Efficiency Meets Performance
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Introduction
Most mainstream automakers have already seen 40 miles per gallon on the highway become a reality (as well as a crucial marketing and sales tool), but Mazda, a company that prides itself on a fun, "zoom-zoom" driving experience, had to take a different approach to attaining this important mpg rating. The newly introduced Skyactiv technologies include a host of engine, transmission and chassis enhancements that will allows Mazda's future vehicles to get better fuel economy without negatively affecting the brand's sporty characteristics. The first such car to offer Skyactiv in the United States is the heavily revised 2012 Mazda Mazda3, but we were recently in California to test out the upgraded Mazda3 in terms of both fuel efficiency and performance. Mazda expects Skyactiv to account for more than 50 percent of 2012 Mazda3 sales, and after this model, the Skyactiv technologies will soon spread to other Mazda models including the all-new 2013 Mazda CX-5 that is expected out early next year.
Assembled in Hofu, Japan, the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 is available as both a sedan and a five-door hatchback with a starting MSRP of $15,200, but buyers looking for the new Skyactiv engine and transmission will have to ante up at least $18,450. This price is for the Mazda3 Skyactiv sedan which compares well against fuel-efficient rivals, but the Skyactiv option actually helps lower the base price of the Mazda3 hatchback by almost $1,600 compared to the 2011 model. When the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 hits showrooms, it will only be available in the Mazda3 i Touring and Mazda3 i Grand Touring trim levels leaving the i Sport models as the low-price models and the s models as the sportier, higher output versions. We had the opportunity to drive a handful of different trim levels with varying option packages for this first drive review, and one of the most expensive was the five-door Mazda3 i Grand Touring with the optional $1,400 Technology Package and the $795 destination charge for an as-tested price of $24,995 which is in line with other fully loaded rivals in this segment.
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Competition
There is no lack of competition in the compact sedan and hatchback segment, but some of the key rivals to the Skyactiv-equipped 2012 Mazda Mazda3 models include the Chevrolet Cruze Eco, Ford Focus SFE, Honda Civic HF and the Hyundai Elantra. Considering this segment's top-selling car, the Toyota Corolla, is down 11 percent and new cars like the Elantra are up considerably, there is plenty of room for Mazda to snag additional market share. Last month, Mazda saw an increase of Mazda3 sales by 11.7 percent compared to last September, but for the first nine months of 2011, the car's sales are down slightly by 4.7 percent. Considering the 2011 Mazda3 was one of the worst in its market in terms of fuel economy, the 2012 model should do much better now that it is far more competitive in terms of styling, performance and, most importantly, fuel economy.
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Exterior
Working off a 2010 redesign, a few visual changes were made to the exterior of the 2012 Mazda Mazda3, and the updated look helps to differentiate the new model from the 2010-2011 design while helping to improve the car's aerodynamics and reducing the polarizing smiley front end. The biggest styling change made was to the front fascia which not only steps away from the overly happy styling that the second-generation Mazda3 ushered in, but it also is also one of the key factors that helps make the car more aerodynamic. Other aero changes include an added front tire deflector as well as a flatter underbody; the new Mazda3 also sports two new wheel designs. There are also a handful of ways to distinguish the Skyactiv option from other Mazda3 models such as the added blue tinted headlight rings, a blue engine cover and a blue "Skyactiv" badge on the rear of the car. Speaking of blue, the 2012 Mazda3 will launch with a heavy mix of the new Sky Blue exterior color as evident by the pictures taken during this event (as well as the previous press images available up to this point).
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Interior
Mazda also made some key changes inside the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 to add more technology, more comfort and better styling. In the comfort department, new cloth seat fabrics provide a softer touch, while the upper trim levels offer the more luxurious option of leather-wrapped seats. Like the exterior, the 2012 Mazda3's cabin features subtle design changes including softer touch materials, clearer LCD screens and even small changes aimed at reducing driver distractions. The darker instrument panel now features fewer silver accents than the previous Mazda3 helping to create a better contrast with the center stack controls (such as the HVAC and audio system) to make easier for drivers to find and use the controls. While all of the 2012 Mazda3 models receive the same interior upgrades, those equipped with the Skyactiv engine and transmissions can still be distinguished by the blue trim around the instrument gauges; standard models have grey trim and the MAZDASPEED3 has red trim. Mazda has also made changes to the LCD screen mounted above the center stack replacing the red background with an easier-to-read black background with white lettering.2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Interior Packages and Options
While there are plenty of standard features on the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 equipped with Skyactiv, Mazda also made sure to include plenty of options that go even further to help the Mazda3 stand out in its class. One of the most impressive new additions is the all-new Blind Spot Monitoring system that is available on the $1,400 Technology Package. This package also brings the bi-Xenon, self-leveling headlights, active headlights and rain-sensing wipers. The Mazda3 i GT comes standard with more upscale features like a Bose audio system, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and a full-color navigation display; the latter of which is surprisingly undersized even in the economy-branded segment.
