Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
SkyActiv technology improves fuel economy.
The 2012 Mazda 3 takes a leadership role in automotive engineering with what Mazda is calling SkyActiv technology, 'an engineering philosophy that starts with a blank slate and open mind.'
The big change for 2012 is the introduction of a new 2.0-liter engine that gets Mazda's SkyActiv treatment, delivering a terrific 28 miles per gallon in the city, 40 mpg on the highway. In fact, during one good run with that engine, we got 43.7 mpg. The SkyActiv engine runs on Regular gasoline.
The 2012 Mazda3 lineup features two new SkyActiv transmissions to go with the SkyActiv engine: a 6-speed automatic and 6-speed manual. We found both worked beautifully.
One big styling change on all 2012 Mazda3 models is the nose. That big grin that's been fixed on the face of the Mazda3 for the past two years has been wiped off, replaced by a smile that's more reserved.
Because the Mazda3 was redesigned for 2010, including a lighter stiffer chassis and new interior, there aren't a lot of other changes for 2012.
For 2012, the old 2.0-liter engine remains in the base model. The 2.5-liter engine in the up-level s models is unchanged as is the 2.3-liter turbocharged Mazdaspeed3.
Mazda makes a claim for the new 3. 'Our 40 is better than their 40,' they say, meaning zoom-zoom performance hasn't been compromised to hit 40 mpg. Not by hard tires, space-saving spares, or aerodynamic hubcaps. And 'their 40' refers to Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, and Honda Civic, competitors that also reach 40 mpg, in certain models. Mazda says it offers the most optional extra equipment of any 40-mpg car, for example a Technology Package with blind spot monitoring system, adaptive headlamps and LED taillamps.
The 2012 Mazda3 looks better without that stupid grin. It's smoother, prettier and more aerodynamic, as the front fenders are also tweaked, puffed out forward of the wheels. The sedan has a 0.27 coefficient of drag, and the five-door is 0.29 Cd, strong numbers for a hatchback.
There's one change from the interior of the 2011 Mazda3, satin rings around the three climate knobs, for a reason Mazda actually tested with human beings. Recognition speed and accuracy, and that means less distraction. Every single control on the Mazda3 instrument panel is intuitive and easy to reach and use. The center stack is clean, the gauges clear, and digital information accessed by a thumb scroll on the steering wheel. Mazda3 comes standard with steering-wheel controls.
The Mazda3 sedan's trunk has 11.8 cubic feet of space, and the hatchback has 17 cubic feet behind the rear seat. Both come standard with 60/40 split folding rear seats, and they fold nearly flat, so the cargo space can be expanded enormously. In a pinch, the sedan can carry most of what the hatchback can.
In a day of hard driving on the Angeles Crest Highway and on some mountain roads in Southern California, we couldn't find a flaw in the 2.0-liter SkyActiv powertrain. We tested it hard, and it worked.
The 2012 Mazda3's 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine makes 155 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque; good hp, excellent torque increase for the 2012 models. Enough for plenty of acceleration, with the new 6-speed automatic transmission working beautifully with the available torque. At 70 mph the engine spins at a leisurely 2200 rpm, smooth and silent. With the 6-speed manual, it runs 70 mph at 500 rpm more, still can't really hear it.
Government fuel economy estimates for the new 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine were not available when this was written. Mazda officials place it at 28/40 miles per gallon. We got 29.5 mpg driving it hard over the curvy 4910-foot-high Angeles Crest Highway east of Los Angeles, and 43.7 mpg returning to the city mostly on the freeway, running 65-70, accelerating and decelerating with the fast flow of traffic.
The 2012 6-speed automatic will downshift aggressively, and upshift at low rpm; few do that. It will do what you ask it to, and no more, quicker and smoother than before. The SkyActiv goal was to make it upshift as fast as a twin-clutch automatic manual, and 15 milliseconds is the result.
