2012 Mazda MAZDA3 Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
October 17, 2011

With its new Skyactive powertrains, the 2012 Mazda3 is the eco-conscious choice that sure doesn't drive like one.

The Mazda3 has long been one of the most fun-to-drive compacts on the market, combining flamboyant styling with crisp handling and a little more eagerness and sports-car attitude than most other small cars. But for shoppers putting a priority on gas mileage numbers, too, this model used to disappoint.

For 2012, Mazda has made good to both enthusiasts and the eco-conscious with a new Sky-G engine, paired to either an all-new six-speed automatic transmission or a new six-speed manual. This engine makes a respectable 155 horsepower and feels very refined and responsive, yet it goes about 20 percent farther on a gallon of gas—with fuel economy ratings of up to 40 mpg highway.

Beware, however, that if you want these new powertrains, you'll have to go for the Mazda3i Touring or Grand Touring models; base 3i SV and Sport models still get the old base 2.0-liter engine, while 3s versions get the 167-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine that's somewhat more torquey but much thirstier (we really don't consider it worth the extra money).

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No matter which model, handling is the Mazda3's key to delivering 'zoom-zoom' behind the wheel. The suspension tuning is firm, and the overall feel of the Mazda3 is athletic, without sacrificing too much comfort. Brakes are strong four-wheel discs (unusual in this class), and the steering is surely the best among small, affordable cars—thanks to a sure-feeling electro-hydraulic setup rather than the iffy electric units that rival models now have.

Inside, you'll find generous, supportive front seats and a reasonably accommodating back seat—plus a low, flat cargo floor with the seats folded down. However, in addition to somewhat difficult rear-seat entry, the 3's downfall remains road noise.

Outside of the new powertrains, the Mazda3 gets a few other relatively minor changes for 2012. The instrument panel lighting has changed, and display screens are now a cool blue. Most notably, Mazda has redone the front and rear airdams, added more body-color trim, and toned down the look of the 3's front end, which was not well received on introduction a couple of years ago; it's now a smirk, rather than clownish grin. Inside, the cockpit is sophisticated and plush, but some will find fault with all the rather drab, hard plastic trim within.

Base cars are surprisingly well-equipped for around the $16k mark, but it's some of the tech features available in the Grand Touring—including bi-xenon adaptive lighting, three-position memory power seats, rain-sensing wipers, ten-speaker Bose surround sound, and (new for 2012) a blind-spot monitoring system—that really set this model above most of the competition, all for around $26k loaded.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA3

Styling

From the outside, the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 remains one of the more stylish small-car picks—especially in its distinctive five-door hatchback form.

While much has changed under the hood of some Mazda3 models for 2012, this small-car family looks mostly the same as it did last year—save for a minor styling refresh.

The Mazda3 was completely redesigned a couple of years ago, with more expressive sheetmetal and a smoother, more upgraded interior feel. But the 3's freakshow grin was more often maligned than appreciated, and for 2012 it gets resculpted into more of a relaxed smirk. For 2012, all Mazda3 models get a resculpted front airdam and fascia that transition nicely into 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 boosted its coefficient of drag to 0.27 for the sedan, 0.29 for the five-door.

SkyActiv models are distinguished only by a small badge on the right side of the hatch (or trunk), a blue engine cover, and blue instrument lighting (instead of the base cars' gray lighting).

Of the two body styles—a five-door hatchback and a four-door sedan—we think the hatchback is the way to go, as it's the better-looking and more expressive of the two; the sedan isn't completely frumpy, but it's more ordinary-looking. .

Nothing much is different inside, and against most of the small-car rivals to the Mazda3, it feels sporty but also somewhat drab. The 3's cockpit received a set of substantial upgrades with its last redesign, with refined curves and expansive pieces of black and toned plastic, some of which looks less pleasing than other bits. It has one screen for a trip computer (or nav system on upper trims) and one for the climate control; both are now the same hue.
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2012 Mazda MAZDA3

Performance

The 2012 Mazda3 models are still at the top of their class in driving excitement—and fuel-efficient new Skyactiv powertrains don't spoil any of the fun.

With the introduction of all-new fuel-efficient, eco-badged Skyactiv powertrains in the heart of the 2012 Mazda3 lineup—including a new engine and two new transmissions—you might think that the Mazda3 has taken a step away from sporty performance in favor of 'going green.'

