Mazda loves to innovate, this time with an engine that claims to offer the performance of petrol with the economy of diesel. James McNamara travelled to Barcelona to see if the CX-30 Skyactiv-X might be the perfect solution for confused car buyers.

The people at Mazda really do like to think outside the box. Who can forget the glorious swirling rotary engine of the racy RX-8? Sadly, the manufacturer had to abandon the sports car in the summer of 2012 amid changing attitudes towards emissions and efficiency.

But the fact Mazda has been prepared to entertain unorthodox concepts to propel its vehicles over the years is the same reason the company is back in the motoring headlines with another gem of engineering ingenuity.

It's a head-scratching time for car buyers. They want more efficiency but know that green legislation will most likely mean that the cheaper and more efficient of the two fuels on our forecourts (diesel) will be a less viable an option in the future.

The same consumers are in two minds as to whether an all electric car is the solution while Ireland's charging infrastructure remains so patchy. Hybrids only confuse them even more.

But what if, and bear with me, what if you could create a petrol engine that acts like a diesel engine? Yup – a car that offers the same performance as combustion but delivers the efficiency of compression.

Others have tried before – and failed. They said it couldn’t be done. But the determined folks at Mazda rather like a challenge and kept going.

Luxuriant and snug...inside the CX-30

After touching down at a surprisingly wet Barcelona Airport earlier this month, the handlers from Mazda threw up branded umbrellas over our heads and led us to a line of dazzling CX-30s.

Following the launch of the new Mazda3, this is the second model to get the next-generation treatment. And there’s no denying it, the compact SUV is extremely attractive, particularly in Mazda’s signature Soul Red. Its clay sculpted 'Kodo’ design has resulted in a series of sleek, flowing contours that effortlessly draw the eye.

The company says the car’s aesthetic is inspired by "the purest traditions of Japanese art and the beauty of space between objects". While such a highbrow explanation might seem a little excessive to the casual car buyer, the effect is undeniably striking.

We throw our overnight bags into its 430-litre boot and press the self-closing button. Once inside, embraced by a luxuriant and snug cabin, the love affair continues. The high-end minimalist dark grey and brown materials are really substantial, while the hand-stitched leather provides an elegant finish.

The dashboard is a tasteful blend of old and new. There are three dials, the two outer ones traditional needles, the centre a seamless digital display that on first inspection looks as real as its two flanks.

The car’s natty 8.8in infotainment system neatly assimilates Apple CarPlay which can be intuitively operated by a dial on the centre console, or you can push an integrated switch up and down on the steering wheel. The 12-speaker Bose system is mint.

We leave the Catalonian capital in a 2.0 Skyactiv-G petrol version and head towards Girona, dropping off the motorway to wind through a scenic route to put the car through its paces. The rain intensifies and standing water demands some extra concentration behind the wheel.

As I readjust to driving on the right-hand side of the road, the car’s lane assist gives me a playful nudge back on track after I let the rear passenger-side wheel teeter too close to the edge of the tarmac.

Quickly overcoming my minor disorientation, I never doubt the CX-30. It handles formidably, weaving purposefully through the countryside as giant trucks approach and thunder to my left.

The sense of security in the CX-30 is down to brilliant visibility in every direction helped by the car’s smart technologies which control torque distribution between the front and rear wheels. Meanwhile, a helpful heads-up display beamed on to the windscreen glass not only shows the speed limit and your own speed, but also navigation icons at key moments in your journey.

Smart tech control torque distribution between the front and rear wheels

After arriving at our lodgings there’s a chance to try some of the other CX-30 variants. Myself and another motoring hack are very keen to take a spin in a pre-production model of the much anticipated CX-30 Skyactiv-X.

We’d already been briefed on how the pioneering engine works by one of the brains behind the operation, Christian Schultze, in surprisingly understandable terms. Allow me to recollect what Schultze - Mazda Europe’s director of technical research - told us. It made perfect sense.

Schultze has his audience rapt. "So, we mix a little more air in with the fuel in the chamber. Then, there is a little squirt of petrol and one spark plug creates a small explosion and all the power rushes down like a tsunami."

He is describing SPCCI, not a new children’s charity but rather short hand for ‘spark plug controlled compression ignition’ technology. Schultze tells us that this cleaner crossover approach can create up to 20% more efficiency to deliver the best of both worlds. The Mazda3 Skyactiv-X has a claimed 5.4l/100km fuel economy, which is decent enough.

After finally getting our hands on it, the 180hp Skyactiv-X responds exactly as you would expect a petrol engine to. The only clue that something is slightly different is an almost imperceptible contrast in engine sound. I can only describe it as a very polite diesel engine, but even that is probably overstating matters.

The car also features the Mazda M Hybrid system which further improves fuel economy by recycling energy recovered during deceleration, which in turn powers an electric motor further assisting the engine.

There’s no official price on the Skyactiv-X just yet but industry insiders say it will cost a little bit more than the Skyactiv-G. And If you're not ready to take the Skyactiv-X plunge just yet, there is also a diesel version of this car, the Skyactiv-D 1.8 (116hp).

Mazda has always been fearless in pushing the boundaries and once again is putting it up to the competition. As the Gershwin song goes, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus but with the CX-30 Skyactiv-X Mazda may well have the last laugh yet.