The 2012 6-speed manual transmission also went SkyActiv. This goal was to make it feel like the Miata MX-5 gearbox. Bushings were changed to bearings, shafts re-splined, and oil reservoirs shrunk and moved, all to shorten the throw of the shift lever, from 50mm to 45mm, without making it feel heavier. That's about one-fourth of an inch. Shortest throw of any passenger car, claims Mazda.
The suspension on all 2012 Mazda3 models has been tweaked to deliver a more European feel. We ran a lot of harsh patchy pavement on curvy roads, and it wasn't quite a sport sedan, but the feedback was direct, driven hard with the 6-speed automatic transmission in Manual mode. The harsh patches never made the ride uncomfortable.
As for the 2.5-liter engine, with 167 horsepower and 168 pounds of torque, it gets the job done with room to spare. The best happens when the tachometer swings through the 4500-4800 rpm range and keeps pulling to near redline. It climbs hills confidently and cruises on the highway effortlessly. Of course you pay for the power, as it only gets 22/29 mpg with the automatic.
For 2012 there are also a number of changes to the packages and standard equipment of models, mostly 2.5-liter S models. Price increases reflect this, although Mazda says that when weighed in the context of equipment against 2011, prices don't change much.
The 2012 Mazda3 lineup includes six models using three engines, four transmissions, and two body styles. The five-door hatchback is usually $500 more than the four-door sedan.
The well-equipped base Mazda3 i SV 4-door ($15,200) uses the older 2.0-liter engine and 5-speed manual transmission; it has power windows and steering-wheel controls, but lacks air conditioning and power locks. The Mazda3 i Sport sedan adds air conditioning, power locks, remote keyless ignition and comes with the 5-speed manual ($16,845) or the 5-speed automatic ($17,695).
Mazda3 i Touring features the new SkyActiv 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatic ($19,300) or 6-speed manual ($18,450); Touring also upgrades with Bluetooth, alloy wheels, cruise control, leather trim, and upgraded sound system. The i Grand Touring ($22,300), also with that powertrain, throws in moonroof, Bose sound system, 8-way power driver's seat, and more.
Mazda3 s Touring gets the 2.5-liter engine and 6-speed manual ($21,300) or 5-speed automatic ($22,100). The fully loaded Mazda3 s Grand Touring includes leather and navigation and 6-speed manual ($22,900) or 5-speed automatic ($23,700).
The Mazdaspeed3 ($24,000) is the pocket rocket; this hot hatch comes with a 263-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-4, 6-speed manual transmission, limited-slip differential, and sport seats. For 2012, the Bose 10-speaker surround sound system has been added as standard equipment.
Options include rain-sensing wipers and bi-xenon headlamps, offered in only one other car in the compact segment; also dual zone air conditioning and 8-way power driver's seat, offered only by a few others.
Safety equipment on all Mazda3 models includes dual front airbags, front side airbags, curtain side airbags, active front head restraints, tire-pressure monitor, and anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution. Traction control and electronic stability control are standard on the i Touring and all s models. Optional safety equipment, in the Technology Package, includes a blind spot monitoring system, adaptive headlamps and LED taillamps.
The 2012 Mazda3 has been changed in the nose and a little bit in the rear bumper, and there are great new wheels. Mazda has wiped the smile off the face of the Mazda3, or at least subdued it. It's like when Meg Ryan took the silicone out of her lips, she looked a lot better. If you nitpick you can say the Mazda3 still has a fat lip (front bumper, trying to hide in black), but gone is the big fixed grin that some dared call stupid.
The front fascia below the bumper looks great; it's not even ruined by knowing that the sporty black air intakes don't take in air. If SkyActiv were ruthless in its rule, they would be erased so the nose is more aero, but, hey, that's a bit too Prius. The intakes look better from a distance where you can't see that they're fake, also better when they're not being used to house optional foglamps.
