Road test: 2012 Mazda3 Sport Skyactiv-G

The 2012 Mazda3 has been reworked to improve efficiency and overall appeal. The key element is the application of Mazda’s much ballyhooed Skyactiv technology. In the end, it makes a big difference to the manner in which the 3 drives. One of the small changes, however, could end up having just as big an impact. A subtle change in the grille makes the Mazda3 look less smiley-faced. For many, this will be enough to shift it from a no-go to one of the stronger candidates on many shopping lists.

The test car featured Mazda’s new 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G (G for gasoline) engine that produces 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. That is an increase of seven and 13, respectively, compared to the base 2.0L engine, yet the stronger numbers come with better economy — more on this in a moment.

Some have complained the Skyactiv-G engine is noisy on initial startup. Certainly, there is some early injector clatter because of the quest to get the catalytic converter up to temperature quickly, but I did not find it overly intrusive. Less than a minute after cranking it to life, the Skyactiv-G is commendably smooth and acceptably quiet.

The next part of the Skyactiv equation is found in the six-speed manual gearbox — it is an absolute delight. I rank the MX-5 and Honda S2000 at the top of the shifter feel scoreboard. Both have a distinct advantage over many manuals in that the shifter drops directly into the box. This eliminates the usual vagueness that results from a convoluted linkage — each joint emphasizes the lack of feel. The Mazda3’s gearbox has a linkage but absolutely none of the vagueness. It also has an MX-5-like throw (as in very short) and a very refined, defined gate. Factor in the light progressive clutch and there is absolutely no reason to option up to the automatic. Indeed, the manner in which the driver can snick up and down the gears so freely adds to the go-kart-like character that defines the Mazda3.

The Skyactiv engine/transmission combination works together very effectively to promote overall efficiency. In the engine’s case, it is the use of direct injection and a high 12:1 compression ratio (the base 2.0L engine runs at 10:1). Similarly, the transmission features a diverse ratio range — the first three gears key on performance; the last three are overdrives. Officially, the manual version of the Mazda3 Skyactiv is rated at 7.6 and 5.1 L/100 km city/highway (the automatic is marginally better at 7.1/5.0 L/100 km, respectively). Even though the test car was driven with brio, I still managed a test average of 7.3 L/100 km. Dial back the throttle’s workout and a real-world average of 6.5 L/100 km or better is a very real proposition and one of the reasons the Skyactiv is so appealing — efficiency without hybrid complexity.

In terms of performance, the Mazda3 scoots along nicely. It takes 8.4 seconds to run from rest to 100 kilometres an hour and it accomplishes the 80-to-120-km/h passing move in 5.8 seconds in third gear. Given the efficiency bias, the performance is very good.

The go-kart-like impishness of the Mazda3 is further accentuated by the manner in which it seems to relish romping through a series of switchbacks. The front struts and multiple rear links balance the need for ride comfort against the ability to handle very well. All but the gnarliest bit of tarmac slides by without rattling the occupant’s fillings loose, yet there is very little in the way of body roll. Likewise, the steering is perfectly weighted and it delivers superb feel and feedback — the fact it is an electro-mechanical setup rather than a full electric system makes the difference. The final part of the handling equation is found in the right-sized tires — P205/55R16s. They deliver the required lateral grip and, in the end, a very neutral feel. Normally, any car with the vast preponderance of the vehicle’s mass sitting over the front wheels brings a lot of understeer the instant the limits are pushed. The Mazda3 feels poised even when forced toward the ragged edge.

As for the rest of it, the Mazda3 GS tested arrived with the right equipment, some very nice soft-touch materials and the right comfort — the front seats deliver plenty of support and there is enough room in the rear to accommodate two adults comfortably. Then there’s the flexibility only a hatchback can supply. With the seats upright, the Mazda3 swallows 17 cubic feet of stuff. Drop the 60/40-split/folding seats down and the volume rises to 42.8 cu. ft. Unlike some of the competition (Nissan Versa), the rear seats fold flush to the floor, which means a large box or the like is not left teeter-tottering on the raised ridge. Similarly, the wheelwell intrusions have been kept to a minimum, which squares off the space nicely, and there’s a needed privacy cover.

The Skyactiv edition of the Mazda3 serves to underscore why it is one of the favourites in the category — it is fuel efficient, comfortable, practical and a great deal of fun to drive.

If Mazda is to be taken to task, it is for limiting the availability of its Skyactiv technology to the mid-level GS in both the sedan and hatchback models — all derivatives would benefit greatly from the technology.

Type of vehicle Front-wheel-drive compact hatchback
Engine 2.0L Skyactiv-G in-line four
Power 155 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 148 lb-ft of torque @ 4,100 rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Brakes Four-wheel disc with ABS
Tires P205/55R16
Price: base/as tested $16,795/$20,195
Destination charge $1,595
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km 7.6 city, 5.1 hwy.

Standard features: Air conditioning with filtration, power locks, windows and heated mirrors, tilt and telescopic steering, height-adjustable driver’s seat, cloth upholstery, heated seats, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with six speakers, auxiliary input and steering wheel-mounted controls, keyless entry, Bluetooth, rain-sensing wipers, outside temperature readout, rear washer/wiper, automatic on/off headlights, anti-theft engine immobilizer and alarm

Options: Power sunroof ($895); cruise control ($499)

Photograph by: Graeme Fletcher, for National Post