Does Technology Make A Segment Leader?

2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv

Want to give yourself a headache? Go out and shop for a new compact sedan with the stipulation that it must have seating for up to five passengers and a highway EPA fuel economy rating in the high-30-mpg range or better. You won't have to look hard, because it seems nearly every automaker is jumping into an already crowded segment and delivering this type of vehicle. Without much effort, we can alphabetically list the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla. Spend a bit more time, and the list opens up even wider.

Sticker prices, fuel economy numbers and warranty terms are objective and indubitable. Driving dynamics, styling and passenger comfort, in sharp contrast, are subjective. To differentiate itself from the crowd, and win consumers over on both fronts, Mazda has worked hard to deliver a competitive compact that is objectively frugal and subjectively stylish and fun to drive.

Enter the new 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv.

Fitted with a new high-compression engine and offered with two new transmissions, the latest of the Mazda's energy-efficient variants sounds impressive on paper – but so do most redesigned cars at first glance. We recently spent a day in Southern California putting the updated Mazda3 Skyactiv through its paces to determine if the Japanese automaker has really provided us with something revolutionary, or just another round of marketing hype.

2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv side view2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv front view2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv rear view

As we learned at the 2011 New York Auto Show, Mazda treated its Mazda3 to several updates for the new calendar year. Originally launched for the 2010 model year, the talented compact sedan and hatchback is still relatively fresh when it comes to product lifecycles, but that didn't keep Mazda from putting it under the blade.

In Mazda-speak, the new design "smiles less."

Most obvious to the naked eye is the new front fascia, with an updated grille on both the four-door sedan and five-door hatchback (in Mazda-speak, the new design "smiles less"). There are also changes to the outside edges of the bumper and fog lamps on certain models. Mazda engineers, not the designers, were the motivation behind the new front end as they were determined to reduce the vehicle's coefficient of drag by seven percent (it has dropped to Cd .27 in the sedan and Cd .29 in the hatchback). We don't need to remind you that reduced aerodynamic drag translates to a quieter cabin and improved fuel economy.

There are also two new alloy wheel designs. The Skyactiv-G 2.0L model receives a new 10-spoke 16-inch wheel while the MZR 2.5L gets a new 10-spoke 17-inch version, and the spokes on each are twisted slightly to give the impression of movement. The interior was also freshened with updated trim (blackened to give more contrast) and new instrument cluster accent lighting. The primary gauges will now be illuminated in a different color based on the performance mission of the vehicle. There are also option and equipment changes.

2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv headlight2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv front fascia2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv wheel detail2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv taillight

The big news, however, is under the hood.

Last year, the Mazda3 "i" models (SV, Sport and Touring) were fitted with a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine rated at 148 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque, while the "s" models (Touring and Sport) received a slightly more powerful 2.5-liter inline four rated at 167 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy in the city cycle was in the low 20s, while each earned about 30 mpg on the highway.

For the 2012 model year, Mazda has introduced an all-new 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder Skyactiv-G engine. We sat through a PowerPoint presentation to learn about its technical intricacies. In layman's terms, engineers were able to precisely control combustion to allow the new direct-injected engine to run with a Ferrari-like high compression ratio (up to 14:1, depending on the market and fuel octane). With continuously variable dual sequential valve timing (dual S-VT) on the intake and exhaust, the result is 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. More impressively, fuel economy has leaped upwards.

2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv engine

The new engine is just one part of the puzzle. Concurrent to developing its miserly powerplant, Mazda was also working on two new transmissions.

An all-new six-speed manual transmission uses the excellent gearbox from the Mazda MX-5 as a benchmark.

The first is an all-new six-speed manual transmission. Using the excellent gearbox from the Mazda MX-5 as a benchmark, the team focused its attention on delivering a front-wheel-drive gearbox with a smooth and direct shift feel. Their second objective was to make the new transmission lighter and more compact, as those qualities would also help packaging and fuel economy. A short throw kit would have been an easy solution, but the developers did not want a heavy (and less accurate) shift feel, as it was the direct opposite of their intentions. Instead, they engineered a manual gearbox utilizing a low-effort locking ball synchro, linear ball bearings and low-friction detent mechanism. Most impressively, it also uses the force of gravity to improve operation (certain internals are designed to drop into place, instead of requiring mechanical force during shifts). Mazda3 Skyactiv models with the new six-speed manual transmission earn 27 mpg city and 39 mpg highway.

The second is an all-new six-speed automatic transmission. Frustrated with the inefficiency of a traditional torque converter at high speeds, and unwilling to accept the jerkiness of a dual-clutch system at lower speeds, Mazda designed what it feels is the best of both worlds. Its new Skyactiv-Drive automatic uses a torque converter below five mph for a smooth launch, However, at higher speeds the transmission uses a wet, multi-plate clutch just like a dual-clutch transmission does. This was not simple, and it requires a complete redesign of the torque converter – but since it only works at less than five miles per hour, it is smaller than a traditional unit (Mazda says its new transmission is seven percent better in fuel economy than its predecessor and more efficient than a dual-clutch or continuously-variable transmission). Mazda3 Skyactiv models with the new six-speed automatic transmission earn 28 mpg city and hit the all-important 40 mpg number on the highway.

