Vital Stats

Engine:
2.0L I4
Power:
155 HP / 148 LB-FT
Transmission:
6-Speed Auto
Drivetrain:
Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight:
2,950 LBS
Seating:
2+3
Cargo:
11.8 CU-FT
MPG:
28 City / 40 HWY
Ably Carrying The Banner For Internal Combustion



Forget the Mazda CX-5. The Mazda3 still carries the sales gravitas that the CX-5 aspires to, but for now, the C-segment sedan and hatchback that has provided eight years of sales bedrock is still the most important Mazda model. That's why, after making hay with the debut of the CX-5 crossover and its innovative Skyactiv powertrain, the tried-and-true Mazda3 was the next in line for the engine, transmission and aero-tweak hat trick that's allowed the car to claim a 40 miles per gallon highway fuel economy rating.

Putting a new engine in an older car as a way to boost interest and sales isn't a new idea, of course. Sometimes it works, and other times it's not enough to re-float sales that have run aground on the sandbar of customer ennui. The Mazda3 has also consistently pleased enthusiasts, so we wanted to find out how its comportment has changed after the heart transplant.
One thing is for sure, any newness within the Mazda3 is well hidden beneath a smiley-faced skin of same old, same old. There has been one generational rework of the Mazda3 since its arrival on the U.S. market in 2004. For all the RX-8 design cues and maniacally happy front grille, the 3 still remains a taut small car with little exterior embellishment. A few mild cosmetic changes denote 2012 Mazda3 models. Look for the updated headlights, tweaked grille and fascia, and a nipped and tucked backside to spot the '12s.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv side view
2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv front view2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv rear view

The coefficient of drag drops from an already-good .29 to an even-better .27.

This second-generation Mazda3 has more swoopiness in it than the original, but the essence still remains, much like each generation of BMW 3 Series is distinctive yet familial. The upright compact sedan could only be a Mazda3, and the gimmick-free exterior can be dressed up or down without embarrassing you at the office or amongst your friends. What's not obvious is the careful attention to aerodynamics that Mazda engineers gave the 2012 Skyactiv-G model, dropping the coefficient of drag by seven percent from an already-good .29 to an even-better .27.

Inside, the story is the same. The design and materials are good, though there are lots of hard surfaces to find if you go looking. It would be great if Mazda were to try a little carefully sprinkled tenderness to go along with the newly sophisticated powertrain. The Grand Touring trim of our test car meant leather seats, standard Bluetooth, a power-adjustable driver's seat and heated front seats, sporty-feeling leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, 265-watt Bose CenterPoint surround-sound deca-speaker audio system, Multi-Information Display and a teeny-tiny navigation screen tucked into the top of the dashboard.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv headlight2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv grille2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv wheel detail2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv taillight

The seats are nicely bolstered and comfortable, and Mazda keeps the ergonomics simple. Three knobs give you easy dominion over the heat and air conditioning system, but things are more complicated when it comes to the audio controls. A giant knob in the middle of the center stack is for tuning and track advancement with a play/pause button in the center, and it works well, but we found ourselves changing the station when we really wanted to adjust the volume. The problem is the much smaller volume knob hiding in plain sight to the left. When you're grabbing for stuff in your periphery, bigger wins.

That dwarf navigation system tucked under the dashboard's eyelid draws snickers and jeers, plus it's inscrutable to use. Still, it's a navigation system in an affordable car, and by making the nav rig tweakier to use, Mazda has kept the dashboard cleaner and less confusing overall.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv interior2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv front seats 2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv gauges2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv audio system display

Skyactiv-Drive is smooth like an automatic, shifts crisply like a manual or dual-clutch, and realizes CVT-like efficiency.

The Mazda3i Grand Touring is the top-spec Skyactiv-equipped version, so it's equipped to near luxury levels. Buyers looking for the Skyactiv-G powertrain without the extra goodies can spring for the 3i Touring and only miss leather seating, the Bose audio system and a color information display. You can get yourself into a Mazda3i Touring with the 155-horsepower 2.0-liter Skyactiv for $18,700, though our 3i Grand Touring with the same engine carried a more weighty $22,050 bottom line.

