2012 Mazda3 Sport SkyActiv Road Test Review

Jon Rosner - CAP staff
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The only way to make the left at the light would be to hold my speed through the turn. No tire squeal, delightfully composed. There's a reason so many competitive sports car drivers race a Miata on the track and drive a more practical Mazda as their street vehicle. Yes, the Mazda3 is a five-passenger car, taller and heavier than a Miata, recognizing those limitations ~ the driving dynamics are amazingly similar in the Mazda3 Sport.

First, sublime handling; second, smooth even and quick acceleration; third, direct and easily modulated braking that can suck your eyeballs out; fourth, low fuel consumption (and below industry average costs of servicing and ownership). Mazda appears to have implanted Miata genes not only across the Mazda3 lineup but into every other vehicle they make.

The steering wheel feels meaty, the tachometer and speedo easy to read in the dual-pod motorcycle-type cluster. The heated seats with five temperature setting levels, as opposed to the typical options of bake or freeze, lend a light touch of soothing warmth for inclement weather. These five seats are some of the best in the business, comfortable and supportive from mile one to five hours later. Several passengers of widely varying body shapes offered positive comments. The radio control knobs feel solid, the interior offering a nice blend of hard and soft-touch plastics with tight tolerances.

This Mazda3 is the showcase for Mazda's new SkyActiv system. 13 to 1 compression ratio, new piston design, new direct fuel injection system, distributor-less ignition, continuously variable sequential valve timing for intake and exhaust that not only eliminates knocking, but minimizes pumping losses, race style 4-2-1 exhaust system. The new SkyActiv Engine pumps out 155 horses at 6,000 rpm with 148 foot-pounds of torque at 4,100.

Mazda reduced internal engine friction in the 2.0-litre four-cylinder to levels 30-percent below those of the previous generation engine, and while the output is up, engine weight is down by 10-percent. The result is an estimated 15-percent reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions with the added bonus of about 15-percent more mid-range torque. Push the Mazda3 Sport automatic and it sprints, the engine is a bit loud at idle, typical for new-style direct injection, and slightly intrusive. But the power is there in spades.

100 km/h comes in at a lazy 1,750 rpm. 120 comes in at 2,000ish rpms, punch it and she'll drop two gears and roar. True dual-clutch automated manual transmissions have a few dirty little secrets. First they are heavy; second they do not normally do well in high-torque applications; and third, when pushed they can wear out a bit too quickly for this author's cheapskate requirements. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Mazda updated the standard-style automatic and developed a robust torque converter technology with a full-range lock-up clutch. It feels like a manual. It responds swiftly and smoothly through the six gears with nary a clue to upshifts beyond hints from the tachometer. Both the six-speed automatic and the stick are smaller, lighter transmissions and offer significantly reduced internal friction than the last generation. The new transmissions net an estimated 7-percent reduction in fuel burned.

It's not unusual to read about top of the line cars receiving newly developed body structures and high-tensile steel in an effort to reduce weight. It is still rare to hear about this being done to vehicles in the highly cost-competitive compact class. Mazda did this in the Mazda3 series to stiffen the chassis by 30-percent and improve handling with major bonus points for an improved safety cage to keep occupants protected in an accident, all while achieving a 14-percent reduction in chassis weight. For good measure Mazda re-engineered the multi-link rear suspension with improved mounting points, suspension positioning, steering set-up and struts.

The delightful little beastie itself comes in at a svelte 1,383 kilos as tested – impressively light for a five-door compact wagon with an as-tested moonroof. The Sport SkyActiv gets a 2,641-mm wheelbase rolling on 205/55 R16 Yokohama all-season tires and handsome alloys as part of the standard package.

What does the U.S. EPA have to say? Try 28/39 mpg city/hwy sipping regular unleaded from the 55-litre tank (the equivalent of 8.4/6.0 L/100km – the more optimistic Canadian rating for the automatic is 7.1/5.0 respectively). A big dollop of highway time combined with plenty of back road playtime yielded a read of half a tank, at 26.5 litres to 354 kilometers clocked this came out to 7.5 L/100km. Zowie! Add with a drag-coefficient of 0.30, it is understandable how the Mazda3 Sport ended up heading into hybrid design/fuel economy territory even with this lead foot at the wheel.

These kinds of across the board improvements are not untypical for year-on-year racing car development, but they are highly unusual for an auto manufacturer. Bluntly, giant Toyota has put less engineering development work into the Corolla in the last 16 years than Mazda has done with this model year change. Honda, whose Civic's engineering used to be admired by everyone in the industry, recently got panned by the one truly important and totally objective consumer magazine that takes no advertising.

The Mazda3 Sport SkyActiv standard equipment list includes such nice features as the Convenience package that includes cruise control with steering wheel-mounted buttons, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a 6-speaker audio upgrade, audio profile, Bluetooth hands-free and alloy wheels, all for a base price of $19,995 plus $1,595 for delivery. The one-touch power moonroof on my tester added $895 to the bottom line, and automatic transmission another $1,200 for a total of $23,685, delivery fee in. My tester was a U.S.-spec car and therefore some of its features, such as blind spot monitoring, the proximity sensing Intelligent key system with push-button ignition, Sirius satellite radio, colour MID and navigation, AFS with auto leveling, are only available on the pricier GT trim level if you opt for the GT-E package, but that model doesn't come with the SkyActiv upgrades (standalone satellite radio can be added by the dealer). My test car even featured rain-sensing front wipers, bi-Xenon headlights, and a pivoting adaptive front lighting system, items that are not available in the Canadian-spec Mazda3 at all. You can get the SkyActiv model with Mazda Canada's GS-L trim level though, that ups content to include fog lights, an 8-way power driver's seat, leather upholstery, and faux leather side door trim plus a leatherette sliding console lid.

Mazda is a smallish engineering-driven company with a huge footprint in the market for selling cars to people who simply love to drive, and the Mazda3 SkyActiv is no exception. Mazda's advertising budget is miniscule, the company depending more on word of mouth than anything else to create sales. Wait until the loyalists get their hands on this little beasty. The words are gonna fly.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Hatchback, Mazda, 2012, Mazda3 SkyActiv, $20,000 - $29,999, Compact,

Organizations: Mazda

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