Over the past couple of years, the 40-miles-per-gallon (mpg) fuel-efficiency goal has gone from being met initially by only a few select high-mileage machines (almost entirely hybrids and diesels) to becoming the small-car highway norm.
Now Mazda is laying claim to 40 mpg for the 2012 Mazda3, with a new-generation engine and all-new transmissions that fall under the automaker's "Skyactiv" badge— Mazda's engineering-based initiative for efficiency, ecofriendliness and safety.
With the Mazda3, a longtime brand bestseller that makes up nearly half of Mazda's sales in the U.S., the Japanese automaker has a "zoom-zoom" (as in fun, exciting driving) reputation to uphold. The automaker insists that keeping its "zoom-zoom" philosophy was a top priority when developing its Skyactiv initiative.
Does the Skyactiv version of the Mazda3—despite fewer horses, but going more than 20% farther on a gallon of gas—maintain the more energetic driving feel that has characterized this lineup?
That is what we tried to find out during our test drive of the refreshed Mazda3 hatchback equipped with the automaker's new technology.
THE ECO CHOICE THAT DOESN'T DRIVE LIKE ONE
The answer, without hesitation, is a solid "yes." From the first impression, it is clear the new Skyactiv 2.0-liter engine isn't as strong as, and lacks the torque of, the 2.5-liter MZR engine, which remains available at the top of the lineup (along with the base MZR 2.0-liter). That being said, the Skyactiv 2.0-liter can be described as the eco-conscious choice that doesn't feel like one—and yes, this Mazda3 still has plenty of "zoomzoom."
With the Mazda3 Skyactiv, the Japanese automaker turns the notion that fun driving ruins fuel economy completely upside down. The Mazda3 Skyactiv five-door Hatchback with a six-speed manual transmission (the same one used in the Mazda MX-5 Miata) is rated at 27 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.
For Mazda, Skyactiv is more than new engines and transmissions, even though that is all the 3 gets for now. It is an initiative that looks at body structures and design philosophies as well, and we will see some of these ideas showing up soon in stronger and safer yet lighter next-generation Mazda vehicles—such as the upcoming all-new 2013 Mazda CX-5 sport-utility vehicle.
At first glance, the 2012 Mazda3 may not look all that different on the outside from the 2011 model, since it is a few years away from a full redesign. But subtle changes made to the vehicle go a long way.
For 2012, all Mazda3 models get a resculpted front air dam and fascia that turn the Mazda3's signature smile into more of a relaxed grin. We like the look, as it now seems to fl ow more smoothly through the vehicle's flared front fenders.
To match the somewhat different look, there's a new rear fascia as well, with two new wheel designs to complement. And throughout, what you might notice more than anything else is that there is more body-color trim than ever—no more dark molded plastic!
Through those few subtle changes—mainly those to the front end—Mazda has cut the 3's drag coefficient (wind resistance) for a best-in-class 0.27 for the sedan and 0.29 for the five-door hatchback. This translates into greater fuel efficiency than the 2011 model.
Inside though, the Mazda3 remains mostly unchanged from the 2011 model, with a modern and sporty-looking dashboard layout and comfortable, roomy seats. There are new seating trim and climate-control buttons, and Skyactiv models get blue gauge surrounds, Skyactiv badging and a stylish blue engine cover.
As with all Mazdas, the Mazda3 Skyactiv boasts good-quality materials and a nice fit & finish throughout.
FEWER HORSES, BUT STILL FUN
Rated at 155 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque, the new 2.0-liter engine on the Mazda3 Skyactiv may have fewer horses and less torque than the 2.5-liter MZR engine, but it still provides great performance to go along with the excellent fuel economy.
With a 12:1 compression ratio, the new engine has less low-end torque, but once you reach 3,000 rpm, there's plenty, with more than ample power for passing on the freeway or climbing a steep hill.
During our test drive, the Mazda3 Skyactiv proved to have exceptional grip and balance while cornering. Power-steering assist remains hydraulic (albeit an electric motor driving the pump) and the steering feel is beyond what any carmaker has achieved in the compact-segment price range.
Even with only 155 horses, as a sport compact vehicle the Mazda3 is purer than some same-segment competitors offering more horsepower.
Although the new Mazda3 uses the same six-speed manual transmission found in the MX-5 Miata, we found the gears to be too close to each other, making for sudden upshifts and somewhat tricky downshifts.
TOP SAFETY PICK
As for safety, the Mazda3 was named a top safety pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Standard safety features include advanced front airbags, front side-impact airbags, side-impact air curtains, and Dynamic Stability Control with Traction Control System. A new Blind Spot Monitoring system is now available in the optional technology package.
Falling somewhat short of that wow factor, what the Mazda3 could use to add some sex appeal to the Skyactiv technology is a new look—the sedan continues to be a bit on the dorky side. The hatchback, though, looks more dramatic and progressive, and knowing Mazda's future design direction, what is coming down the pipeline in a few years will really give this new engine the sheet metal it deserves.