But that's not entirely the case; with smart engineering, it's really not an 'either/or.' With its new 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G engine that's offered on the mid-level Mazda3i Touring and Grand Touring models, Mazda has found a way to produce more power than the base 2.0-liter MZR (older-generation) engine while also getting up to 40 mpg. The new direct-injection, high-compression four runs on regular gasoline and makes 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque—about ten percent more than the base MZR—and is fitted to either a new six-speed automatic (with more aggressive torque-converter lockup) or a new six-speed manual gearbox.

The new six-speed automatic is the star of the lineup. The transmission ratchets between gears with (almost) the quickness of VW's DSG, while pulling off downshifts in Drive seemingly with less indecision. Slip the shifter over to manual, and though we missed having paddle-shifters we were also able to get very quick downshifts, with rev-matching, and it'll hold gears up to redline with no forced upshift or full-throttle-forced downshift.

While we can still see some shoppers going for the base SV or Sport models for the monthly payment—and as such, they're still very enjoyable to drive—we can't see much sense in the more expensive Mazda3s. The 2.5-liter MZR engine that comes with top-of-the-line Mazda3s models still has more low-end torque than the Skyactiv engine, but it's much thirstier, and we anticipate that most shoppers will be happier with the Skyactiv setup—especially considering the outdated feel of the automatic you get with the 2.5. With the Sky-G engine's better transmissions, it feels as quick.

The Mazda3’s electro-hydraulic power steering (which combines an electric pump with a traditional hydraulic-boost feel) remains, simply, the best among all compacts—with a confident feel on center, nice, even and progressive weighting off center, and more road feel (with the severe road shocks damped out) through the steering wheel than you'll experience in any other small car.

Springs and dampers have been retuned for 2012 throughout the Mazda3 lineup, with the settings slightly softer, and the net effect is that a little more road harshness has been tuned out. Throughout the lineup, ride, handling, and control are phenomenal (considering the price and competition), with crisp turn-in and a body that reacts progressively and predictably in quick esses. It's now one of the only models in its class with an independent, multi-link rear suspension.

Also standard across the board on the Mazda3 lineup, but not available in most other compacts—at least in the entry models—are four-wheel disc brakes. Mazda3s models still come with slightly larger discs, but no matter the trim, the Mazda3's pedal feel is solid and secure.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA3

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Mazda3 has nice front seats, though its tight backseat access, lackluster trims, and road noise still place it only mid-pack for comfort and perceived quality.

The 2012 Mazda3 sedan, and the hatchback especially, have a very attractive form from the outside. And to that, they match a relatively well-designed, very functional interior. Like most cars of this side, you'll find plenty of legroom in front, but rear accommodations aren't really adult-sized.

The front seats are generously sized, as well as a little better-bolstered than most in this class; and we like the driving position. We have one caution for taller folks: skip the sunroof, as the Mazda3 has compromised headroom that might get in the way for anyone over six feet or so. In back, the accommodations aren't bad; headroom is adequate for six-footers, but legroom is a bit tight and the smallish doors offer a rather narrow entryway. Fold the backseats down, and they form a low, flat floor large enough in hatchbacks to swallow weekend finds.

Up close, the Mazda3's cabin can still be a little disappointing in the details, especially if you've been cross-shopping with the likes of the Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze, or Ford Focus. The nice hooded gauges are great, and with the fat, small-diameter steering wheel give the 3 a little bit of sports-car feel. Readouts for the audio and climate controls are up high, however changing the climate controls still involves looking far downward. For 2012, Mazda has upgraded the two display screens (one for trip meter functions or navi, the other for audio) so that they're now the same pale-blueish hue, though the plastics and surfaces remain unimpressive.

With the redesign a couple of years ago, as well as the slight retune of the suspension for this year, Mazda has made progress in quelling one of this model's most significant drawbacks: cabin noise. Although it's still a bit more than you hear in the Cruze or Elantra (the price for crisper handling), it's no longer overwhelming on the highway.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA3

Safety

The 2012 Mazda3 is the first affordable small car to offer blind-spot monitoring, and its safety ratings have been mostly good.

In addition to excellent handling and confidence-inspiring handling, the 2012 Mazda3 has a top-notch list of safety features, with no gaps when comparing it to other affordably priced small cars. And beginning this year, it's the first model in its class with a blind-spot monitoring system.