If you want a manual transmission, you're limited to the 3i Touring; Grand Touring models are fitted standard with the Skyactiv-Drive six-speed automatic transmission that has a few design tricks up its sleeve to combine the best attributes of manual, conventional automatic and continuously variable transmissions in a single gearbox. Skyactiv-Drive is smooth like an automatic, shifts crisply like a manual or dual-clutch automated gearbox, and realizes CVT-like efficiency without any rubber-bandy weirdness.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv engine

The Skyactiv powertrain is lively and personable, even evincing a soul.

Mazda took a look at the conventional automatic transaxle and turned the torque converter into a bit player only used below 5 mph, where its slip and torque multiplication is desirable. At road speed, decoupling is handled by a wet multiplate clutch for decisive shifts, boosting efficiency significantly. The bigger clutch can handle the higher torque loads at low speed that come from being locked 80 percent of the time versus the 50 percent lockup of other automatics; the smaller lockup devices in those transmissions wouldn't be able to handle the duty cycle and strain. A larger vibration damper is also squeezed into the Skyactiv-Drive's torque converter housing to quell the vibrations that are soaked up in a mushy old-style torus. Attention has been paid to engine and transmission mounts to reduce bad vibes, too.

It's this type of attention-to-detail that has built the strong Mazda reputation among enthusiasts. The Skyactiv powertrain is lively and personable, even evincing a soul. Not bad for a highly economical compact sedan, and the rest of the driving experience follows suit. The ride is taut and well-controlled, the steering wheel rim chats openly about what's up at the road surface, and the brakes are firm and confident, even if instrumented tests report effectiveness that's not exactly outstanding. The Mazda3 may be a compact car telling an economy story, but the biggest impression it left was the enthusiast-pleasing driving experience.

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv rear 3/4 view

All the wizardry under the hood caused worries of weirdness creeping into the experience. After all, you're talking about an engine that's squeezing its cylinders with a 12:1 compression ratio, a transmission that's handing off between its torque converter and clutch by way of a new mechatronics module that's built into the transmission, and an electrically assisted power steering system. The potential for something to go wrong was high, but engineers have applied a sweat-the-details approach that makes automotive harmony happen.

Engineers have applied a sweat-the-details approach that makes automotive harmony happen.

In truth, Mazda has taken a holistic approach that's more like a fairly thorough redesign under the same skin. The steering ratio has been increased along with the caster angle of the front suspension, the rear suspension mounting points have been moved up to improve impact absorption while keeping the back of the car planted, and there's a whole bunch more high-strength steel in the body structure. That all adds up to a car that's solid, stable and efficient.

