Mazda3 SkyActiv — More performance, better gas mileage

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mazda is bringing a new technology to its lineup for 2012 called SkyActiv. When fully implemented it will involve revised engine and transmission designs, weight reduction, and chassis tuning.

Simply put, the goal of SkyActiv is to dramatically increase gas mileage without the use of turbocharging or supercharging, and without losing the performance that Mazda has become known for over the past decade with its “Zoom Zoom” persona.

When the all new compact CX-5 crossover reaches customers this spring, it will be the first Mazda to encompass all facets of SkyActiv technology.

But SkyActiv — we’re not sure how Mazda reached this interesting name — is on dealer lots now in the form of the freshened Mazda3. Although it hasn’t been given the full SkyActiv treatment, both the sedan and hatchback will be available with the new 2.0-liter four-cylinder SkyActiv-G engine making 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. It can be mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. Both transmissions are also SkyActiv tuned and the sedan version hits the new 40 mpg gold standard with the automatic.

The carryover 2.0-liter engine is still available and offers an interesting comparison to its SkyActiv counterpart. Rated at 148 horsepower it has a measured 0-to-60 time with the automatic of 9.9 seconds. Gas mileage is EPA-set at 24 city and 33 highway.

By comparison, the SkyActiv engine has been clocked from 0-to-60 nearly a second-and-a-half faster at 8.5 seconds and with gas mileage measuring 28 mpg city and 40 highway for the sedan automatic.

High compression and high-pressure direct injection are the key elements in gaining better performance and improved gas mileage. The European version of the 2.0-liter engine will run at an eye-popping 14:1 compression ratio. That has been reduced to 12:1 in the U.S. to allow for the use of 87 octane fuel.

The six-speed automatic has also been tweaked for the SkyActiv template. It uses a torque converter to get the car quickly and smoothly off the line, but then as speed increases locks up the torque converter to eliminate drag for slightly better gas mileage.

Last fall we drove two versions of the Mazda3 SkyActiv in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles and we were amazed at the performance derived from the engine. Zoom Zoom — with competitive gas mileage — seems to be alive and well. But we don’t think we came even close to the new mileage numbers in our pedal-to-the-metal mountain drive. Sensible driving is a big key to good gas mileage.

We also discovered the newest Mazda3 has not lost any of the cornering attributes that have made it the pick of driving enthusiasts over the years.
Our affection for the car only grew after spending seven days with a hatchback six-speed manual version on our home turf. We found the manual transmission  easy to shift with consistent clutch feel.

If you are interested in the SkyActiv technology, it comes standard with the Touring trim level, but — here’s the thing — SkyActiv is only a $600 upgrade over the standard engine and transmission.

The vast Mazda3 lineup can be a bit confusing. There are six trim levels of the sedan and four of the hatchback. There are four engines available including the turbocharged 2.4-liter 263-horsepower engine in the stand-alone Speed3.

As mentioned, the 2.0-liter comes in both traditional and SkyActiv configurations. In addition, a 2.5-liter making 167 horsepower is available in the Touring and Grand Touring hatchback and sedan.

Only the SkyActiv models get the six-speed transmissions. The standard 2.0-liter and the 2.5 are outfitted with five-speeds.

Mazda3 prices are perhaps a bit higher than other segment choices starting at $15,950 for the base i SV sedan with manual transmission and $19,700 for the i Touring hatchback. Be advised that the i SV lacks some standard amenities such as air conditioning. Few of those will leave the lots. Most buyers we thing will move up to the adequately equipped $17, 595 i Sport, which brings most of the stuff buyers expect today. The i Touring hatchback comes with the SkyActiv engine as standard equipment.

It’s inside the vehicle where people live, and automakers have finally decided in recent years that making the living quarters attractive is an excellent way to attract new customers and retain old ones. The Mazda3 lives up to the new standards with an appealing layout.

Although hard plastic is still in use, Mazda has done a good job with more upscale-soft-touch feeling surfaces and nice-looking seat fabrics. Switchgear is easy to use — radio controls may take a time or two around the block to gain complete familiarity — and gauges are easy to read.

We like the ice blue rings on the speedometer and tachometer gauges and the information and radio readout at the top of the center stack. We wish there was more space for satellite radio information, however, but the letters are large and easy to read. The information screen offers such tidbits as outside temperature, time and fuel statistics.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of omissions. The Mazda3 lacks a USB plug for iPods or iPhones. And a backup camera, a useful devise that has trickled down to other compact and sub-compact vehicles, is not offered even as an option.

On the plus side, Mazda offers an optional blind spot warning system on the top Grand Touring trim.

We found the passenger space not quite as ample as in some competitors’ vehicles, and rear passengers may have to do a bit of negotiating with front-seat occupants for adequate leg room.

The hatchback has decent cargo capacity measured at 17 cubic feet with the seats in place and 42.8 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded. The sedan’s trunk measures 11.8 cubic feet. The seatbacks fold forward to allow for additional cargo.

We are fond of the Mazda3 for its overall look and feel, and we like the new Mazda SkyActiv technology with its improved gas mileage and enhanced performance. It’s kind of like having your cake and eating it, too.


Base price: $19,700; as driven, $20,425
Engine: 2.0 liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 155 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 148 foot-pounds @ 4,100 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Length: 177.4 inches 
Curb weight: 2,896 pounds
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Luggage capacity: 17 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 42.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 38 highway, 27 city
0-60: 8.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze

The Good
• Excellent fuel economy with SkyActiv
• Strong performance, precise handling
• Stylish interior

The Bad
• Passenger space not as generous as come competitors

The Ugly
• Some features missing such as backup camera