All models--even the base SV--include electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, front side airbags, active head restraints, and side-curtain bags. Strong four-wheel disc brakes are included in all Mazda3 models, in a class where, for about the same money, most models include inferior inferior (by some accounts) rear disc brakes.

Because the Mazda3's structure carries over virtually unchanged to 2012, so do its federal frontal crash-test scores of five stars for the driver, four for the passenger. But its three-star side-impact score remains the only cause for concern in the safety area.

The Mazda3 is again an IIHS Top Safety Pick, with top 'good' results in frontal, side, and rear impact, as well as a top rating for rollover-related roof strength.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA3

Features

In Touring or Grand Touring trims, the 2012 Mazda3 can be had with some premium-car tech features; but it's surprisingly well equipped as a $16k basic commuter.

The 2012 Mazda3 satisfies on several different levels. On the base SV and Sport models, you get a lot for the money. Touring models are probably the heart of the market, including most popular features (including, in 3i form, the new fuel-saving Skyactiv engine and transmission improvements), while Grand Touring cars are the "leather and navi" choices, for those who want more of a premium, loaded feel.

The base Mazda3 i SV sedan starts at just $15,200; it's the entry model, but includes air conditioning, a CD player, and quite a bit more than a base Civic, for example. You'll still need to step up to the Grand Touring model in order to get the Tech Package, which comes with rain-sensing wipers, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, and LED combination taillamps—and now includes blind-spot monitoring—and you can potentially load a Mazda3 into the $26k range.

Tech-savvy shoppers will be kept happy with Bluetooth standard on most models, along with steering-wheel audio and phone controls. We also recommend the available, bassy Bose Centerpoint audio system, which comes with Sirius satellite radio. However the only disappointment with either of the sound-system setups is the very basic display that can only accommodate a few characters for audio information.

The standalone options list is otherwise quite slim but includes Sirius satellite radio, an interior lighting kit, and fog lamps; i Touring models can be optioned up with a moonroof and Bose audio. Overall, Mazda expects the 2012 Mazda3 i Touring model to be the most popular in the lineup, totaling $19,245 with the manual transmission (including destination) and just over $20k with the automatic.

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2012 Mazda MAZDA3

Fuel Economy

Get a 2012 Mazda3 i Touring or Grand Touring with the new SkyActiv engine, and you'll enjoy top-notch fuel economy with no real sacrifice in 'zoom-zoom.'

The Mazda3's gas mileage used to be one of the most disappointing aspects, but that's all changed; mileage-minded shoppers for 2012 can now choose either the Mazda3i Touring or Grand Touring models (hatch or sedan) and get much improved fuel economy, with up to 40 mpg on the highway, thanks to an all-new generation of Skyactiv powertrains.

The new, high-compression, direct-injection 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine has dramatic reductions in mechanical, pumping, and thermodynamic losses, and Mazda has redesigned all the ancillaries (like water and oil pumps) to make the most of it. Both the six-speed automatic and six-speed manual transmissions that come with that engine are all-new, too, with the automatic boasting much-increased torque-converter lockup--helping mileage and also increasing the level of control.

The new versions of the Mazda3 with Skyactiv engines and transmissions achieve much better (about 20 percent better) fuel economy. The new Mazda3i Touring or Grand Touring, with the six-speed automatic, is rated at 28 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, or 27/39 with the six-speed manual. Hatchback models are rated one mile per gallon lower on the highway, due to a slightly worse (0.29, versus 0.27) coefficient of drag. That latter number, for the Mazda3 sedan, is best in class.

EPA fuel economy ratings for the rest of the line aren't nearly as impressive. If you go for one of the base 3i SV or Sport models, or one of the Mazda3s models, you'll get the carryover engine and transmission combinations, with ratings that range down to 21 mpg city, 29 highway.

Although we can't yet estimate what you'll see in real-world driving, Mazda says that its 40 mpg will be better than others' 40 mpg. And in an early fast, aggressive drive, up in the mountains, we already saw better (about 30 mpg) than we'd last seen in a weeklong test (25 mpg) of a Mazda3s automatic.

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April 14, 2015
For 2012 Mazda MAZDA3

Great Small Car for the fuel -conscious!

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GS-Sky motor gives good performance and fuel economy. The car is surprisingly comfortable for long road trips with lots of space for two. Stereo isn't the highest quality but passable. A joy to drive!
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Styling 8.0
Performance 9.0
Comfort & Quality 7.0
Safety 8.0
Features 9.0
Fuel Economy 8.0
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