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much thirstier, and we anticipate that most shoppers will be happier with the Skyactiv setup—especially considering the outdated feel of the automatic you get with the 2.5.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.