By Mary Ellen Ash

The Mazda3 has been the most popular car in the Mazda fleet for several years. Consumers love the sportiness, versatility and value, but many bemoan the 3’s less than chic fuel efficiency.

By the 2016 model year, cars are expected to average 39 mpg and trucks are expected to get an average of 30 mpg. Mazda decided the best way to meet government standards, while maintaining their trademark “Zoom-Zoom” experience, is improve its existing technologies with SKYACTIV. There's confusion over what SKYACTIV actually is; It’s not a single piece of technology but a complete set of technologies and improvements that come together to achieve, according to Mazda, “an exciting, sustainable future for cars, people and the Earth.”

In short the engine, transmission and the body/chassis have been rethought with fuel economy in mind. I spent a week with the 2012 Mazda3 to determine if the SKYACTIV system does come together without taking anything from the driving experience.

2012 Mazda MAZDA3 5-door hatchback

My test car was a 2012 Mazda3 i Grand Touring 5-door hatchback with the technology package. While I haven’t been a fan of the exterior look of the car since the redesign a few years ago, its new aerodynamic body paneling with the Sky Blue Mica exterior made the test car stunning.

The interior materials made me feel as if I were sitting inside a car in a higher price bracket. A few top-quality features were leather seats with great side support and five-setting adjustable seat warmers, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, 10-speaker Bose audio system, moonroof, and navigation/multi information display. Much of the hard plastics trimming the Mazda3 of previous years have been replaced with soft touch materials. Even the center armrest is now adjustable and has better padding.

A day trip to one of my favorite mountain biking trails was on the calendar. So, early one morning I popped the hatch, laid flat the rear seats, filled it with a cooler and my bike. Before even hitting the road, I was impressed by how easy it was to load my biking gear into the hatchback. The rear passenger seats were easy to manipulate and were not a heavy burden. With all my gear packed, I was ready to roll on my adventure. Along the way, I faced freeway driving, city driving and twisty mountain roads.

2012 Mazda MAZDA3 5-door interior

Getting out of the city was pretty easy. The 3 is extremely nimble and a good size to dart in and out of traffic with outward visibility in the hatchback being phenomenal.  It was during congested driving that I notice the blind spot monitoring (BSM) system at work; a feature usually reserved for cars in a higher price class. Having a second set of eyes looking out for me is a safety feature that I really appreciate.

Blind Spot Monitoring and Active Front Lighting Systems are only a hint of the safety features, passive and active, that are available with the MAZDA3. The IInsurance Institute for Highway Safetyurance Institute for Highway Safety has named the 2012 Mazda 3 sedan and hatchback IIHS Top Safety Picks for having standard electronic stability control and receiving the highest score of "Good" in front, side and rear crash tests and roof strength tests. In tests with the federal government, the Mazda3 sedan and hatchback receive an overall score of four out of five stars. Additionally, both models receive four stars for rollover risk, five stars in front crash tests and three stars in side crash tests.

Also, all Mazda vehicles come with the Mazda Certified Roadside Assistance Program for three years or 36,000 miles – whichever comes first.

2012 Mazda MAZDA3 60/40 split folding back seat

The muscle behind the SKYACTIV-G 2.0-liter 4-cylinder direct injection engine, which produces 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, is enough for getting out of red lights quickly and overtaking slower vehicles. I found the power delivery adequate but the engine noise was a harsh at full throttle. I immediately noticed the improved smoothness of the new six-speed automatic transmission. Gear shifts were fast; when the car got up to speed and I lay back on the throttle to coast, it would seamlessly upshift a few gears to keep the revs low and save gas while I cruised at a constant speed. The downside was I needed to prod the gas pedal to get it to gear down again for the “overtake.” But for the sake of fuel economy savings, I was happy with the trade-off.

The automatic transmission also has a manual shift mode and is the best I’ve ever used in cars of this class. Outstanding, because in reality they are usually slow, dim-witted, and many times the computers tend to “correct” the decisions you’ve just made. Staying with the goal of keeping the driving experience engaging for the driver, the time between inputting your gear change and having it happen was lightning fast and extremely smooth — maybe even faster and smoother than Volkswagen’s accomplished DSG transmission (dual clutch direct-shift gearbox).

2012 Mazda MAZDA3 5-door hatchback

Mazda claims the new SKYACTIV transmission transfers torque more efficiently during gear changes and helps boost fuel economy. Highway miles rolled away with the fuel gauge barely moving and the car recording 37 mpg. A lighter touch with the accelerator probably would have netted me something closer to the EPA estimate of 39 mpg on the highway.

Upon reaching the twisty mountain roads, the MAZDA3’s new lightened chassis feels taught and unexpectedly sporty. The car is extremely planted going thru corners and feedback transmitted to the driver is excellent. Carving through the mountain passes, the 3’s turn-in is sharp and precise. On my descent down this road later in the evening I found myself going much faster than I normally would before realizing that the MAZDA3 was equipped the optional pivoting front headlights (Adaptive Front-lighting System), probably with people like me in mind.

I am thoroughly impressed with the new SKYACTIV Mazda 3. It’s a fun, sexy and cool and deal for new owners looking for a high value car that’s still extremely functional, fun to drive, and good looking. The MAZDA3 can still carry your groceries,  transport your family in comfort and style, or carry all your hiking and biking equipment. And it can still excite you with its “Zoom-Zoom” driving experience and do so at a very reasonable price. Thankfully, that price includes getting close to 40 mpg on the highway.

2012 Mazda MAZDA3 i Grand Touring

  • Engine: SKYACTIV-G 2.0L DOHC 4-cylinder direct injection with variable valve timing (VVT)
  • Horsepower: 155 hp @ 6000 rpm
  • Torque: 148 lb.-ft. @ 4100 rpm
  • Transmission: SKYACTIV-Drive 6-speed automatic
  • Fuel Consumption w/automatic: 28 mpg city/ 39 mpg highway
  • Optional Equipment: Technology Package
  • Price as Tested: $24,995
  • Warranty: 3-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper limited warranty

 

 

 

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