2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv Review [Video]

Finally, a Mazda3 that's fun and fuel efficient

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv Review [Video]
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For years Mazda has kept its dirty little secret, hiding it away in a clever marketing campaign. You know the one… “zoom zoom”.

FAST FACTS

1. SkyActiv Equipped Mazda3 models are rated at a best of 28/40-mpg for the sedan with an automatic transmission and 28/39 for the hatchback. Six-speed manual models are 27/39 and 27/38 respectively.

2. SkyActiv models start at $18,450 for the sedan and $18,950 for the hatchback.

3. The new engine is rated at 155-hp and 148-lb-ft of torque, a 5% increase in power and 10% jump in torque.

4. For 2012 Mazda will continue to sell the old 148-hp 2.0L from at $15,200 and the 167-hp 2.5L from $21,300.

All that talk about driving enjoyment really helps sell the brand to enthusiasts, and it’s also not hard to win glowing reviews from auto journalists, who more often than not will overlook a few miles per gallon for a coupe of extra ponies or some half-decent handling.

But the secret is out. For years, Mazdas have delivered poor fuel economy when compared to their rivals. With compacts promising as much as 42-mpg and a 38-mpg highway rating becoming the industry norm, last year’s Mazda3 managed a best of 25/33-mpg. And that was the smaller 2.0-liter engine. Upgrade to the 2.5-liter and you could be talking about numbers as low as 20/28-mpg.

THE FIRST 40-MPG MAZDA

About to become un-sellable in a category quickly being populated by 40-mpg cars, Mazda has developed it’s own green technology and branded it SkyActiv. A marketing buzz-word, in the 2012 Mazda3 it’s used not only to describe a new high fuel efficiency gasoline engine, but also two new transmissions. Later models will get SkyActiv chassis.

The engine itself we were introduced to a few months back when we had the chance to sample some prototypes. Rather than one breakthrough, the powerplant is the result of numerous fuel efficiency upgrades ranging from dual variable valve timing, to direct-injection, while using components that are lighter and with reduced drag. A high 12:1 compression ratio and smaller cylinder bore also ensure quicker (and therefore better) combustion.

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One thing absent from this production engine is the 4-2-1-exhaust manifold, designed to allow the engine to run at an even higher 13:1 compression ratio. As it turns out, the SkyActiv engine was never intended for the current Mazda3 but was rushed into the product cycle. That header, however, wouldn’t fit and so it had to be left out at the expense of some power and torque. The difference, says Mazda3 engineering chief Kenichiro Saruwatari is more in the low and mid-range torque. It will, however, make an appearance on the upcoming CX-5 crossover.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

With a reasonable amount of power being generated, with 155-hp and 148 lb-ft of torque you wouldn’t expect the car to be lacking and under most circumstances it’s not. Off the line, however, we did find it a bit sluggish. Those power numbers show an impressive jump over the old 2.0-liter MZR 4-cylinder that’s rated at 148-hp and 135 lb-ft. But peak readouts don’t tell the whole story either with the 5 percent horsepower increase and 10 percent torque increase less significant than that 15 percent improvement in low and mid-range torque.

INNOVATIVE AUTOMATIC SHIFTS FAST, WHEN IT SHIFTS…

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

Getting access to the power is a bigger issue with the SkyActiv Mazda3 due to the new SkyActiv-Drive six-speed automatic transmission. Mazda engineers boasted about its quick-shift characteristics and its responsiveness and that’s true to a certain extent. Mixing aspects of a conventional automatic and a dual-clutch transmission this innovative new unit uses a torque converter for low speeds and then switches over to a clutch for higher speeds. The result is a smooth off-the-line start, with quick shifts higher up. In fact, Mazda claims consistent 150 millisecond shift times, better than what most dual-clutch gear changes are, even on the VW DSG system. While the responsiveness is excellent, unfortunately an excessive amount of throttle pressure is required to drop gears. Testing out the Mazda’s more dynamic attributes on California’s famous Angels Crest Highway, dropping a gear often meant the pedal would have to be nearly to the floor before the car would drop gears.

While this isn’t the sort of driving most will use a compact car like the Mazda3 for, and it’s hardly the only offender in the segment (far from it), it’s not exactly in keeping with the brand’s ethos. Credited for giving the car a 7 percent fuel economy improvement, make no mistake, a 40-mpg rating comes with compromises.

WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ LOW ROLLING RESISTANCE TIRES

Thankfully the rest of the car lives up to the Mazda brand image. Blasting along Big Tujunga Canyon Rd. the steering and chassis instill confidence thanks to four important components – the only ones that touch the road. Most high fuel-efficiency models sport ultra low rolling resistance rubber, eking out fractionally better fuel economy at the rather significant expense of cornering capability. Not Mazda. “They’re the lowest rolling resistance tires we could stand,” said vehicle development engineer Dave Coleman.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

Mazda engineers like Coleman will also tell you about the new front cross member, increase b-frame thickness and added chassis brace that all work to improve rigidity and make for a quieter cabin. While improvements, the advantages aren’t perceptible to mere mortals.

Later in the day we drove the same route all over again this time in a car equipped with a six-speed manual. Hallelujah! Mazda admits that there’s not much they could have done to improve on the six-speed manual transmission, but they have done is obvious. Shift throws are reduced by 15 percent and are just as light as before making the new SkyActiv-MT the shortest shifting of any passenger car and the closest to a true sports car of any vehicle on the market. And with good-old-fashioned shift-it-yourself technology, gone was our lone complaint about the new car.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

Back on the fuel economy scale the Mazda3 is impressive. Mazda brought out the complete competitive set, including a Cruze Eco, Focus SFE, Civic HF and Elantra and kept tallies on all the cars during our drive route and over the course of four waves of journalists during a week. The result placed the Mazda second at around 32-mpg average (only the Civic HF was higher). During our time behind the wheel we only managed 28-mpg, but would guarantee almost anyone would do better than our lead-footed driving.

Officially rated at 28/40-mpg (city/highway), for the sedan with the automatic transmission, those numbers change quite a bit depending on the model and transmission.  Stick-shift sedans clock 27/39-mpg, with hatchbacks at 28/39 and 27/38 respectively for the automatic and manual.

MORE THAN JUST A NEW ENGINE

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

Less of a new car and more of a new engine the 2012 Mazda3 is not without other changes.  It might not look dramatically different but there is an updated front fascia and new rear bumper. Included in the front-end design are aerodynamic changes that improve the sedan model to a best-in-class 027 coefficient of drag. (Hatchbacks are rated at 0.29).

Other changes include new seating trim and new HVAC controls while SkyActiv models get blue gauge surrounds, SkyActiv badging and a stylish blue engine cover. And what mid-cycle refresh would be complete without some new wheel designs and exterior paint options?

Also of note is a segment-exclusive Blind Spot Monitoring System (only available on the 2.5L engine and not the SkyActiv), furthering Mazda’s high-end equipment offerings in this segment with other premium items like dual zone climate control, smart key, a power driver’s seat, adaptive front bi-xenon headlights and rain sensing wipers.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

An addition to the 2012 Mazda3 lineup the SkyActiv engine comes on the i Touring and i Grand Touring sedans as a mid-level trim, priced from $18,450. Hatchback models (previously only available with the 2.5L in the U.S.) get the SkyActiv engine as standard with no base level-trim, and come priced from $18,950. To help offset some of the extra cost (like VW does with it’s diesel models), Mazda has upped the content level of the SkyActiv models with extras like 16-inch aluminum wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob as well as a trip computer.

As mentioned, Mazda continues to offer the old 2.0-liter engine starting from $15,200, while s Touring models with the 167-hp 2.5L engine start at $21,300 and for the sedan and $21,800 for the hatch.  For Canadian pricing click here.

THE VERDICT

With power mid-way between the old 2.0-liter and the 2.5-liter the SkyActiv engine could almost be used as a single engine option for all Mazda3 models. But that’s not what Mazda has decided, continuing to carry on the other two. We’re thankful for the potent 2.5L with the only reason to recommend the base engine car being the price.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

While the SkyActiv model may be on the volume trim level the price is no small jump from the entry-level car, costing over $3,000 more. That said, a more basic model with a more basic price, and the SkyActiv powertrain, would be nice to see.

Apart from the transmission, there are few places to find fault with this car – a high mpg vehicle that’s also enjoyable to drive hard. Stopping short of that wow factor, what the Mazda3 could use to add some sex appeal to the SkyActiv technology is a new look. The sedan continues to be a bit dorky and while the hatch is dramatic and progressive, knowing Mazda’s future design direction, what is coming down the pipe in a few years time will really give this new engine the sheetmetal it deserves.

LOVE IT
  • 40-MPG
  • Same great Mazda handling
  • Stylish and functional hatchback
LEAVE IT
  • Hefty premium for SkyActiv
  • Automatic transmission
  • Needs some dramatic new styling to go with new technology

Related Reading
2012 Hyundai Elantra Review
2012 Honda Civic Review
2012 Chevy Cruze Review
2012 Ford Focus Review
2011 VW Jetta Review

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