With the government imposing strict Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) fuel economy standards and electric cars getting all the eco-friendly fanfare, conventional gasoline engines — especially the naturally aspirated variety — seem all but passé. Hybrids get all the hype. But Mazda refuses to jump on the alternative energy bandwagon (at least in the immediate future), thinking more can be squeezed out of a dino-fueled powerplant. Enter its next-generation engine technology, dubbed Skyactiv. Eager to bring the new engine and transmission tech to market, Mazda has added new Skyactiv-equipped i Touring and i Grand Touring trims for the 2012 Mazda3. And we were invited along with other journalists to take them through the twisty mountain roads of the Los Angeles Basin.
In an attempt to decipher the marketing-speak: Skyactiv is a series of direct-injected gasoline engines with newly-designed transmissions. Its first full implementation will be in the Mazda CX-5, and consequently the 2012 Mazda3 won’t be running as high a compression (12:1 versus ~13:1 for future Skyactiv models). Still, with 155 horsepower and a 27/39 city/hwy mpg rating, it boasts near-class-leading fuel economy without sacrificing Mazda’s “Zoom-Zoom” spirit.
Visually, there’s little to distinguish the 2012 model from the outgoing Mazda3. Unfortunately, that means Mazda didn’t wipe that Cheshire-grin off the front of the car. Why keep the smiley face instead of adopting the new Shinari/CX-5 grill? One Mazda marketing exec said the company wanted to maintain design cohesion — so the appearance stays intact. Tweaks to the fog light openings and interior touch-ups will be unnoticeable to most; if you weren’t a fan of the 2011 styling, you won’t be of the 2012.
Fortunately, the aesthetic awkwardness is forgivable behind the wheel. I found the driving dynamics to be well composed while maneuvering down L.A.’s Big Tujunga road in the Mazda3. Engineers made much of the car’s new automatic transmission, which was designed to combine the quick shifting of a dual-clutch transmission with the smooth tip-in of an automatic. But as smooth as it was, it still had the unmistakable, cereal-slushing-in-milk feel of an automatic. Lead-foot it from a stop and the engine howls with much sound but not much fury. When in motion, shifts are brisk, but they still lack the crisp response of a good manual or dual-clutch gearbox. Clearly the six-speed manual is the more engaging option here, which has lighter throws than the MX-5 Miata, but still feels more direct.
Compared to some of its economy car competition (Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic), the Mazda3 has a respectable power advantage, but feels less dynamic than, say, a Ford Focus (which has only a 5-horsepower advantage). That said, power delivery is linear and smooth, and it’s peppy enough for comfortable passing on the freeway, but maybe not drag racing for pinks.
Suspension tuning is where the Mazda3 shines. It’s no Mazdaspeed3, but strikes a pleasant balance between comfort and responsiveness. Minor bumps and road imperfections have been scrubbed out without making the ride feel floaty. At the limit, it gently understeers. The Mazda3 is also one of the few economy cars in which traction control operates seamlessly.
Of course, the purported strength of the new Skyactiv-G powerplant isn’t horsepower or torque, but fuel economy — and after mostly highway cruising, the trip computer showed 40 mpg. When I pushed the Mazda3 hard through the canyon roads, however, the instantaneius fuel economy gauge dipped to the low 20s. That is to say, your mileage may vary depending on your driving style.
The Skyactiv-equipped Mazda3 won’t be paradigm-shattering, but it’ll keep Mazda3 competitive in its fiercely-contested segment. At least until the next all-new model rolls off the line.
| Class|| Compact car|
| Capacity|| Five passengers|
| Engine|| 2.0-liter inline four|
| Transmission|| 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic|
| Power|| 155 hp|
| Torque|| 148 ft-lbs|
| Top speed|| 120 mph (est)|
| Zero to 60 mph|| 7.5 seconds|
| Mileage|| 27/39 (Skyactiv-G MT); 28/40 (Skyactive-G AT)|
| Base price (incl destination charges)|| $18,450 (i Touring)|
| Remarkable features|| Top-notch suspension tuning|