By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
For a good time, don’t call Jenny – call Mazda.
Its cars – even its family cars – are almost always more fun to take for a spin than competitors’ cars, good-looking things and affordably priced, too. Now, if only they gave you best-in-class gas mileage… .
Hey, wait – they just did!
The 2012 Mazda3 with equipped with its new “SkyActiv” 2.0 engine hits the 40 MPG highway mark – which is about the best you can get in a new car that doesn’t burn diesel or run on batteries half the time.
And a few months from now, a “Sky-D” diesel will be available in the in the 3, too. Reportedly, it’ll be good for as much as 45 MPG.
That’s two pieces of good news. So, is there any bad news?
WHAT IT IS
The 3 is Mazda’s compact hatchback wagon/sedan, one notch up from the subcompact 2 and just below the mid-sized 6. Like all Mazda vehicles, the 3 emphasizes driving fun as much as driving practicality.
The base i SV sedan version with 2.0 engine (non-SkyActiv) and five-speed manual starts at $15,200.
An i Touring hatchback wagon with the new SkyActiv 2.0 engine starts at $19,300. A top-of-the-line Gran Touring sedan with 2.5 liter engine and automatic transmission starts at $21,300. The same package in a wagon lists for $23,150.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
A 7 MPG increase in highway fuel economy (40 vs 33 previously) as well as a 4 MPG bump in city mileage (28 vs. 24 previously) if you buy a 3 equipped with the new SkyActiv engine.
There are also a few minor styling tweaks to the exterior, such as a slightly revised grille.
On deck for summer/fall is an all-new diesel engine – the first diesel engine Mazda (or any Japanese car company) has ever offered for sale in a U.S.-spec passenger car. This Sky-D engine will reportedly produce more than 300 lbs.-ft or torque and possibly deliver as much as 45 MPG on the highway.
New SkyActiv engine is standard equipment in the hatchback wagon.
SkyActiv engine meets or beats the pack leaders on economy without sacrificing power or performance. In fact, performance with 2.0 liter SkyActiv engine is better than with the old (less efficient) 2.0 engine without the SkyActiv enhancements.
The 3 is still one of the most fun to drive cars in this segment, no matter which engine it’s equipped with – or how much gas it burns.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
New SkyActiv 2.0 engine not standard in the $15,200 sedan; to get it you must move up to the $18,100 Touring version – or the $19,300 (to start) hatchback wagon.
Significantly higher up-front cost of SkyActiv engine will take awhile to work off in down-the-road mileage improvements.
Optional 2.5 liter engine not offered with six-speed automatic that’s available with SkyActiv 2.0 engine.
AC not standard in base sedan.
Confusing trim nomenclature.
The 2012 Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus are putting up the first serious competition the Three’s ever had to face.
UNDER THE HOOD
There are now three engine choices in the 3 – soon to be four.
The first – standard in base trims – is last year’s 2.0 liter engine, still making 148 hp and still teamed up with either the standard five-speed stick or an optional five-speed automatic. Zero to 60 takes about 9.7 seconds with either combo.
It’s class-competitive in all respects except fuel efficiency (25 city, 33 highway).
This isn’t terrible by any means (as an example, the uber-boring Toyota Corolla sedan just barely does better: 27 city, 34 highway).
On the other hand, some of the newest competition like the outstanding 2012 Hyundai Elantra sedan and ’12 Ford Focus (when equipped with the optional Super Fuel Economy package) now rate 40 on the highway.
Hence the new SkyActiv version of the 2 liter engine – which matches that 40 MPG highway and almost matches the Elantra’s best-in-class 29 city with a 28 city posting. It also cuts the Three’s zero to 60 time down significantly, to about 8.5 seconds.
So, what is SkyActiv?
It amounts to numerous small changes internally – such as differently shaped pistons, revised fuel injector spray patterns and sequential valve timing that makes it possible for the little 2.0 engine to run a very high 12.0:1 compression ratio for high efficiency (and power output) without engine knock or the need to run on premium fuel only. In addition to the 7 MPG improvement in highway fuel economy, the SkyActiv version of the 2.0 liter engine is also more powerful than the regular 2.0 liter engine: 155 hp vs. 148 hp. There is also a 10 percent uptick in torque output to 148 lbs.-ft. at 4,100 RPM.