2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv shifter

The fuel economy numbers from both powertrains are impressive, and the new front fascia and interior upgrades are welcomed, but Mazda says it still wasn't content. Its engineers also reduced the curb weight of the Mazda3 (losing approximately twenty pounds) by using a new bonding process during construction and by utilizing more high-tensile steel. The chassis is now 30-percent more rigid, which should improve driving dynamics and crash test scores.

Mazda brought the four-door Skyactiv sedan (the anticipated volume model) and five-door Skyactiv hatchback to Los Angeles for our one-day test drive. We spent most of our time in a five-door with the automatic, but also put a couple hours in the seat of a four-door with the new manual gearbox.

Our first drive was in a Mazda3 i GT (Grand Touring) five-door. It carries a base price of $22,800 (plus $795 destination). Well-appointed, it was equipped with full power accessories, leather trimmed seats, heated front seats, a 265-watt Bose Centerpoint ten-speaker audio package, 16-inch alloy wheels and more. There was just one option – the Technology package ($1,400) adding bi-xenon adaptive headlights, blind spot monitoring, Sirius Satellite Radio, rain sensing wipers and a perimeter alarm. The bottom line was $22,800.

2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv interior2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv front seats2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv gauges2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv digital information display

Our drive route to the half-way point took us from the Los Angeles Basin into the mountains up Big Tujunga Canyon road. It was challenging – especially for a vehicle with just 155 horsepower and a curb weight of 2,950 pounds. We would have picked a less vertical drive, but the pre-planned route was more reinforcement from Mazda that its Mazda3 Skyactiv was not just another fuel-sipping five-passenger compact – it was engineered to be fun to tool around in as well.

Despite the fact the manual gearbox was nearly flawless in operation, we liked the automatic a bit better.

Despite the elevation climb, the little direct-injected four-banger worked diligently pulling its two-passenger load up each of the canyon roads. From the driver's seat, the new transmission worked seamlessly as it blended torque converter and clutch technology. It was smooth and shifts were quick. The overall perception was of driving a very refined traditional six-speed. We liked it a lot, as we never found ourselves at a speed where the transmission was confused or caught in the wrong gear.

We also really enjoyed the new six-speed manual transmission in a $19,245 Mazda3 i Touring four-door (base MSRP $18,450 plus $795 destination). Its shift feel was excellent for a front-wheel-drive vehicle with a transversely mounted engine. The shift lever snapped into each gear with a reassuring feel, without looseness or sloppiness, and it was enjoyable to run through up and down the gear pattern.

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Oddly enough, despite the fact the manual gearbox was nearly flawless in operation, we liked the automatic a bit better. Blame tall gearing and the low-displacement engine. In Mazda's pursuit of 40 mpg, the engineers fitted an overdrive sixth gear so tall that acceleration is nearly non-existent at highways speeds. Even around town, we found the lackluster 148 pound-feet of torque sapping all enjoyment out of rowing our own gears. The computer-controlled automatic gearbox is the better choice – it always seemed to keep the engine in its power band.

Where it excels is in the category of engine and transmission engineering and refinement.

The chassis was also solid, with MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in the rear, and the interior was expectedly squeak free. The ride was on the firm side, but that is the small tradeoff for above average handling (get the Mazdaspeed 3 if performance is first on your list). The steering is electric-hydraulic speed-proportional, meaning an electric motor turns the hydraulic pump. Overall steering effort was good, communicative and nicely weighed.

Driving dynamics aside, we found much to like with the other little touches Mazda has done to improve its Mazda3 Skyactiv for the 2012 model year. The high-mounted center digital panel looks much better now that all of its graphics are the same color, and we like the color and texture changes that allow the center stack to be more defined and easier to use, even if some of the interesting aesthetic contrasts have been lost. The seats are comfortable, and the steering wheel fit well in our hands.

2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv rear 3/4 view

The drive home was mostly on highways, giving us a chance to enjoy the Mazda3 Skyactiv at higher speeds. Wind noise was low, but there was a lot of tire rumble permeating the cabin – common in this segment. Acceleration at highway speeds was lethargic, at best.

When compared objectively to our original headache-inducing list of competitors (Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla), the Mazda3 Skyactiv doesn't capture first place when it comes to fuel economy or pricing. It also breaks little ground when it comes to comparing standard equipment. Where it does excel is in the category of engine and transmission engineering and refinement – nobody in this segment offers a powertrain with such innovation. It is brilliant technology, and it impressed us, but what lies under the hood is nearly invisible to most uninformed consumers in the showroom.

The 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv is a very good compact car under any light. Yet the challenge for Mazda is to convince car buyers to include it on their shopping lists, check it out and take it for a spin – before the onset of a migraine causes them to settle for one of the various other offerings from the competition.