Last year, some models in the Mazda3 lineup were given all-new fuel-efficient, eco-badged Skyactiv powertrains—including a new engine and two new transmissions—that earned far better gas mileage while still offering a relatively sporty, satisfying driving experience.
For 2013, Mazda has managed to add its SkyActiv engine and transmissions to a wider range of Mazda3 models. In addition to the mid-level Mazda3i Touring and Grand Touring models it was previously installed into, the 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter SkyActiv-G engine is now included in Mazda3i Sport models--leaving the base 2.0-liter MZR (older-generation) engine only on the entry-level SV model.
Get any of the models with this new engine, and you likely won't be disappointed. Mazda has shown that in order to greatly improve fuel economy, you don't need to take driving fun out of the equation. 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 manual is a little tight, but we like the close-ratio feel; and the automatic transmission ratchets between gears with (almost) the quickness of VW's DSG, while pulling off downshifts in Drive seemingly with less indecision. Over in the manual gate, you can control the shifts with very little pause, and the transmission holds gears up to redline with no forced shifts for full throttle--and rev-matching for downshifts.
Although the base Mazda3i SV might make sense for its bargain price (and it's nearly as enjoyable to drive, albeit without the exemplary mpg), it's harder making an argument for the Mazda3s models and their much thirstier 2.5-liter MZR engine. It has more torque at the low end, for faster starts, but we think that most shoppers will be happier with the new SkyActiv engine; besides, the modern automatic you get with the Sky-G helps make up for any difference in output.
Among affordable compact cars, we with no hesitation single out the Mazda3 as having the best, most engaging steering feel. With electro-hydraulic power steering (combining an electric pump with a traditional hydraulic-boost), what you get is a confident feel on center, nice, even and progressive weighting off center, and more road feel (with the severe road shocks damped out) than you'll find in any other small car--and even some performance ones.
The Mazda3 rides on the firm side compared to other small cars, although the springs and dampers were made somewhat softer for 2012, which tuned out some of the road harshness. Overall, ride and handling are phenomenal for a car this price, with progressive, predictable body control, crisp turn-in, and a lack of fluster over rough surfaces. It's now one of the only models in its class with an independent, multi-link rear suspension.
Four-wheel disc brakes are standard across the board in the Mazda3 as well, while they're optional on most compact sedans, or relegated only to the top models. Mazda3s models get even larger discs.