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2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: First Drive

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In less than a couple of years, 40 miles per gallon has gone from a lofty goal, met by only a few select high-mileage machines (almost entirely hybrids and diesels), to, almost the small-car highway norm.

Now even Mazda is laying claim on 40 mpg in the 2012 Mazda3, with a new-generation engine and all-new transmissions that all fall under the ‘Skyactiv’ badge—that's Mazda's engineering-based initiative for efficiency, eco-friendliness, and safety.

At the same time, Mazda has a 'zoom-zoom' reputation to uphold. And with the Mazda3 a long-time best-seller, making up nearly half of Mazda's U.S. sales, the automaker says that it's kept this a top priority.

Does the Skyactiv version of the Mazda3 maintain the more enthusiastic driving feel that's characterized this lineup, despite going more than 20 percent farther on a gallon of gas? That's the reality check we tried to make earlier this week, in a first drive of refreshed 2012 Mazda3 models with the new technology.

The 'eco' choice that doesn't drive like one

And the answer, without hesitation, is a solid 'yes.' From the first impression on, it's clear that the new Sky-G 2.0-liter engine isn't as strong and torquey as the 2.5-liter 'MZR' engine, which remains available at the top of the lineup (along with the base MZR 2.0-liter); but in short, it's the eco-conscious choice that doesn't feel like an eco-conscious one—and yes, it's zoomy.

Skyactiv, as we’ve learned from Mazda, is more than new engines and transmissions (even though that's all the 3 gets for now); it’s an initiative that looks at body structures and design philosophies as well, and we’ll see some of these ideas showing up in stronger and safer yet lighter next-generation vehicles—like the 2013 Mazda CX-5.

For 2012, all Mazda3 models get a resculpted front airdam and fascia that turns the Mazda3’s freakshow clown smile into more of a relaxed grin. We like the look, as it seems to flow more smoothly anyhow through to the flared front fenders. To match the somewhat different look, there's a new rear fascia as well, with two new wheel designs to complement. And throughout, what you might notice more than anything else is that there's more trim that's body-color than ever—no more dark molded plastic. Through those few subtle changes—mainly those to the front end—Mazda has cut its coefficient of drag to 0.27 for the sedan, 0.29 for the five-door.

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Comments (4)
  1. that's subcompact numbers from a compact: goes over 40 mpg on highway and you almost can't get it under 30 mpg, exactly like Mazda2. Way better than Cruzz mpg, which rarely tops 30 regardless of the ECO joint. (consumer reports, Fuelly, and this website). Possibly one notch over Focus too.

  2. Paul,
    Agreed. Those initial numbers we saw from the trip computer look very promising. But we've found that there's no better test than actually driving a vehicle for a week or more and a few hundred miles, to see what it returns in familiar conditions, compared to others in its class. We hope to bring you that soon.

  3. Who cares how a car handles on the Angeles Crest Highway? That's a unique and beautifully maintained piece of road in sunny So. Cal.
    Get real and tell us how these cars handle on roads that the rest of us drive on. Any modern car handles wonderfully on smooth roads. We want to know whether the suspension can keep the tires on the road when they're bouncing from frost-heaved crack to pothole to raccoon carcass and back again.

  4. I just picked up the 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv this past Sunday, it will be my wife's primary car and the family car on the weekends. She is averaging 35MPG commuting on non-highway roads which is great I think, I am looking forward to getting it on the freeway for a longer trip. The ride is great, steering just as described in this article. I am very happy with this purchase.

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