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2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv Road Test

New Mazda3 Skyactiv promises its trademark zoom and added efficiency- does it deliver?

What It Is/Who It's For
A true fuel sipper not devoid of spunk, the 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv makes an appealing commuter for the newly employed.

Best Thing
Mazda made good on the Skyactiv promise of more efficiency, boasting mpg numbers you can bank on.

Worst Thing
Some hard plastics, an exotic-car sized backseat, and a heftier sticker price than some competitors.

Snap Judgment
The 2012 Mazda3 offers greatly improved fuel economy with its more efficient Skyactiv models, but falls short in some key areas.


Mazda has long sought to differentiate itself from the pack with sportier driving dynamics and a promise of fun-to-drive cars, but consumer demands are changing. With fuel economy on the minds of many -- especially in the compact segment -- Mazda introduces its new suite of Skyactiv technologies, promising to make for more efficient cars without compromising performance. With curious verve, we set out to see if Mazda made good on its word.

The latest incarnation of the 3 boasts styling that has many on the fence, but we think it's neither exciting nor is it offensive. The interior is clean and styling is playful. Hard surfaces and cheap plastics are seamlessly integrated with well thought-out accents. And while the Mazda3 may not be anyone's dream car, the Japanese automaker sure does sell a lot of them. Two out of every five Mazdas sold in the U.S. are Mazda3s, and about a third of global sales can be chalked up to the compact. Mazda's top dog was notably fun to drive in years past, but recently faced increasing competition from the newly styled Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze, and Ford Focus, all of which boasted far better fuel economy. Just repeating the Zoom Zoom tagline over and over will very quickly have buyers wearily placing Mazda into a looping cul-de-sac of inefficiency. Enter Mazda's "Skyactiv" system, a holistic approach to tackling efficiency.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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For the 2012 Mazda3, the new four-cylinder 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine is available, capable of producing 155 horsepower, beating out the previous but still available four-cylinder 2.0-liter that is good for 148. Paired with new Skyactiv transmissions, mpg estimates are way up and now competitive for the class. Essentially, the engine and transmission are have been tuned not for performance but for fuel economy. We tested out the new Skyactivated-3 to see if Mazda's most important vehicle could deliver efficiency while still staying true to Mazda's Zoom Zoom mantra.

What We Drove

For 2012 the Mazda3 is available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, and is available in four-million trims (actually ten confusing trims, not counting transmission and engine options). The 2012 Mazda3 is available as a sedan in the i Touring, i Grand Touring, i Sport, s Touring, s Grand Touring, and the i SV. The hatchback is available in all but the i SV and Sport trims. Sedans start at $15,200 and hatchback entry pricing is $19,300. The Touring model we tested was a six-speed automatic sedan with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder Skyactiv engine, priced at $21,495.

Features included 16-inch alloy-wheels, a leather-wrapped tilt and telescoping steering wheel, a leather shift knob, and Bluetooth. Optional added equipment includes a Moonroof/Bose package, with not surprisingly, a moonroof and ten-speaker 265-watt Bose stereo.

Safety equipment includes Anti-lock brakes with brake assist; 4-wheel disc brakes; stability and traction control; tire pressure monitoring; dual-front and front-side airbags; front and rear side air curtains; anti-theft engine immobilizer; and LATCH child safety seat anchors. In IIHS crash test ratings, the 2012 Hyundai Accent received a "good" rating, the highest possible, in front-impact roof strength, and side-impact crash testing.

The Commute

If James Carville were to advise automakers building a compact from scratch, he'd likely say: It's the fuel economy, stupid! And, he'd be right on. But fuel economy was the one area the Mazda3 with the plenty-of-zip 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and the regular 2.0-liter four-cylinder, fell short. So when the 2012 Skyactiv Mazda3 arrived at our offices, our staff was eager to see if the hype would be validated. But a strange thing happened-- we discovered the newest 3, is bi-polar. At least compared to the previous (and still available) 3. It's a tale of two 3s, as it were. Fuel economy aside, the Skyactiv 3 was both ripe with power, and treacherously absent of power when immediately called on. At times it seemed you'd have to count the sands of time before you'd have a response from the throttle, or you were giddy as unknowingly, and much to your liking, someone snuck a giant turbocharger under the hood. But there was little telling which Mazda you were getting.