That plus the extra gear in the transmission that comes with the SkyActiv engine (your choice, six speed manual or six speed automatic) accounts for the difference in MPGs – and performance.
But wait, there’s more.
If you’re willing to sacrifice a few MPGs in return for a few more HPs – both sedan and hatchback wagon offer a larger, 2.5 liter engine that produces 167 hp. That’ll get you to 60 in just over 8 seconds flat.
The 2.5 liter engine is paired with either a six-speed manual (like the SkyActiv 2.0) or (unlike the SkyActiv 2.0) a five-speed automatic like the base model 2.0 engine. I have no idea why Mazda chose not to offer the more efficient (and performance-minded) six-speed automatic with the 2.5 liter engine, which only comes in the more expensive versions of the 3. Gas mileage with this engine is a pretty dismal 20 city, 28 with the six-speed manual and 22 city, 29 highway with the automatic. If the six-speed automatic could be paired with the 2.5 liter engine, highway mileage would probably be in the low 30s rather than the high 20s.
Maybe next year.
A few months from now, Mazda will debut the new Sky-D diesel engine – when the changeover to the 2013 model year happens. This engine will out-MPG the SkyActiv 2.0 and pretty much everything else, too – Mazda or otherwise. It’s a direct shot at VW’s TDI Jetta – and also hybrids, which aren’t much more efficient in real-world driving but tend to cost a lot more than a current-year diesel-powered car and accelerate like old (’70s-era) diesel cars. With more than 300 lbs.-ft. of torque reportedly on tap, the Sky-D diesel 3 ought to be as quick – if not quicker – than the SkyActiv 2.0 while delivering better fuel efficiency.
It will also give the 3 something neither the Elantra nor the Focus have – or even offer.
ON THE ROAD
Like the MX5 Miata, the Mazda3 is not an especially quick car – but it is an exceptionally well-balanced and fun car. Given that the 3 has the heart of the 5 (the same basic MZR Series 2.0 liter engine powers both cars) this is not unexpected – even if it’s not well-known.
Of course, in the 3, the 2.0 engine is mounted sideways (transversely) and powers the front wheels rather than being mounted longitudinally and powering the rear wheels, as in the Miata. But the personality of an engine doesn’t change just because it’s turned sideways – or sends the power to a different pair of wheels.
The SkyActiv version with six-speed manual is the best version, of course – for all the obvious reasons. On the other hand, my guess is that many of the aftermarket hop-up parts for the Miata’s 2.0 fit the Three’s 2.0 – and you could probably tickle a lot more than 155 hp out of it for a lot less than the cost of buying a Three with the SkyActiv engine.
Of course, you still won’t have the six-speed – and you definitely won’t be getting 40 MPG.
The SkyActiv equipped 3 isn’t massively quicker, objectively (by the stopwatch) than the standard 2.0 equipped 3, but it feels much quicker because of the tighter gear spacing of its six-speed transmission. And you’ll definitely notice the difference in gas mileage.
The available 2.5 engine will also give you a noticeable boost in acceleration (about half a second’s improvement, 0-60) but the price you pay for that relatively small gain is the loss of more than 10 MPG on the highway and nearly as much around town.
Given that – and given the $3,200 jump from a SkyActiv-equipped Touring sedan ($18,100) to a Touring sedan equipped with the 2.5 engine ($21,300) I personally would be inclined to stick with the SkyActiv 3 and put that $3k toward either a few well-chosen hop-up parts – which would make the SkyActiv 3 quicker than the 2.5 equipped version while still killing it on gas mileage.
Or just put the $3k toward gas instead.
