Driven: 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv

By John Beltz Snyder

October 25, 2011

—Los Angeles, California
You can still buy a Mazda3 i with the same old “MZR” 2.0-liter inline-four available in last year’s model, at the low price of $15,200. That motor will net you 148 horsepower, 135 pound-feet of torque, and 33 miles per gallon on the highway. You’ll also have to settle for an older transmission, be it a manual or automatic, five-speed either way. If you have the extra $3250 to spare, though, you’ll definitely want to opt for the new Skyactiv model. If you’re just playing the numbers game, you’ll like that it offers more power (155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque), as well as improved fuel economy (27/39 mpg with the manual transmission). From our experience, though, the numbers are never enough basis to make those kinds of decisions, especially when we’re going to want to be able to have some fun with the car. As always, we need to actually pilot the vehicle to get a true sense of its merits as a driver’s car.
The beloved Angeles Crest Highway would be our proving grounds for the Mazda3 Skyactiv. Our tester was the four-door i Touring with the new six-speed manual transmission, the entry level for the new Skyactiv-G engine. The Skyactiv would prove to be a truly pleasant surprise, despite our already modestly high expectations for a new small offering from Mazda. But before we get into that, let’s take a look at what’s new.
Mazda has been working on its Skyactiv technology for a while now, as part of a goal to improve the brand’s fuel efficiency as a whole. Rather than wait to put out an all-new vehicle using the technology, Mazda introduced some of what is has ready into what would typically be a mid-cycle refresh for the Mazda3. In this car, this means it gets the new gasoline engine, as well as new Skyactiv six-speed transmissions, one manual, one automatic. In the engine, this means direct injection, a higher compression ratio, variable valve timing, and narrower bore combined with longer piston travel within the cylinder. The result is a bit more power and a healthy improvement in efficiency from the same displacement. (Editor-In-Chief Seyth Miersma wrote up a more in-depth explanation when he tested the technology in Vancouver a few months ago.)
In the manual transmission, Skyactiv means less weight, less effort, and a shorter throw. Friction has been reduced quite a bit to make up for the loss of leverage of the shorter shift lever, and the result is a quick-shifting, super-smooth, very precise, and fast manual gearbox, as we’d find out on the curvy mountain roads outside of LA. In fact, according to Mazda, it features the shortest, and nearly the lightest, throw of any passenger car with a back seat.
For the automatic transmission, the goal was essentially twofold: more efficiency and less intrusive operation. Starting with a clean slate, Mazda looked at the pros and cons of the various transmissions available. “CVTs were pretty easy to rule out,” said Product Development Engineer Dave Coleman, a true car guy (and car geek) as far as we’re concerned. That left the traditional torque converter or a dual-clutch transmission. Rather than sacrifice efficiency and smoothness for low-speed prowess, Mazda combined the two ideas. The result is the best of both worlds, distilled by Mazda engineers into a simple, light, efficient autobox that shifts quickly and smoothly, and still makes it easy to drive at low speeds and launch relatively quickly from a standstill. (Again, Miersma’s previous Skyactiv article gives more details on the basic brilliance of this new approach to changing gears.)
Mazda tweaked other areas of the 3’s design and engineering to make the new Skyactiv model a complete and holistically ideal car in the eyes of this team. Aiming for driving dynamics (and efficiency) to match those of the new engine and transmissions, the Skyactiv features a stronger, more rigid structure, with more weld points, increased thickness in parts of the frame, a more rigid front crossmember, and added brace bar. Aerodynamics have been improved, giving the four-door a 0.27 coefficient of drag (the same as a Nissan GT-R), with a 0.29 drag coefficient for the five-door. The Mazda3 has updated steering and suspension, improving handling and shedding weight. Inside, the cabin uses a new cloth material, which we found much more pleasing both to the touch and to the eye. In front of us were black backgrounds and a silver finish on a lot of the controls, which not only look better, but are easier to spot and use without taking your eyes of the road. Complaints about a rental-car feeling inside the car are no longer valid.
But all these words, all this technology, and these ideas mean very little on a practical (or, for the enthusiast, spiritual) level until one gets behind the wheel of the car, which we soon did. In our entry-level, manual-transmission-equipped Mazda3 Skyactiv, we headed into the hills.