The light facelift for 2012 is a big improvement: smoother, prettier and more aerodynamic, as the front fenders are also tweaked a bit, puffed out forward of the wheels. The sedan's coefficient of drag is now 0.27 Cd, with the 5-door at 0.29 Cd, great numbers for a hatchback that isn't also a fastback (like the Audi A7). The rear bumper on 2012 Mazda3 i models is cleaner and body-colored now. New 16- and 17-inch alloy wheels for 2012 are sporty and handsome. Thanks in part to those wheels, the cliche that it looks like it's moving when it's standing still is true.
Mazda is the manufacturer we long for, when we complain about user-unfriendliness in the cabins of other cars, not to mention the distraction quotient. Mazda gets it; our shotgun passenger for the day of the launch was an engineer who proved it to us with some backstory about Mazda's thinking. There are few changes from the interior of the 2011 Mazda3, but the changes for 2012 have a reason.
The mission: eliminate distraction, so that the driver can concentrate on driving. Mazda means it, too many others mouth it without studying it. With Mazda being neck-deep in racing, they know how to take up less of the driver's attention with necessary gauges and controls. Few if any other manufacturers act with such careful logic. Not Ford, with the new Focus and its optional and problematic MyFordTouch. Not Toyota, with the electronically ambitious Camry. Not Chevy with the new Sonic either; and we could go on.
Every control on the Mazda3 instrument panel is intuitive and easy to reach and use. Every one. The center stack is clean, the gauges clear, and digital information is accessed by a thumb scroll on the steering wheel; in fact, Mazda3 is the only car in its class with standard steering-wheel controls. The digital information is easy to read in the sun, at least in the SkyActiv models, with blue meter illumination. Others have gray, and the Mazdaspeed3 is red.
We drove a Mazda3 with terrific leather seats, and one with cloth seats, same padding and bolstering but firmer, maybe because cloth skin gets stretched more, and leather has inherent cushioning.
The sedan's trunk has 11.8 cubic feet of space, and the hatchback has 17 cubic feet behind the rear seat. The rear seats are split 60/40, and they fold nearly flat, so the cargo space can be expanded enormously.
The wonderful new 6-speed automatic transmission is shifted in its manual mode by the gated lever; you probably won't miss steering-wheel paddles, because it's not that kind of car. But maybe it is. The shift action is another place where Mazda logic rules: the lever goes back to upshift, forward to downshift, as in many race cars, because those directions flow with the g-forces on the body during acceleration and deceleration. It's a feel thing, not a think thing.
New for 2012, the 2.0-liter SkyActiv powertrain performs ideally. We tested it hard, and it works. The engine makes 155 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque, enough for plenty of acceleration. The 6-speed automatic transmission, also new for 2012, works beautifully with the available torque. At 70 mph, the engine spins at a leisurely 2200 rpm, smooth and silent. With the 6-speed manual, it runs 70 mph at 500 rpm more.
It's just an internal combustion gasoline engine. But this is what SkyActiv means: energy losses were reduced in the intake, compression, expansion and exhaust cycles (smaller bore, longer stroke, higher compression ratio, unique combustion pockets in the domed pistons, still 87 octane Regular gas). Sequential valve timing. Mazda attacked every source of friction it could find, claiming 74 percent improvement in oil pump drag, 31 percent water pump drag, 25 percent reciprocating internal drag, 54 percent reduction in valvetrain friction, 27 percent belt drag, and 13 percent valvetrain pumping loss. They looked for energy loss all the way down to the radiator fins.
Mazda estimates 28/40 miles per gallon, not yet EPA. We got 29.5 mpg driving it hard over the curvy 4910-foot-high Angeles Crest Highway east of Los Angeles, and 43.7 mpg returning to the city mostly on the freeway, running 65-70, accelerating and decelerating with the fast flow of traffic.
Mazda hasn't said it, so we'll say it for them: We don't need no stinkin' hybrids. Mazda has said its goal is to get diesel fuel mileage with their gasoline cars, and hybrid fuel mileage with their 2.2-liter diesel engine coming to the Mazda3 by June of 2013.
With Mazda3, the idea is to be like a sports sedan, when compared to the 40-mpg competition, namely the high-economy versions of the Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus and Honda Civic.
