Mazda has a long history of innovation, and its recent focus on its new SkyActiv technology is making waves in an industry that's looking for cars with better technology and fuel efficiency. The SkyActiv technology is now available on the popular Mazda3 models as well.
A top seller car in Canada, the Mazda3 Sport edition is an upscale five-door hatchback version of the sedan. Its last complete redesign was for the 2010 model year and the big new stories for 2012 are the introduction of new SkyActiv technologies and lower prices.
Trim level prices have been reduced by about $600 to $1,500 across the lineup, and the Sport editions are priced about $1,000 above their sedan counterparts. The Mazda3 Sport now comes in four trim levels, GX ($16,895), GS ($19,495), the new GS-Sky ($20,345) and GT ($24,845).
The base GX is powered by a 148 horsepower 2.0litre engine with a five-speed manual transmission, while the GS and GT trims both come with a 167 horsepower 2.5-litre four-cylinder and a six-speed manual gearbox. An optional five-speed automatic with a distinctively Mazda manual shift mode is also offered.
SkyActiv is actually a collection of technology and design advancements that squeeze more usable energy out of every drop of gasoline that goes to the engine. And since most gasoline engines are less than 30 per cent efficient, there's probably room for improvement. Mazda challenged its engineers and designers to question conventional industry wisdom and adopt a "sky is the limit" mentality - hence the name.
So, without resorting to higher-cost electrification solutions, Mazda was able to achieve near hybrid-like fuel economy results. The added bonus for Mazda is that if, and more likely when, it adds electrification features, it will again be ahead of the pack.
While the GS-Sky edition of the Mazda3 doesn't have a complete SkyActiv package (the new Mazda CX-5 does), it still offers significantly better fuel economy without sacrificing performance. In fact, power output is higher, in addition to the fuel economy benefit.
The 2.0-litre SkyActiv engine can produce 155 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque, and it runs on regular gasoline. That's surprising as it's an ultra-high (about 13: 1) compression ratio engine (10: 1 or less is the norm). When sold in countries (mostly European) with higher octane regular gasoline the ratio can be even higher and that translates to even more power.
This engine is mated to either a new six-speed manual or automatic transmission.
My test GS-Sky came with the new automatic, which is a light-weight design with fewer components and a more active lock-up feature that provides better fuel economy.
Wipe that grin off its face, or something to that effect, must have been a priority order to designers. The front face lift definitely gives the 2012 Mazda3 a more dignified appearance, even though the new front side air intakes in the fascia are fakes.
You've no doubt seen lots of Mazda3s on the road, yet it's a design that still looks fresh and modern as well as being aerodynamic.
My test GS-Sky came with cloth upholstery and manual adjustments on the front seats. The driver gets a crank-type cushion height adjustment to help find that optimal drive position, and every Mazda3 comes with a tilt and telescopic steering wheel.
Some extra meat on the leather covered steering wheel would be nice, but I did like the selection of controls on the wheel, which are also standard. In fact, the entire driver control layout is cleverly simple and easy to use. No fancy electronic displays, just easy to find and use switches and round dials - now that's a novel idea!
Delightful surprises included wipers and lights with "set and forget" auto settings.
The bucket style seats also offer good lateral support, but cushioning was on the firm side. Rear seat leg room is a bit tight, but typical of what you get in a compact car.
The Mazda3 was recognized as a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based on the results of its crash tests program. An electronic stability control system is now standard on all trim levels.
While it may be a cost-conscious compact car, the driver focus and racing connection is still evident when you get behind the wheel of a Mazda3. Clearly someone who is enthusiastic about driving had a major role in its design.
There's a sporty firmer feel to the suspension than you typically get in this class and the pay off is delightfully agile handling. An electro-hydraulic power assist system on the steering is very nicely tuned to provide a precision feel and good straight line tracking.
The SkyActiv engine's pulling power below 3,000 rpm was a little disappointing, but it certainly makes good from that point on. At 100 km/hour the tachometer read just under 2,000 rpm and went to just over that mark at 110 km/h. So, in addition to being highly fuel efficient it's also a quiet engine at highway cruising speeds.
The new six-speed automatic is an absolute delight to use. Although mechanically it's an old-school conventional automatic, Mazda has removed slip and sharpened the gear changes so that it can match the speed of the latest double-clutch automatics. While it didn't have a "sport" drive mode, in manual mode if you floor the gas pedal it instantly drops down a couple of gears, which is a very nice feature.
Even though the redesign focus was mainly on improving fuel efficiency, the GS-Sky edition of the Mazda3 Sport hasn't lost any of its performance pedigree - zoom-zoom stays.