Here's the rub: as part of the new, blissfully competitive mpg boost you're receiving, your Skyactiv transmission, as was the case on our six-speed automatic tester, decides it wants to constantly upshift, almost unreasonably so. As in you're in sixth gear before you reach the next stop sign. And here's the tradeoff: absurdly good fuel economy. Seriously. It's one of the most efficient non-hybrids we've driven in the past six months. Our staff was straddling the 33 or 34 mpg range, which is impressive. In fact, our car was achieving the estimated combined fuel economy (33 mpg), and while a car getting the fuel economy it's supposed to shouldn't surprise us, it's still rare when it actually happens. The 2012 Mazda3 even vanquished its prime competition, namely the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus, in this category. As far as a fuel efficient commuter car, you'd be hard pressed to do better than the 2012 Mazda3.

But once you get past the fuel economy, there are some other things. For example, the seats are comfortable, but one of our editors noted they could use a little more padding. The manual-control held the gear we wanted, rather than trying to correct us when we wanted to downshift. Visibility was limited in the rear with a pronounced blind spot thanks to the rearmost window pillar. On a cool Los Angeles morning (they do exist), we had the heater cranked to the hottest setting, but could only get relatively warm air to come out even after several minutes. Then there was the feature deficit. For example, despite our test car's $21,500 price tag, it didn't come with a USB port, strange considering that this car cost $5,000 more than the USB-equipped Hyundai Elantra we had previously driven.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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The Grocery Run

While Mazda to its credit nailed fuel economy with the new Skyactiv models, there are other things people are concerned with, and this is where each buyer will need to evaluate their needs. It's not that the 2012 Mazda3 doesn't do what the competition does, rather it doesn't do it as well. The trunk is wide, allowing you to easily load groceries and other cargo, but it isn't especially deep, limiting what you can place back there. And speaking of back there, the rear seats are awfully small, almost exotic sports-car like. You're friends will fit in the back if need be, but don't expect them to do you any favors after. Children will be fine in the back, but if you have car seats, expect less room to maneuver getting them in and out. Getting in and out of parking spaces is easy enough, the 2012 Mazda3's dimensions make the car easy to handle in close quarters.

The Weekend Fun

The Mazda3 has a well honed reputation for being a fun car to drive, or about as fun as you'll get from a compact economy car. But here again the bi-polar aspect of the new Skyactiv 3 comes in to play. Make no mistake, this car still has beans. The 155-horsepower is certainly felt, and the newest Mazda accelerates better than the competition -- once it understands you want to accelerate. The lag we experienced feels almost as if you place a request to accelerate, the 3 considers this request thoroughly and thoughtfully, and then decides yep! and it's finally off to the races at full sprint. That said, Mazda's compact is still relatively fun to drive, more so than the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, and Honda Civic.

The aforementioned cramped rear seating will limit who can come along for a roadtrip or weekend getaway, as will the shallow cargo space. We did like the stereo which delivered crisp sound, and when you adjust the volume, the dial on the center console does this cool pulsing thing, where the backlighting of the console flickers, a nice touch. Some of my colleagues believed the 3 to be noisy and stiff; while it may be louder than its competition, a little noise from a supposedly sporty car can't be considered a crime. As for the ride, stiffness is in the backside of the beholder; while some found this too stiff, one of its primary competitors, the Hyundai Elantra, won't win praise anytime soon for its handling of rough road.

Summary

For 2012 Mazda set out to make its most important model, the Mazda3, more efficient with new Skyactiv technology. The result was a top notch triumph, with the new Skyactiv engine and transmissions not only delivering about seven more horsepower, but more importantly boasting seven more mpg highway, achieving the coveted "40" mpg number. But all that increased efficiency has come at a price: Zoom Zoom is now just a moody zoom, if you're on good terms. The 3 lacks the practicality of the Honda Civic's rear seating, and the design inside and out, while competitive, still takes a backseat to the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus. It's also priced $5,000 more than the Elantra we liked, which when you're shopping for an economy car, merits serious consideration. Still, if some spunk is more important in your efficient commuter than rear seat room, the 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv is a look.

Spec Box

Price as tested: $21,495 Fuel Economy EPA City: 28 mpg EPA Highway: 40 mpg EPA Combined: 33 mpg Estimated Combined Range: 478.5 miles per tank 5 Year Cost of Ownership: N/A

Notebook Quotes

"The interior is a mix of clever and cheap, the back seat is cramped even for this class of vehicle, and it's noisier and stiffer on the freeway than you'd expect. But man, does Skyactiv work!" -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

"Mazda basically brought back the new model year with a new purpose: more fuel efficient engine. While exterior continues its unique pocket-monster look, the Skyactiv tech and powertrain aim to bring in more mpg's, and they do." -Joel Arellano, Assistant Editor

"Vastly more enjoyable to drive than anything in its class, even with the automatic. But, I still can't recommend it because that back seat is a deal breaker. If you have any friends or family to tote around, this isn't your car." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

"This transmission has two modes: dog slow and hyperactive. Kind of like the puppy that the 3 resembles, in fact." -Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor

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