Forget acceleration times or base prices: new small cars are now measured against the benchmark of 40 mpg. There are now at least 16 new cars on sale with EPA ratings of 40 mpg highway or better. Mazda has decided to get in on the action with the 2012 Mazda 3, but instead of resorting to turbocharging or hybrid technology, Mazda has employed its new suite of SkyActiv technologies.
The 2012 Mazda 3 is the first American-market application of SkyActiv powertrains, which use a series of innovations to improve the efficiency of traditional engines and transmissions. That result is that the 2012 Mazda 3 sedan equipped with the SkyActiv-G engine and SkyActiv-Drive automatic transmission receives a 40-mpg highway rating.
We put that claim to the test by driving the Mazda 3 from Automobile's offices in Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo, Michigan and back while carefully measuring our fuel consumption. Does the SkyActiv-G engine live up to its lofty 40 mpg promise? Read on to find out.
Base trims of the 3 sedan continue to be offered with Mazda's older 2.0-liter engine, called MZR, while i Touring and Grand Touring models receive the SkyActiv-G engine. The new 2.0-liter has direct fuel injection, a relatively high 12.0:1 compression ratio, specially shaped pistons, and multihole fuel injectors designed to more evenly distribute fuel in each cylinder. The SkyActiv 2.0-liter engine is also 4.4 pounds lighter than the older MZR 2.0-liter.
The resulting benefits are twofold. With 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, the SkyActiv-G engine makes five percent more power and ten percent more torque than the MZR engine. It also is 21 percent more fuel efficient than the MZR, with the SkyActiv-equipped 3 sedan rated at 28/40 mpg (city/highway) with a six-speed automatic transmission and 27/39 mpg with the six-speed manual. Hatchback models score the same in city tests, but are rated at only 38 mpg highway because they are slightly heavier and less aerodynamic than the sedan.
A new optional six-speed automatic transmission, called SkyActiv-Drive, also helps reduce fuel consumption. Many of its components are lighter than in Mazda's previous five-speed automatic, and the torque converter can be locked-up over a broader range of vehicle speeds to improve efficiency. The standard six-speed manual, called SkyActiv-MT, is over four pounds lighter than the transmission it replaces.
To see how the SkyActiv technology works in the real world, we drove a 201-mile highway loop. With the cruise control set at 70 mph, we averaged an impressive 40.8 mpg, on par with the 40-mpg highway number predicted by Mazda and the EPA. (Incidentally, the car's trip computer optimistically reported 42.8 mpg.)
In spite of that impressive economy, the SkyActiv 3 drives just as well as any other Mazda 3. The engine feels peppy off the line in town and provides as much acceleration as most buyers will ever need, with plenty of urgency for merging onto busy freeways. The engine note becomes coarse when the engine is pushed, but it is never unpleasant. The new six-speed automatic is well matched to the engine and executes shifts with Lexus-like smoothness. At 70 mph with the transmission in sixth gear, the Mazda's engine turns at just 2100 rpm.
The 3 continues to be one of the best-driving cars in its segment, with its chassis drawing praise from our ranks. Its well-weighted steering and taut suspension make the 3 fun when driven on winding back roads, yet its ride remains compliant enough for freeway slogs or pothole-ridden commutes. The automatic transmission downshifts promptly when the driver calls for more acceleration, while its manual-shift mode is quick and responsive.
The SkyActiv-G's power figures make the Mazda 3 one of the most powerful sedans in its class, with its 155 hp and 148 lb-ft beating out the engines in the Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, and Honda Civic. The Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 and Ford Focus, however, are slightly more powerful than the Mazda.
When it comes to overall fuel economy, the SkyActiv engine competes admirably with its competitors. All models of the Hyundai Elantra are rated for 29/40 mpg (city/highway). Only special fuel-saving models of the Ford and Chevrolet can hit the 40-mpg mark: the Chevrolet Cruze Eco manages 28/42 mpg with a six-speed manual transmission, while the Ford Focus SFE scores 28/40 mpg with its dual-clutch transmission.
No-Pain Efficiency Gain
If you absolutely must drive a car that gets 40 mpg, the Mazda 3 SkyActiv is one of the best choices. It returns excellent fuel economy without forcing the driver to sacrifice acceleration or driving enjoyment. Even better, Mazda permits SkyActiv buyers to configure their car in various different ways: the engine is available with an automatic or manual transmission, and in either sedan or five-door hatchback guise. (Only the automatic sedan returns 40 mpg.)
The 2012 Mazda 3 is the first car equipped with SkyActiv technologies in the American market. It will be followed by the Mazda CX-5 crossover, which was designed from the ground up to incorporate SkyActiv innovations to reduce fuel consumption. Based on our experience with the 3, we're confident future Mazda products will continue to provide a compelling blend of driver involvement and improved fuel efficiency.
2012 Mazda3 i Grand Touring SkyActiv-G Sedan
Base price (with destination): $23,095
Price as tested: $24,495
(Options include $1400 tech pkg)
Engine: 16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement: 2.0 liters
Power: 155 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 148 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 28/40 mpg (city/highway)