The Mazda3 SKYACTIV is a small 4-door sedan or hatchback that combines sporty driving dynamics, a sleek appearance, affordable price and great fuel economy all into one package.

The refreshed Mazda3 comes with a few significant changes for the 2012 model year. The infamous "smiley" grille has been toned down quite a bit in order to reduce drag. Inside, the cabin has been refreshed with new blackened trim and instrument panel accent lighting, which changes based on your driving performance.

The most notable change, however, is under the hood and comes in the form of the SKYACTIV engine. To spare you the boring details, it essentially produces more horsepower and delivers better fuel economy than the previous generation.

At least, that's what it does on paper. I took the Mazda3 SKYACTIV sedan for some real world driving, including a LA-San Diego jog, to see if fuel economy and sporty driving can truly coexist.

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How Much?

How Much?

MSRP: $15,200 - $23,400
Invoice: $14,543 - $21,910

As Tested: $19,245

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Key Stats

Key Stats

-2.0L I-4 SKACTIV engine
-155 hp, 148 lb-ft of torque
-6-speed manual/6-speed automatic transmission
-27 mpg City, 39 mpg Highway
-Seats 5
-11.8 cubic feet maximum cargo capacity

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What We Like

What We Like

Michael: Just like every other Mazda I have driven, the Mazda3 is a blast on the road. Crisp steering, nice tight suspension and some peppy acceleration make this quite the sporty ride. This small sedan is a great combination of inspired and economical driving. This is where the Mazda3 really separates itself from the pack. It may not come with the most standard features, but it undoubtedly is the most fun to drive of all the small sedans. It's sure to delight those of you looking for a fun car that won't break the bank.

Additionally, the fuel economy really is fantastic. I averaged about 30 mpg, which included extensive amounts of both city and highway driving. Any car that's fun to drive and can still get that kind of fuel economy is a winner in my book.

What Autoblog Says: We really enjoyed the new six-speed manual transmission. 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.

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 and communicative.

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What We Don't Like

What We Don't Like

Michael: The interior of the Mazda3 is pretty bare, but when you're paying under $20K, you shouldn't expect too much. Some of the hard plastics were bothersome, especially on the steering wheel and I wasn't blown away by the sound system or connectivity (I had some issues getting my phone set up). I certainly wouldn't call this car uncomfortable. In fact it was quite pleasant on the 4-hour trip I took. But the standard equipment does leave something to be desired, especially when compared to some of the competition.

What Autoblog Says: In Mazda's pursuit of 40 mpg, the engineers fitted an overdrive sixth gear that makes acceleration nearly non-existent at highways speeds. Wind noise was low on the freeway, but there was a lot of tire rumble permeating the cabin – common in this segment.

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Bottom Line

Bottom Line

The 2012 Mazda3 SKYACTIV isn't the cheapest or the most fuel-efficient car in its segment, but it is definitely the most fun. Because Mazda found a great balance of driving dynamics, fuel economy and value, I would call the Mazda3 one of the top 3 or 4 small sedans that you can buy right now. Do not pass up a test drive of this car if you're shopping for a small sedan.

AOL Autos Score:

(4/5)


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