Thumbs Up: A fuel-sipping hatchback that’s fun to drive
Thumbs Down: Optional footwell lighting can’t be turned off
Buy This Car If: You need a car that delivers impressive fuel economy with being boring
Fuel economy is now among the top considerations when purchasing a new car, as Americans are beginning to realize that the days of cheap gas aren’t coming back this time around. If you see driving as an inconvenience, and view cars only as a way of getting from one place to another, there are plenty of fuel-efficient hatchbacks and compacts to choose from. They may serve up decent fuel economy, but from a driver’s perspective they’re the culinary equivalent of steamed white rice.
If, on the other hand, you actually enjoy driving and are known to take the scenic route from time to time, there’s one car that should be at the very top of your shopping list: the 2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv. Sure, there are quicker cars on the market, and there are ones that will get through a slalom course with more haste. There are even more fuel efficient cars out there, but none serve up the same level of driver engagement as the Mazda3. Factor in a surprisingly low price tag, and you’ll likely come to the same conclusion that we did: no other car on the market today offers a better blend of fuel economy, drivability and value as the Mazda3 SkyActiv.
Mazda has invested heavily in SkyActiv technology, which is deployed on the Mazda3 and the new Mazda CX-5 crossover. In a nutshell, SkyActiv is a comprehensive engineering program that thoroughly examined the Mazda3 platform to shave weight and stiffen the structure. Next, Mazda’s 2.0-liter engine was examined as closely as possible to reduce friction and improve combustion efficiency. Even the manual and automatic transmissions were given the once-over to reduce friction, thus improving both performance and fuel economy.
The net result is a 2.0-liter Mazda3 that’s both quicker and more fuel efficient than last year’s model. The EPA rates the car at 31 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, and we actually saw 38 mpg in mostly-highway driving. Even on a long road trip with two occupants and highway speeds we’d rather not publish, the Mazda3 SkyActiv delivered an indicated 34.8 mpg. The most impressive part is that it does this without aerodynamic tricks (like grille shutters) or the complexity of a hybrid drivetrain.
Only a true Mazda aficionado could point out the exterior differences between last year’s Mazda3 and the current version, but the big news is a wider variety of available configurations in both the hatchback and sedan models. The front end still wears the grinning-guppy look of earlier Mazda3s, but it has been toned down a bit in this latest version. While the styling may not appeal to everyone, it’s not radical enough to put any potential buyers off.
Inside, the Mazda3 delivers a sports-car inspired dash. There’s (thankfully) no fake wood to be found, since Mazda opts to use subtle metallic trim instead, Controls for the audio system dominate the top of the center stack, with the HVAC controls positioned below, where you’d expect them. At the top of the dash is the driver information display, as well as the screen for the audio system. On navaigation-equipped cars, the audio system display is shared with the navigation screen.
Instruments are deep set in hooded pods, trimmed in silver. There’s a big tachometer on the left and a speedometer on the right, split by a bar graph fuel gauge, odometer and trip odometer. The display, like the rest of the interior, carries a sports-car theme that belies the Mazda3’s fuel-efficient commuter mission.
Front seats, even in lower-trim models like the i Touring, are comfortable enough for all-day driving. The seats may lack lumbar support and adjustable bolstering, but they really don’t need either. The fabric used to wrap the front perches is grippy enough to hold you in place during spirited cornering, and appears to be stout enough to hold up to years of wear. We give Mazda two thumbs up for staying the course with fabric seats, and not resorting to the cow-from-a-test-tube seats used by so many automakers to “add value” these days.
Rear seats are meant for two, but will carry three when necessary. There’s ample headroom, but those long of leg will probably prefer the front seat to the rear, especially on longer trips. That’s not a ding against the Mazda3, which has comparable legroom to other hatchbacks in the compact segment, but a general observation on the class. If you regularly haul two adults in the rear seats, chances are good you’ll be shopping for a mid-size car or crossover.
Under the hood, Mazda gives hatchback buyers a choice of two engines for 2012 (three if you count the Mazdaspeed3). Opt for the i Touring or the i Grand Touring, and you’ll get the fuel-saving 2.0-liter SkyActiv-G engine, while s Touring and s Grand Touring models get the 2.5-liter four carried over from last year. The SkyActiv-G 2.0-liter four makes 155 horsepower (seven more than last year) and 148 pound-feet of torque (13 more than last year). That’s not enough to put the Mazda3 into hot hatch territory, but it is enough to serve up a run from 0 to 60 mph in around 8.3 seconds; considering that the thirstier 2.5-liter four only knocks a few tenths of a second off this time, there really is no reason choose it over the 2.0-liter SkyActiv-G engine.
Our Mazda-supplied tester came with the six-speed SkyActiv manual transmission, and it’s worthy of its own review. Mazda’s engineers went through the gearbox to make it smaller and lighter while reducing friction. They went over the shift linkage, too, using ball bearings instead of bushings wherever possible. The net result isn’t just the best economy-car manual transmission on the planet, it’s one of the best manual transmissions we’ve ever driven, at any price. If you use the Honda S2000 as a benchmark of what a proper manual transmission should feel like, we’d say that the shift action of Mazda’s SkyActiv transmission feels remarkably similar. If you can drive a stick, there’s no reason to opt for the automatic; if you can’t, the Mazda3 should give you the inspiration to learn.
On the road, the Mazda3 handles better than any other non-hot-hatch compact we can name. You can carry truly impressive amounts of speed into a corner without so much as tire squeal, which is all the more impressive given the 3’s non-sporting tires. The steering feel is decent, and the car quickly responds to directional changes without complaint (and with surprisingly little body roll). When benchmarked against others in the class, we’re pretty sure the Mazda3 would holds it own against a Volkswagen Golf, a Hyundai Elantra Touring or even a Ford Focus on an autocross track (though, in fairness to the other cars, we didn’t have an opportunity to test this theory).
On the highway, even at speeds not suitable for publication, the Mazda3 provided a quiet and comfortable platform. Road noise and wind noise were both minimal, and the Mazda3 even plowed through one of Florida’s summertime monsoon rains without complaint. Unlike many other cars designed primarily for fuel economy, the Mazda3 won’t punish drivers who enjoy the occasional cross-country road trip.
To be honest, we were surprised about how good the Mazda3 is, especially given its price point. With so many new models on the market today, the venerable Mazda3 had slipped our minds, and we’re sure that’s the case with a lot of new car shoppers these days. If you’re in the market for an economical commuter car, make sure the Mazda3 is on your shopping list. We’re pretty sure you’ll like it as much as we did.
Our 2012 Mazda3 i Touring SkyActiv had a base price of $19,745, including a destination charge of $795. Options on our press fleet tester included the $200 Interior Lighting Kit (which we’d advise against, since the footwell lighting can be dimmed, but not shut off), the $50 Rear Bumper Step Plate and the $430 Sirius Satellite Radio Package, for a total list price of $20,425.
For comparison, a similarly equipped Volkswagen Golf would sticker at $21,410, while a comparable Ford Focus SE would list for $21,230.