While the big news may be the Mazda-fication of the small crossover segment with the CX-5, we say the Mazda3 Skyactiv may be the sleeper story of the year. While other players in this segment offer slicker styling choices and truckloads of equipment, choices are thin on the ground if you want to actually enjoy yourself behind the wheel.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 107 Comments
      RecessionCone
      • 2 Years Ago
      I remain confused as to why all car publications quote Cd numbers, when Cd is only the drag coefficient. To really understand the aerodynamic efficiency of a car, shouldn't we be concerned more with CdA - the drag coefficient multiplied by the frontal area of the car? Focusing only on the Cd gives car designers no credit for reducing the frontal area of the car, while also allowing them to reduce aerodynamic efficiency without anyone noticing - since the Cd might stay the same. Can anyone explain why Cd is an important metric?
        oRenj9
        • 2 Years Ago
        @RecessionCone
        The same reason manufactures report peak HP and torque instead of area under the torque curve: marketing. Cd is a relatively straight-forward number to understand as there are no pesky units to convolute the meaning.
        • 2 Years Ago
        @RecessionCone
        [blocked]
        Nemebean
        • 2 Years Ago
        @RecessionCone
        Interesting. I was not aware of this previously, but I always wondered how a big SUV could end up with a Cd similar to a small car. I agree that CdA would be more useful.
        audiohack
        • 2 Years Ago
        @RecessionCone
        Cd is like acceleration times, not exactly important at all, really. When looking through the information about the SkyActiv 3, Mazda pointed out the Cd improvement, so I noted that in the review. -Dan
          • 2 Years Ago
          @audiohack
          [blocked]
      Avinash Machado
      • 2 Years Ago
      I do hope that Mazda survives.
      Greg
      • 2 Years Ago
      When I buy a car, I want a car - not a iphone on wheels. I niether want nor need the gadgets, and I like that Mazda keeps their interiors simple. I'm really looking forward to the next body design for the Mazda3. Unfortunately, they've been pretty silent about it.
        AlphaGnome
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Greg
        Seeing as the 3 was just redesigned for 2010 and that the first generation was around for 6 years, I suspect we won't see a third generation 3 until 2015.
      Gorgenapper
      • 2 Years Ago
      With the SkyActiv-G engines in the Mazda 3, I cannot fathom any good reason why one would pick a Civic or a Corolla over one of these (especially since the 3 comes in a hatchback version and the other two do not). When the 3 is redesigned in a couple years, it'll just leave the Civic and the Corolla even further behind with a much nicer exterior (Kodo), 4-2-1 header and SkyActiv chassis (more power, more fuel efficiency, less weight).
        Bryant Keith
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Gorgenapper
        your logic is slightly flawed here. It only manages 1 more MPG than the Civic which has a 5 speed normal automatic. It is honestly one of the ugliest things ive seen driving. Also, if your hoping to trade it in before it rusts away your going to want the Civic for reliability and resale value. For just driving from A to B this just doesn't top the Civic in any way shape or form.
          NightFlight
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Bryant Keith
          "For just driving from A to B this just doesn't top the Civic in any way shape or form." Yeah, it does. Obviously you don't like to drive. The 9th Gen Civic is a complete and total admitted failure. Why else would Honda be scrambling to do a refresh???
          Gorgenapper
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Bryant Keith
          I can destroy your argument in several different ways, I'll use 'Interior' for now. Have you SAT in a 2012 Civic at all? I did almost a year ago, and I was so disappointed that I made sure to take pics and record my impressions of it. Where to start? Oh right, how about the way the door panels (sitting on the inside) flex outward like the cheap thin plastic that it is with just pressure from one hand? I wasn't even pressing that hard. Sticking with the door panels, I notice that there are no cloth inserts on the area immediately below the belt line. The armrest on the door has a very thin layer of cushioning with this awful fuzzy cloth cover similar to the ones on cheap couch pillows. Next up, the dashboard - it's an unappealing dark brown plastic with a texture reminiscent of those taco shell containers that you get at family restaurants. It tries for a subtle look, but ends up screaming 'rental car' at you. Pull on the e-brake and notice how thin and long it has become, with a cheap silver-painted top to it and an even cheaper hollow plastic feel to it. If you pull the E-brake, there is no solid, reassuring feel to it - it almost feels like you could snap it off if you really wanted to. The radio and HVAC controls are bargain basement quality... it's a throwback to the 90s when cheapo boom boxes were the cool thing to bring around to listen to music. Except the build quality on these boom boxes, bad as they were for the time, would still put the Civic's controls to shame. I stepped out of the car and stepped back to get an overall impression of the interior, to make sure perspective was not playing tricks with me. It's just a sea of dark brown, beige, off-white, dull silver and black. It looked like a rental car interior, period, right down to the steel wheels on the MID-TRIM LX model. Interiors aren't everything, of course, but I just could not take the Civic seriously after a brush with it. How can a company claim to have redesigned and upgraded the car for 2012 when the interior is either of the same quality as the previous gen, or worse?
      jinushaun
      • 2 Years Ago