We give raves for the new 6-speed automatic transmission. The engineer behind the transmission rode with us with backstory that boosts our faith in carbuilding. He wanted to make the transmission shift as fast as a twin-clutch automatic manual, and 15 milliseconds is the result.
SkyActiv philosophy rules again, driving engineers back to the drawing board to meet the goals for shifting performance and efficiency. Detailed examination of all metal-to-metal contact, and redesign to be slicker. The transmission increases fuel mileage by about 2 mpg, out of the total increase of about 5 mpg.
It brings a breath of fresh air, in Manual mode. Obedience, a remarkable concept! Such a simple path to perfection. We ran the transmission through all the obedience tests where other automatics usually fail, and it did not fail. It will downshift aggressively, and upshift at low rpm. It will do what you ask it to, and no more, quicker and smoother than before.
Other manufacturers use CVTs, because they say they're more fuel efficient. Nobody really likes CVTs; some drivers don't notice, and some live with them, but these continuously variable transmissions turn cars into clothes dryers. There's a CVT in the Mazda3 for Japan, where it's all stop-and-go, slow driving. But CVTs aren't more fuel efficient out on the open road where zooming happens, so it wasn't even considered for this North American Mazda3.
The manual 6-speed transmission also got done by SkyActiv. This time the goal was make it feel like the Miata MX-5 gearbox. Finding a shorter but not heavier throw at the shift lever, meant redesigning gearbox internals, not just the linkage. The throw came down to 45mm from 50mm, the shortest throw of any passenger car made, claims Mazda.
'We've been making transmission for 20 years, we know what a good one feels like,' said our passenger. We've been testing them for 20, we do too. This one feels great.
The suspension on all models has been tweaked to deliver a more European feel. We ran a lot of harsh patchy pavement on curvy roads, and it wasn't quite a sport sedan, but the feedback was direct, driven hard with the 6-speed automatic transmission in Manual mode. The harsh patches never made the ride uncomfortable.
The suspension on all models has been tweaked to deliver a more European feel. We ran a lot of harsh patchy pavement on curvy roads, and the feedback was direct, driven hard with the automatic transmission in Manual mode. The harsh patches never made the ride uncomfortable.
As for the 2.5-liter engine, with 167 horsepower and 168 pounds of torque, it truly gets the job done. The best happens when the tachometer swings through the 4500-4800 rpm range and keeps pulling to near redline. It climbs hills with confidence and cruises on the highway effortlessly. Of course you pay for the power, as the 2.5-liter is EPA-rated at just 22/29 mpg with the automatic, 20/28 mpg with the manual. But stay tuned for the SkyActiv 2.5-liter. Mazda plans to do them all.
Fuel economy for the base 2.0-liter engine is an EPA-estimated 25/33 mpg with the 5-speed manual, 24/33 mpg with the 5-speed automatic.
The 2012 Mazda3 benefits from a freshened grille that reduces the big grin on last year's models. The Mazda3 comes in 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback versions, both with friendly, convenient interiors. The new 2012 SkyActiv 2.0-liter package is an impressive achievement, with zoom-zoom performance, wonderful automatic and manual transmissions, ideal controls, and 40 miles per gallon on the highway.
Sam Moses reported to NewCarTestDrive.com from Portland; with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.
Mazda3 i SV ($15,200); Mazda3 i Sport ($16,845); Mazda3 i Touring SkyActiv ($18,450); Mazda3 i Grand Touring SkyActiv ($22,300); Mazda3 s Touring ($21,300), Mazda3 s Touring ($21,300); Mazda3 s Grand Touring ($22,900); Mazdaspeed3 ($24,000).
Options As Tested
Technology Package ($1,400) includes blind spot monitoring system, navigation system, advanced keyless system, push-button start, perimeter alarm, rain-sensing wipers, auto on/off headlights, auto-leveling bi-xenon headlights, adaptive front lighting system, LED rear combination taillights, Sirius Satellite Radio.
Mazda3 i Grand Touring sedan ($22,300).
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