When stepping on the gas, the 2.0-liter engine pushes the car smoothly and directly from the line. Acceleration isn’t very fast, but it comes on smooth and easy, and doesn’t feel like there are notable weak points in the rev range. The engine isn’t very loud, but it sounds good; it gives off a manly growl as it pushes toward the redline, and doesn’t ever sound buzzy or wheezy. There is a bit of road noise from the tires, but the suspension doesn’t transmit a lot of sound, and wind noise is kept in check.
When it comes time to shift, the clutch offers a low-effort feel, and gives a good sense of what is going on underfoot, making smooth transitions from gear to gear an easy operation. The best part of the shift experience, though, comes from the right hand. The gear lever slides into place very smoothly, with a palpable settling into the gear. The throw really is remarkably short, and very light, which, as one would guess, makes it very fast. Between that feeling and that of the leftmost pedal, it really is a treat flicking through all the cogs. It’s an experience that we can honestly say rivals that of the MX-5 in terms of sporty, heroic feel.
We’re not even disappointed that the Mazda3 isn’t really fast (acceleratively). Getting through the gears up to a thrilling speed is fun and involving. Even better, in true Mazda fashion, a lot of the excitement comes from carrying speed through the corners. On the variably curvaceous Angeles Crest Highway, we found ourselves dispatching corners with greater speed than we would have though possible. Despite the very light steering feel, our confidence was high as we threw the steering wheel, and resultantly the car, from side to side, easily avoiding a flight off the side of the road into the canyon far below. While easy to hold a smooth, precise line, the Mazda3 also responded well to mid-corner corrections and fast steering inputs. Thankfully, the brakes felt great too, offering progressive and appropriate response when we needed it. Overall, we had a good sense of what was going on at the wheels and the load on the suspension (especially in front) as we braked, turned, and accelerated (repeat, repeat, repeat).
Grip levels were very good, and we had no problems with traction as we piled on the lateral g-forces. The car also felt very balanced between the front and the rear, and we really had to push the 3 in some funny ways to get it to exhibit understeer. Roll was kept in check very well, and the suspension did a good job of communicating grip levels and road surface. Tuned a bit more toward sportiness than outright comfort, as far as we could tell, it was clear we were driving a true, practical driver’s car. With shifter in hand and smile on our face, we thought back to our recent time with the 2012 Subaru Impreza, and, given our druthers, we’d pick the Mazda as the more fun-to-drive vehicle (at least on dry, paved roads).
Grand Touring Five-Door 6AT
We also spent some time in the driver’s seat of the automatic-equipped Mazda3. Slightly more mainstream, we found a lot less magic in this less-involving version. If there was any magic, it was in the utter invisibility of the autobox. It shifts very smoothly, quickly and quietly, and definitely seems more suited for comfortable, thought-free driving. It lacked paddle shifters, but the driver could shift manually from the gear selector on the tunnel. Within moments of driving it, we were pining for the slick-as-snot 6MT we had just given up.
VS: Subaru Impreza
We cherish the all-wheel grip and the compelling boxer motor of the new Impreza. Its mediocre manual doesn’t stand up to the 3’s, though. And while we might opt for the Scooby’s paddle-shiftable CVT over the barely-there auto of the 3, Mazda’s whole package just feels more willing to keep us informed of what’s going on between driver, car, and road. The all-season capability of the Impreza and the efficiency of the Mazda cancel each other out. The 3 wins because it’s just slightly more fun.
VS: Chevrolet Cruze Eco
While we do like the overall package of the Cruze Eco (our favorite Cruze variant to date), as well as its manual transmission, just about every aspect of the Mazda3 leans a notch or several more toward the sporty side of things. Whether it’s the slick do-it-yourself gearbox (can you tell we like it, yet?), the firmer suspension, or the sound of the engine at high revs, Mazda’s offering just speaks to our enthusiast side with a larger vocabulary.
VS: Ford Focus
Ford is stepping up its game here with its high-quality interior and refined ride quality. It can match the Mazda for fuel economy when configured correctly, and it outpowers it slightly. On a content-per-dollar basis, Ford takes the win here. Still, its dumbed-down driving dynamics don’t match that of the better-handling Mazda3.
2012 Mazda3 i Touring Four-Door 6MT
Engine: Inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 155 hp/148 lb-ft
Weight: 2872 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 27/39 mpg
Base Price: $18,450
On Sale: Now