Ably Carrying The Banner For Internal Combustion

2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

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.