With its new Skyactiv suite of technologies, Mazda is trying to put the concept of "less is more" into motion. And that's not easy to day these days, especially when automakers are balancing efficiency and safety standards with customer demands.
Tack on the limited research and development budget endemic to a smaller automaker that would make a fiscal hawk rather happy and it's hard not to be impressed with the end result brought to market by one of the few automakers still having a fun go of it.
With this in mind, we decided to revisit
Mazda's first Skyactiv product, the Mazda3. Only this time, we're checking out the marginally thirstier but infinitely more practical hatchback. It's the fuel sipper for enthusiasts.
What is it?
The Mazda3 five-door hatchback is one of the brand's most successful offerings, responsible itself for nearly 33 percent of worldwide sales volume and nearly two thirds of the brand's fortunes here in the U.S.
It has always been one of our favorite "hot-hatches," with a body that we have grown to appreciate through the years. Sure this has had some nips and tucks in its time, but it's still the same looking Mazda3 that we have come to love.
Or is it?
The three-pronged approach that Mazda utilizes with their Skyactiv program centers around engine, transmission and driving dynamics. Above all else, though, it needs to maintain the fun to drive quotient that we've become familiar with in previous Mazdas. We equate it with the concept of eating healthier. Imagine having to cut back on sweets and other favorite foods to make you leaner and meaner overall. Granted, we know it's good for us, but in the case of this Mazda, it actually tastes good, too.
The centerpiece of our "diet" is Mazd's brand new Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine. Beefed up with all sorts of protein, in the form of new internal technology including dome-topped pistons for a cooler burn and new gas injection techniques, it is more efficient and powerful than the engine it replaces. The new six-speed manual transmission was developed using the gearbox from Mazda's MX 5 sports car as its inspiration. Engineers managed to reduce weight and give it a more precise throw and feel.
Think of this 3, with its stick shift and ultra practical bodystyle as the enthusiast's companion to the more conventional automatic/sedan version we tested
not too long ago. Interestingly, the sedan is actually a little more slippery and the automatic is a little more efficient, so this hatchback doesn't quite net the EPA's 40 mpg rating the four-door does.
And, yes, you can still buy a non-Skyactiv Mazda3 with either a slightly thirstier and less powerful 2.0-liter or a more thirsty and more powerful 2.5-liter, at least for 2012.
What's it up against?
Competitors to the Mazda3 Skyactiv include the Hyundai Elantra
, Honda Civic, Chevy Cruze, and Mazd's rather distant relative, the Ford Focus. Each offers its own eco-friendly model, but none are quite as sporty as the Mazda3.
All are well-respected and received competitors in the marketplace. To say that there's a lot of cross shopping going on is an understatement.
How does it look?
The exterior of the five-door hatchback has been refined to show off its slightly wider track. Crisper lines throughout and a more refined "Cheshire Cat grin" that is actually not grinning so much this time only tell part of the story. Underneath the skin, Mazda engineers performed a total transformation that used high-strength steel, an increased number of spot welds and reinforcing crossmember pieces to relay a more confident driving attitude to the driver, as well. Mazda calls the look a mid-generation evolutionary design.
Speaking of underneath, Mazda's aero guys managed to smooth out the bottom with panels, coverings and diversionary tactics that give the Mazda3 class-leading drag Cd numbers.
With this subtle update, come new headlamp assemblies, new stylized 16-inch wheels when ordered with the 2.0-liter Skyactiv model. A revised rear valance helps to finish off this hatchback. And just so those in the know will notice, Skyactiv models will feature blue accent rings around the headlamps.
And on the inside?
A vast sea of blackness greeted us upon first glance in the "3. That's if you don't count the woven beige look of the fabric-Mazda calls Dune. Along with all that blackness sits newly placed silver accents, that in addition to offering a contrast, also highlight the placement of frequently used controls. We did, however, like the blue illumination after ambient levels veer towards nighttime.
Gauges have been updated from the red illumination of the past to the easier to read white that lights the way on the 2012 model.
Further enhancements include the leather covering of everything that the driver's hands come in contact with, from the steering wheel, to the shifter knob to the e-brake lever. The asymmetrical appearance of the dashboard is canted further towards the driver for ease of access and reach. A smallish multi-information display LCD occupies the top of the center stack, and offers information relating to audio, Bluetooth, and vehicle settings.
Regardless of the fact that ours was the Mazda 3i Touring model, rather than the higher market Grand Touring model, it still offered great driving position and feel as well as room for five.
Rear legroom was okay for short trips but should be left for the shorties (kids) on longer excursions. The rear seats fold down in a 60-40 split and offer up to 42.8 cubic feet of cargo space.
But does it go?
New efficiencies have been realized with the Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter direct injection engine. Designed with an ultra-high a 12:1 compression ratio, it is capable of producing 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm.
While an all-new six-speed automatic that combines CVT and dual-clutch attributes grabs the headlines, our tester was equipped with an enthusiast-happy six-speed stick. Revised tolerances improve its feel for a greatly improved, fun-to-drive feel that overcame any hesitation or numbness we might have felt with the automatic.
Quick shifts, short throws and precise movements were the order of the day in this Mazda3, which made us forget that with responsible driving, we would actually realize an improvement in fuel economy.
Typical for this size of vehicle, the Mazda3's suspension consisted of a pair of MacPherson struts in front and an independent multi-link setup in the rear to support the 2896 lbs. curb weight. Electro-hydraulic power steering imparted remarkably good road feel on a variety of surfaces we found during our testing. The steering is sharp and the taut suspension gives the 3 an agile feel that thoroughly brought out the zippiness we knew this grinning cat was capable of. Its ride is stiff, perhaps too much so for the average driver, but it suited our hatchback/stick shift model rather well. Only some excess road noise diluted the experience.
The EPA says to expect 27 city/38 highway with an average of 31 combined. Driving with exuberance, we achieved an average of 30 mpg, which is not quite what we saw in our automatic sedan but is still impressive for a fuel miser.
Why you would buy it:
Who says you can't have a fun car that doesn't use much fuel?
Why you wouldn't:
Fuel costs be damned, you just bought a Mazdaspeed3
Leftlane's bottom line
It might look like Mazda is taking the easy way out with its Skyactiv technology by avoiding costly and complex hybrid systems, but that's not the case.
Instead, they've improved on existing technologies and created some new ones along the way. The end result is a pure, simple and fun compact car that gets among the best fuel economy this segment has seen.
2012 Mazda Mazda3i Touring Skyactiv hatchback
base price, $18,950. As tested, $20,425.
Interior lighting kit, $200; Rear bumper step plate, $50; Satellite Radio, $430; Destination, $20,425.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.