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Powertrain and Fuel Economy
Although the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 still offers the previous MZR engines (2.0- and 2.5-liter inline-fours), we were only on hand to check out Mazda's Skyactiv-G engine. This new 2.0-liter direct-injected inline-four not only produces more horsepower and torque than the current Mazda3 base engine with 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, it also weights 4.4 pounds lighter. On top of all of its other advantages, the new Skyactiv-G engine will give the 2012 Mazda3 competitive fuel economy that hits the growingly important 40 mpg highway rating with the automatic transmission to go with 28 mpg in the city - this compares to 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway for the entry-level current model and the most fuel efficient 2011 model. Also new for the 2012 Mazda3 are the six-speed Skyactiv-Drive automatic transmission and the six-speed Skyactiv-MT manual gearbox.
Skyactiv-Drive stands out from other automatics on the market by adding the quick shifts of a dual clutch transmission with the low-speed smoothness of a conventional automatic's torque converter; Skyactiv-MT is also improved upon with a shorter throw, reducing friction and a lower overall weight. Outside the U.S., the Skyactiv name is also used on a diesel engine (Skyactiv-D) which was briefly hinted at during the presentation, but there is no telling whether Mazda really plans to offer a diesel in the U.S., and, if so, when this engine could make it to American Mazdas. Of course, for the highest level of performance available in a Mazda, the MAZDASPEED3 is still offered for 2012.
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Driving Impressions
For all of the talk about the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 and the added efficiencies of the Skyactiv technologies, this car is still a blast to drive. Along some enjoyable roads just outside of L.A., we had the chance to check out both of the Skyactiv's new transmissions. First up, we grabbed some seat time in the Skyactiv-Drive automatic which delivered quick shifts in regular mode but provided a manual shift mode for occasions just like this. Keeping the engine revving at its sweet spot helps provide quicker accelerating out of a turn, and the manual mode allows the driver to hold each gear (even past redline) for ultimate control; about the only thing this setup lacked were steering wheel shift paddles. Later in the day, the Skyactiv-MT manual gearbox provided even more driver enjoyment, but we were also surprised at how easy it was to shift; the Skyactiv-MT could very well be the best, if not only, transmission that is as much fun for enthusiasts as it is for first-time manual drivers. In addition to these new transmissions, Mazda has also included an equally well-balanced electric power assist steering and a more rigid chassis for better cornering. At the end of the day, it was impressive at how far Mazda has come at improving the fuel economy and refinement of the Mazda3 while also helping to preserve the car's thrilling dynamic.
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Safety
Both the sedan and hatchback versions of the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 received four stars for an overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which includes a five-star frontal rating, four-star rollover rating and a three-star side-impact rating; the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has yet to release its ratings for the new Mazda3. All 2012 Mazda Mazda3 models (including the high-performance MAZDASPEED3) come standard with six airbags, active front head restraints, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist, four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system, tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), Dynamic Stability Control and traction control. New for 2012, the Mazda3 will also be available with a class-exclusive Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) system which uses lights in the exterior door mirrors to help drivers avoid colliding with vehicles in their blind spots.
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Final Thoughts
Even more so than the smiling Nagare design language currently used on most of its current models, the introduction of the new Skyactiv technologies on the 2012 Mazda Mazda3 will really give the automaker something to grin about. Since Mazda introduced the Mazda3 in 2004, it has sold more than 3 million units, and the new Skyactiv engine and transmission designs should help give the updated Mazda3 up to 40 mpg on the highway which should make the car even more competitive in its segment. With more than 40 percent of Mazda's U.S. sales coming from the Mazda3, adding a sportier and more efficient version of this car into its line-up should be a good way to help boost future sales. Improved fuel economy is great but Mazda somehow managed to make the car even more fun to drive thanks to its Skyactiv component, and while there is no shortage of fuel-efficient compacts on the market, it is hard to think of a compact that delivers better value and driving excitement than the 2012 Mazda3 with Skyactiv.
2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactiv: Pros and Cons
- improved fuel economy without losing Mazda's sporty, fun-to-drive "zoom-zoom" attitude
- revised exterior reduces the smiley front fascia
- excellent tuning for the suspension and electric power steering
- confusing trim levels and build combinations
- Skyactiv is a $3,250 option from the base model
- no Skyactiv-D diesel engine... yet
- very small optional navigation display
Mazda provided travel, lodging and vehicle for this review.
Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross