Toyota’s local manufacturing closures, Australia has been looking back at what the car industry has been and what’s been lost.
But in the very same month that the final Commodore and Camry rolled off their respective assembly lines for the last time, in October, another car-maker – Mazda – was giving the world a glimpse of the road ahead, and we really are intrigued at what we’re seeing.
Dubbed ‘Kai’, the small but perfectly-formed concept was one of the stars of the recent Tokyo motor show, teasing the public with its taut lines, muscular haunches and exquisitely sparse interior detailing. While the nose is unmistakably Mazda with obvious visual connections to the latest CX-5 and CX-9 SUVs, in profile and stance there is more than a little Italian influence shining through.
More importantly, the deep-red to burnt-orange five-door hatchback is a tantalisingly close look at what could very well be Australia’s favourite small car next decade, as the replacement for the popular Mazda3.
Slated to reach production sometime during 2019, the Japanese designed and engineered C-segment answer to the evergreen Volkswagen Golf will usher in a number of technological advancements to match its striking haute couture, as the Hiroshima-based brand strives to increase the reach of its small-car stalwart around the world.
Dimensionally, the Kai is right on the money. It measures in at just over 4.2 metres long, 1.85m wide and 1.37m high, making the concept some 50mm shorter and 90mm lower than the current Mazda3 equivalent, but is also 60mm wider. It also has a 50mm longer wheelbase. In other words, the proportions are definitely sexier than before!
Perhaps even more fascinating is the vaunted SkyActiv-X engine, which combines compressed-ignition and spark-plug tech to create a uniquely spirited yet super-efficient powertrain alternative. Think of it possessing the response of a petrol unit with the economy of a diesel.
We’re particularly excited about the prospect of this four-cylinder ‘X’ engine becoming available as a cost option to improved versions of the 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre regular SkyActiv-G units on the next Mazda3, having driven a prototype mule wearing the current model’s clothes a few months back in Frankfurt in Germany.
“This compact hatchback concept embodies everything Mazda is aiming for in its next generation of models,” according to Mazda Motor Corporation (MMC) president and CEO Masamichi Kogai.
The brand’s fresh design language was also reiterated at Tokyo by the head-turning Vision Coupe concept, possessing similar lines to the Kai, and suggesting that Mazda’s era of fussy lines and feline detailing is now over.
According to MMC chief designer Yasutake Tsuchida, the fact that it presented a model with such clear production intent as the Kai alongside the stunning sports coupe says something about how Mazda’s Kodo design language has come of age.
“What we intended with this introduction of this car is that we wanted to imbue it with more of the sporty feel than you would expect in a hatchback,” he said.
“And what I feel, and what we hoped to express, in this car design was that it was not what you would have seen in the previous generations, very juvenile and ‘fresh’… but with this one, I’m hoping, and it was certainly the intention, to have a more sporty, mature design.”
Of course, the Kai’s very concept-car massive wheels, tiny door handles and glass roof will remain flights of fancy, as the next Mazda3 has to take on real-world rivals like the Toyota Corolla and Holden Astra. Likewise, don’t expect to see such a radically pared-back cabin. However, the overall athletic form and dynamic nature are certainly realised in the swoopy styling.
As a result, there is also a buzz surrounding the possibility of a return of the high-performance MPS badge in the next-generation hatch. Mazda discontinued its answer to the Golf GTI and Peugeot 308 GTi when the current BM-series 3 was released in January 2014, so it is clear that a hero model is keenly desired by the Japanese. Whether it can match the 2.3-litre DISI turbo’s 190kW/380Nm outputs in the 2009-2013 old 3 MPS is anybody’s guess. That car was certainly a handful in the wet due to so much torque cascading through to the front wheels!
Certainly, the SkyActiv architecture has evolved significantly, though whether the sports models will use the torsion beam rear end that the bread-and-butter 2019 Mazda3 models switch to (from the current multi-link arrangement) is unknown; yes, such a move does go against the dynamic nature of the brand, but the engineers promise us there have been giant strides made in terms of improved noise, vibration and harshness levels, without compromising the signature sharp dynamics. And if an MPS is in the skunkworks, there’s a good chance it might adopt all-wheel drive too.
We’ll have to wait until we get behind the wheel of the production version to have any suspension concerns quelled, but in the meantime, the Kai concept’s muscular beauty bides extremely well for how the next-gen Mazda3 will look… and behave.
Bring it on we say!