2012 Mazda 3i Review
It’s the forties all over again, except this time the war is over automobile sales.
One by one, vehicle manufacturers are chasing the sometimes elusive goal of producing cars that deliver 40 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s highway cycle.
The fact that they only rarely achieve that number in real-world driving is irrelevant. In the current environment, the magic 40 is an important key to unlocking buyers’ pocketbooks.
As a result, there now are more automobiles than ever that advertise their EPA highway number, even though it sometimes attaches to only one model while everything else in the lineup falls a bit short.The latest contender in this chase is Mazda, with its new Skyactiv technology on the [2012 Mazda 3](http://www.carsoup.com/US-National/new-vehicles/make/Car-Truck/Nationwide/Mazda/Mazda3/?maxprice=999999&minprice=0&mode=make&cont=1 "2012 Mazda 3 review new car inventory") four-door sedans and hatchbacks. Eventually, the technology, which includes a redesigned engine and an innovative new automatic transmission, will spread to other of the company’s cars and crossover utility vehicles.
During the transition, and likely beyond, Mazda will continue to offer other power trains. There are 11 versions of the compact 2012 Mazda 3, six of them with the new Skyactiv technology. Of the six, only two—both four-door sedans with the new automatic transmission—manage the 40 miles to the gallon highway fuel economy rating. All of the four-door hatchbacks, which are not quite as slippery in the wind, fall short of 40.
With the manual gearbox, a six-speed that also was redesigned, the sedan’s highway mileage is 39—certainly acceptable but not as sexy in the sales pitches.
As a car company, Mazda always has been a technology leader. At one time in the US, it offered conventional gasoline engines, rotary engines and a supercharged Miller-cycle engine, which uses an unconventional combustion system.
The rotary, which powers the outgoing Mazda RX-8 sports car, is expected to go into hibernation for awhile. For the Mazda 3, that leaves the new Skyactiv along with two existing four-bangers: 148-horsepower 2-liter, which powers the base models, and a 167-horsepower 2.5-liter, the engine in the top-line 3s versions. Both engines are carryovers from the 2011 model year.
There’s likely to be some confusion because cars with both the 148-horsepower engine and the new 155-horsepower Skyactiv are designated as 3i models. The Skyactiv slots in between the base engine and the 2.5-liter, and is identified by an emblem on the trunk or hatch.It is available as a Touring sedan and hatchback with either the six-speed manual gearbox or the new automatic, and as a Grand Touring sedan and hatchback, automatic only. The automatic Touring and Grand Touring sedans are the two with the 40 mpg rating.
The Skyactiv uses direct gasoline injection, but not a turbocharger as do some competitors, along with techniques to enhance the combustion process and deliver its 155 horsepower. It has a 12 to 1 compression ratio but manages to escape the usual requirement of high-compression engines for premium fuel. The Skyactiv runs on regular gasoline.
Contributing to the enhanced overall efficiency is the new automatic transmission, which uses a torque converter—as in a conventional automatic—along with a lockup clutch. The combination provides instant response from rest, rapid and smooth shifts and enhanced fuel economy.
The difference between the Skyactiv transmission and a conventional automatic likely will not be apparent to most drivers unless they come from a stiff-shifting automatic. In most circumstances, the Skyactiv goes about its business unobtrusively. The transmission action is mostly noticeable if you use the manual-shift mode, where the computer blips the engine revs on downshifts.
There’s adequate power from the Skyactiv engine, though it strains and causes downshifts on steep uphill grades. But it doesn’t complain much; engine noise is mostly muted.
For enthusiasts, the new six-speed manual gearbox will be the choice. Internal modifications have given the linkage a refined feel, something like stirring cold pancake syrup with a big wooden spoon. Clutch engagement is similarly syrupy, with no grabby tendencies.
Visually, the 2012 Mazda 3 models, despite many minor interior and exterior changes, are mostly indistinguishable from their 2011 predecessors, except that the grille doesn’t have quite as big a smile as before.
A base Mazda 3i SV four-door sedan, with the 148-horsepower engine and a five-speed manual gearbox, has a starting price of $15,995. The Skyactiv four-door with the stick shift starts at $19,245. Add $850 for the automatic transmission and $500 if you prefer the hatchback.In one indication of the direction automotive entertainment is headed, Mazda dropped the six-disc CD changer from the 3’s options. A single disc player still is available but drivers now use so many other devices like iPods and other music players, in-vehicle hard drives and Bluetooth connectivity that the Mazda people figured the six-disc changer would not be missed.
Mazda also added a blind-spot warning system as optional equipment on some models—a rarity in the compact class in which the 3 competes—as well as pushbutton starting.
The test car was a 3i Skyactiv Grand Touring four-door sedan with the automatic. It started at $23,095 and, with a few options, checked in at $24,495.