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2012 Mazda Mazda3 Preview: 40-MPG SkyActiv, New Base Hatch

August 4, 2011

Change is coming to Mazda's compact Mazda3 hatchback and sedan family for 2012, and the Japanese automaker looks poised to broaden its niche appeal to shoppers who want a responsive-driving car that also gets good mileage.

Think 40 mpg for some Mazda3 models, plus better manual gearboxes and automatic transmissions in those models—as well as a toned-down front-end appearance and new grille, refreshed rear styling, and some other details like new wheels.

Those 40-mpg models are the forerunners of a new generation for the automaker. The 2012 Mazda3 will be the first model in the U.S. to get an all-new range of engines and transmissions that fall under a massive engineering initiative the company is calling SkyActiv.

Through the clean-slate initiative, which affects all aspects of its cars, including powertrains, body structures, and chassis components, Mazda aims to produce a fleet of vehicles that preserves the nimble, responsive driving feel that shoppers have come to know, yet a 30-percent improvement in fuel economy by 2015, from 2008 levels.

No spoil-sport

The new 2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv will achieve its 40-mpg rating without the need for special tactics that like low-rolling resistance tires, thinner body panels, reduced noise insulation, a 'lazy' throttle calibration, or other measures that might make the car less enjoyable to drive. "We're not talking about rock-hard tires that take away road feel," commented U.S. spokesman Jeremy Barnes.


2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv 2.0

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv 2.0

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv 2.0

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv 2.0

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv 2.0

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv 2.0

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.

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