But as I started to get into above, the main reason to buy a 3 is neither acceleration nor gas mileage. It is for the fun of it. The 3 can be looked at as a more practical incarnation of the Miata. Very similar driving feel, even if the 3 is FWD. You will only notice the differences as you approach the extreme limits of grip, at which point, of course, you won’t be able to adopt the tail-out, drive-it-with-the throttle attitude you could in the RWD MX5. Still, it’s close enough 90 percent of the time – and unlike the two-seater Miata, it is easier to drive a Three 100 percent of the time. It takes people; it takes stuff – and it can take snow, too. Or at least, being FWD, it can take snow better than the RWD Miata can.
No other car in its class matches its moves – and now that the Three matches the mileage of the others in this class, it’s hard to come up with an objective reason not to buy it over the others in this class.
AT THE CURB
Unlike some others in this segment, both the sedan and hatchback wagon version of the 3 are zippy looking. Sometimes, in competitor models (like the Nissan Versa) the sedan version is plain Jane and you have to move up to the usually more expensive wagon to get some stylistic sizzle. And also, you have the choice of sedan or hatchback wagon – a choice that some competitors (like the sedan-only Chevy Cruze) don’t offer at all. (The Hyundai Elantra is available as both sedan and wagon, but the Elantra wagon’s got some liabilities underhood, which I will get into shortly.)
The main functional differences between the sedan and wagon version of the 3 are cargo capacity and standard equipment.
In the sedan, you’ve got an 11.8 cubic foot trunk. In the wagon, you’ve got a 17 cubic foot cargo area behind the rear seats that can be expanded to 42.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.
Some competitors – like the Hyundai Elantra wagon – have significantly more cargo capacity (24.3 cubes with the second row up; 65.3 cubes with the second row down). But the Elantra wagon is 10 MPG behind the SkyActiv-equipped 3 and its standard (and only) 2.0 liter makes a puny-in-comparison 138 hp.The Elantra wagon is also a snoozer – both to look at and to drive – something you’d never accuse the Three (either version) of being.
The 2012 Elantra sedan is much more of a sweat for the 3. It comes standard with smaller (but more powerful than the wagon’s 2.0 liter) 1.8 liter, 148 hp engine that’s capable of 40 MPG on the highway – just like the SkyActive3. The Elantra sedan also has a larger 14.8 cubic foot trunk. And its $15,345 price point undercuts the 3 sedan’s base price, too.
But if you prefer the wagon bodystyle… and later, if you want a diesel… well, Hyundai’s hands are empty.
You’ll also notice differences in standard equipment.
The base $15,200 SV sedan is pretty stripped. You have to buy the more expensive Sport version ($16,845) to get AC and power windows/locks. The 3 wagon, meanwhile, starts out with much more standard equipment, including AC, power windows and locks, leather trim, a six-speaker stereo rig and, of course, the high-effiency SkyActiv engine.
Like most car companies, Mazda “bundles” a lot of equipment together – or makes you go up a trim to get the one thing you want (like AC, for example).
Given the economy, I think it’d be nice – and maybe help sell more cars, too – if Mazda made AC standard in the sedan. Or at least, made it a stand-alone, a la carte option for $800 or so – instead of nudging people into the more expensive Sport trim.
On the other hand, AC is extra cost in comparably priced competitors like the Elantra sedan, too.
I have only one other small complaint about the 3 – the very small LCD display for the upgrade stereo and the equally small display for the optional GPS. You get two cigarette box-sized screens housed to the right of the main gauge cluster under the sweeping arc of dashtop. It looks cool, but it’s hard to read – and there’s only so much info you can put on a screen that size.
I’m also itching to try the Sky-D diesel. Kudos to Mazda for being the first Japanese car company to offer (soon) a diesel engine in a mass-market compact passenger car. For years, the only option buyers had – if they wanted such a car with a diesel engine – was a German car (VW). Now the Germans will have some competition – and consumers will have more choices – most notably the prospect of closing-in-on-50-MPG fuel economy without having to resort to elaborate, expensive (and usually, slow) hybrids.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The new SkyActiv engine fixes the 3’s only real weakness relative to its major competition – and the soon-to-be-here Sky-D engine will make it a clear class leader.