2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: First Drive

October 14, 2011
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.

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).

Overall, the new Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter engine is 4.4 pounds lighter than the existing base 2.0-liter MZR engine, yet it incorporates new dual sequential valve timing (electronically variable) and multi-hole direct injection and makes 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. That’s about five percent more power and ten percent more torque than the former 2.0-liter. In the Mazda3, the new engine has a 12:1 compression ratio, yet it uses regular gasoline.

Fitted to the new Skyactiv-G engine is an all-new six-speed manual gearbox, or an all-new six-speed automatic transmission. The manual gearbox has a better, smoother, and quicker shift feel than the previous unit, with nice, light clutch takeup as well. For the automatic, Mazda went with a conventional hydraulic layout but redesigned it from scratch to accomplish the quicker shifting of a dual-clutch system while effectively using the torque converter only for slip from a standing start.

All-new automatic both smooth and quick

The new six-speed automatic is the star of the lineup. Mazda boasted that the much lower slip allows a more linear response, and more predictable driving feel, but we were skeptical until experiencing this in the twisties. The transmission ratchets between gears with the quickness of VW's DSG—well, almost—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.

The all-new engine starts and idles with a smooth purr (Mazda has even redesigned the starter, and all the ancillaries). After a short distance, it was clear that while it's not quite as quick as the 2.5, it has a nice, even buildup throughout the range. There's more available low-mid-range torque than the Elantra, and none of the thrashy, coarse character that some compact cars exhibit when pressed hard. We couldn't find any odd vibrations or resonant frequencies, and it feels like a true premium small-car engine in character, revving freely to redline and responding quickly to throttle blips. We’re also happy that Mazda has dialed some engine braking into this unit.

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. While for road noise the Mazda3 of a few model years ago had one of the noisiest cabins in its class, the redesign of a couple model years ago, combined with the subtle changes this year, mean that there’s no longer such a distinction. The Elantra is quieter inside, no doubt, but next to the now more softly-sprung Civic, it’s a tossup between the two for road noise.

Mazda3 still one of the few that gets steering feel right

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. And with most other automakers saying that they had to use motor-drive electric power-steering units (and their often far inferior feel) to achieve those high mileage ratings, it seems like a slap in the face.

And even though the Mazda3i Grand Touring model we were driving for most of the day is hardly the performance model of the lineup (with lesser tires and brakes than the 3s), handling and control is phenomenal, 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.

EPA ratings for the Skyactiv Mazda3 models are 28 mpg city, 40 highway. Manual-transmission models are at 27/39, and hatchbacks lose 1 mpg on the highway due to their slightly higher aerodynamic drag. As Mazda points out, they've done this without using dramatically taller gear ratios, low-rolling-resistance tires, or skimping on noise insulation or sheetmetal. The 3 also still comes with a compact spare tire, at a time when some automakers (such as Hyundai, with the Elantra) have omitted them from the standard-equipment list.

Is their 40 mpg like others' 40 mpg?

Which, with the driving experience, builds to the pretty strong argument Mazda makes: That their 40 mpg isn't like others' 40 mpg. Mazda thinks that real-world driving figures with the SkyActiv engine will be closer to the EPA ratings than those of other models that claim 40 mpg or more on the highway.

The test cars we drove, up Angeles Crest Highway, averaged nearly 30 mpg in some very aggressive driving, and a climb in altitude. On the way back down into L.A. we saw 41+ mpg at speeds of 75 to 80.

The Mazda3 is the first vehicle in its class to adopt a Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) system, which helps you when changing lanes in congested traffic—especially if you have other people in the car and have partially obscured fields of vision.

Mazda has one of the more complex model lineups in the business, and it gets somewhat more potentially confusing for 2012. Before there were Mazda3i models (2.0-liter) and Mazda3s models (2.5-liter), with much of the lineup available as sedan or hatchback. Base i SV and i Sport models get the old 2.0-liter, while the i Touring and i Grand Touring comes with the whole Skyactiv kit. Meanwhile, Mazda3s Touring and s Grand Touring models have the older-generation, 167-hp, 2.5-liter four. To compensate, Mazda has whittled down pricing on the 's' models a bit for 2012. It's also made the five-door hatch a more consistent $500 walk up from sedans, in all trims.

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. Grand Touring models are still the way to go if you want navigation and leather. They're also what you need to step up to in order to get the Tech Package, which now includes blind-spot monitoring. Add that, and you can potentially load a Mazda3 into the $26k range. 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.

What we've seen of Mazda's Skyactiv core components is really promising. With the 2012 Mazda3, the automaker has kept its more exciting, communicative driving feel while only getting better for refinement and comfort.

Will Mazda also meet its promise that their 40 mpg is better than others’ 40 mpg? That can only be determined with a week or so of real-world driving, and we hope to bring you that soon.

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