2012 Mazda 3 SKYACTIV

Review: 2012 Mazda 3 SKYACTIV

We get up close with Mazda's new SKYACTIV technology.

By: Tim Healey

Web2Carz Contributing Writer

Published: December 30th, 2011

Mazda loves to promote itself as the “zoom-zoom” automaker, but with the updated 2012 3, it’s also looking to be the “save-save” automaker, at least when it comes to cash spent on gas.

Enter SKYACTIV, which is a catch-all term for the company’s efforts to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. As one might suspect, the changes are confined primarily to the powertrain.

The car does have freshened styling for 2012, but it takes a close look to see it. What we’re interested in is the available SKYACTIV engine, available only on i models. Adding more power and improved fuel economy over the standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder (155 horsepower as opposed to 148, and mpg ratings of 28/40 on automatic-transmission sedan models, compared to 24/33), SKYACTIV utilizes all kinds of tech-tricks, like a high compression ratio, to achieve these goals.

When a SKYACTIV 3 showed up at our door, we were curious to see how SKYACTIV affected the car’s behavior. Would the new tech be noticeable from behind the wheel? Or only at the pump?

  • Performance

    As it turns out, the latter case is more accurate. We found acceleration to be adequate (though lead-footed folks will be best served by the s’ 2.5-liter mill), without any noticeable theatrics from under the hood. Like Ford’s EcoBoost, SKYACTIV technology is mostly transparent to the average driver, although anyone standing outside the idling car will notice the distinct sounds of direct-injection ticking away.

    Otherwise, the experience is standard 3, which means sporty handling (thanks to the independent front and rear suspension, and front and rear stabilizer bars), crisp steering feel, a bit too much wind/road noise, and a ride that matches the “zoom-zoom” billing. The 6-speed automatic is seen but not unnecessarily felt, and the four-wheel disc brakes do their master’s bidding without complaint or drama.

  • Interior

    We’re still mixed on the 3’s cabin—it’s business-like and functional, if a bit plasticky and cheap-looking in places. The small navigation/info screen mounted high on the dash draws some cognitive dissonance, and we can’t figure out if we like it or not. It’s easy for our eyes to locate without deviating too much from the road, but while the radio/trip info fonts are easy enough to read, the navigation map requires a bit more effort. The steering-wheel mounted controller is convenient but takes a little getting used to.

    We do like the big tuner knob in the center of the radio, and we found the buttons on the center stack to be logically located and easy to use. No complaints there.

    Our biggest complaint is the inexplicable lack of a USB port (it’s not even an option), and the interior’s size drew some complaints from cramped passengers (the 3 has plenty of zoom, but needs more room). The trade-off is a spacious trunk, although for ultimate utility we’d opt for the hatchback 3.

  • Features & Prices

    There’s no arguing that even minus the USB (c’mon Mazda, it’s 2011, we all need to charge our smartphones), the 3 represents a good value. For under $25K as tested ($24,970 to be precise, including the $795 destination fee), our car had satellite radio, rain-sensing front wipers, blind-spot monitoring, pivoting headlights that were also auto-leveling, and auto on/off for those headlights. All those items were part of a $1,400 Technology Package, but we’re still impressed that navigation is standard, along with Bluetooth, an AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, leather-trimmed seats, heated front seats with five settings, and a tilt/telescope steering wheel.

    Other standards included 16-inch wheels, a moonroof, and a rear defroster. Our car listed at $22,300 before options, which included the aforementioned Technology Package, a compass mirror with HomeLink system ($275), and an interior lighting kit ($200).

  • Fuel Economy

    SKYACTIV exists to boost fuel economy, and we averaged 29.9 mpg over 350 miles of urban commuting and highway driving.

  • Conclusion

    The 3 has won praise for being a sporty compact with lots of features for the money over the years, and not much has changed, except for a new engine that adds power and fuel economy to the i trim level. SKYACTIV performs as advertised, cementing the 3’s reputation as a fun car that won’t punish at the pump.

    "Zoom-zoom," indeed.

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