And the new engine will be mated to one of two different weight-saving new transmissions—a six-speed manual that's been designed to have smoother, shorter, and more precise throws than the current unit in the 3, and a new six-speed automatic that has radically reduced torque converter use to help improve fuel economy and driving feel.
Indeed, in a short test drive of several test mules—Euro-spec Mazda6 equipped with the so-called Sky-G engine—we found the new engine and transmissions to be promising. While we can't make any declarations about the Mazda3 quite yet, we can say that the new Sky-G engine and automatic transmission felt more responsive and in harmony than the 2012 Ford Focus with its dual-clutch automatic.
The SkyActiv models will be equipped much the same as the existing Mazda3, but at a slight premium over the 's' models in the lineup.
New base 2.0-liter 'i' hatchback
And there's one other big piece of news for 2012. Up until now, the Mazda3 in the U.S. has come in 2.0-liter 'i' and 2.5-liter 's' models. But up until now, if you wanted the hatchback, you had to step up to the 's' and its larger engine, longer equipment list and significantly higher price.
Beginning this fall, that will no longer be the case; the base 2012 Mazda3 's' will be available in both sedan and hatchback form, with a five-speed manual or automatic transmission. Up from that sportier 's' models will get the 167-hp, 2.5-liter four, with either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic. And at the top of the lineup, the MazdaSpeed3 will return, offered only in manual-gearbox form as it is now.
Otherwise, we expect most trims, features, and options to be carried over for 2012—which means you'll still see it on sale in Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring trims, as well as a value-priced SV. You should see our full review of the 2011 Mazda3 for more detail, but overall we like the 3, overall, because it simply brings a little more driver involvement than any other affordable compact.
SkyActiv engines are eventually in the works for the entire lineup, but they'll be limited to special models until the Mazda3's next full redesign, due in a couple of years.