      Great car. I rent it all the time with Zip Car. It destroys the crappy Toyotas and Hondas in Zip Car's line up. Even though I prefer manual, the auto is smooth as butter and extremely enjoyable. It's the auto for manual lovers. In contrast, the auto in the Civic is retarded. My only problem is that Mazda doesn't offer a manual SkyActiv Grand Touring model.
        ClementZ
        • 2 Years Ago
        @jinushaun
        "It's the auto for manual lovers." I'm not quite sure I understand that. Wouldn't manual lovers drive manual? OT: I've driven a 2005 Mazda3, and it was a hoot. Probably one of the best econoboxes in the biz. Only thing that I think it has going against it, is the rather lackluster interior, and lack of space (but maybe this lack of space helps with the good driving characteristics.)
      Abdul
      • 2 Years Ago
      as a small sedan, It drives and feels good...
      iPlunger
      • 2 Years Ago
      Where is the Sky-D in all this? Don't tell me...Sky-D is an anywhere but America speical because Americans hate diesels that don't have dual smoke stack exhaust and weigh 6,000lbs.
        Gorgenapper
        • 2 Years Ago
        @iPlunger
        I've read a number of articles where it was mentioned that Mazda says it's coming to North America 'soon'. I'm hoping it'll be in the CX-5, but it might be in the new Mazda 6 (or both). I can see them offering it in the next gen Mazda 6 in order to revive interest in that model...
      Typebad
      • 2 Years Ago
      Its good to know that it drives like a Mazda . As an owner of ta 2005 model, I have also have a difficult time with the new car's face and I like my IP better. Fortunately my current ride will easily carry me though to the full redesign. I get about 29 mpg now in LA traffic. Another 10 or so would definitely be welcome.
      dfkd
      • 2 Years Ago
      If only they'd start rustproofing their cars so they didn't rust out in 3 years...
        Ernie Mccracken
        • 2 Years Ago
        @dfkd
        They don't rust. Don't make stuff up, that's childish.
        Justin Campanale
        • 2 Years Ago
        @dfkd
        You are seriously stupid. I seriously doubt that you're over 13.
          kevin
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Justin Campanale
          He has a point but its 20 years out of date. If you live in an upper mid west state that salts the roads it wasn't uncommon to see Japanese cars with large amounts of rust after a few years. Granted the domestics only held up slightly better. All the manufactures have made leaps and bounds in rust proofing over the last 15-20 years.
          over9000
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Justin Campanale
          can you support that statement with facts? The majority of the rust came from inside of the car.
        Aaron
        • 2 Years Ago
        @dfkd
        My pristine 2004 Mazda3 would like to have a word with you...
        AlphaGnome
        • 2 Years Ago
        @dfkd
        Wax... It's your friend! I see PLENTY of first gen Mazda 3s, heck I see Proteges that don't have any rust on them... But, regardless, ANY vehicle will rust of you don't take care it.
      eljay001
      • 2 Years Ago
      I experienced Mazda's first 4 speed automatic transaxle in a Ford Probe. They were good for about 50k miles before they burned up. Here's hoping their new fancy torque converter/clutch thing is a bit more durable. I still can't get over the front of the car. The first gen ones were so cute while this thing is just silly.
      Xedicon
      • 2 Years Ago
      That front end... Why won't Mazda get rid of it?! They could realize much more sales I'm sure without that awful grin on the front.
        Myself
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Xedicon
        that front is what gives the car lowest in the class coefficient of drag
      suthrn2nr
      • 2 Years Ago
      although i'm sure the M3 SKYACTIV automatic is fun to drive and gets competitive economy at 28/40, why is it that the lower end trims get a pathetic 24/33? Civic's / elantra's/ corolla's all get the same mileage (for automatic at least) throughout their range except for sports models. For example, Civic is rated at 28/39 wether its a DX / LX/ or EX trim. If competitors can do it, why can't mazda? 24/33 is pretty pathetic in my book for a non-sports model compact vehicle.
        oRenj9
        • 2 Years Ago
        @suthrn2nr
        Mazda has never really produced fuel efficient engines relative to their peers (until now). Honda has always focused on ultra low displacement engines and designed them to rev nicely for power. Mazda, on the other-hand, has always focused on producing larger, torquey engines.
          • 2 Years Ago
          @oRenj9
          [blocked]
        AlphaGnome
        • 2 Years Ago
        @suthrn2nr
        The lower trims are not using the Skyactiv technology. They are currently using the old 2.0L engine to keep the price of admission low.
          suthrn2nr
          • 2 Years Ago
          @AlphaGnome
          but Honda and Hyundai also have the same good MPG at the lower prices as well. But for Mazda, bettre MPG also comes with a premium.
        sstowes
        • 2 Years Ago
        @suthrn2nr
        If I recall correctly, the lower trims do not have Skyactiv technology. I believe it's still the old 2.5L. You have to pay for the efficiency upgrade, which blows. But sometimes there's just no way for a manufacturer to squeeze the cost of all that technology and engineering into a cheaper vehicle. People arguing Hyundai/Kia can do it need to realize their respective country's economics and labor are different than the US, German and Japan. There's always going to be a trade-off. Even Hyundai's prices have taken a bump up for the new model year.
          NightFlight
          • 2 Years Ago
          @sstowes
          The lower trims get the 2.0, not the 2.5. Also, even the old 2.0 can easily beat its EPA estimate.
          suthrn2nr
          • 2 Years Ago
          @sstowes
          i dont disagree with your point, but Mazda 3 seems unique in the point I tried to make.
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