Driven: 2012 Mazda3

Where I live, the prices at the gas station all start with the number 4, and the alarmist local TV station is speculating that gasoline could reach $5 a gallon by this summer. All of that means demand for small cars should remain strong; but some small cars are likely to benefit more than others, as I expect that buyers will increasingly scrutinize EPA numbers, and those small cars that can post big digits will be the biggest winners.

A timely boost in MPG for the Mazda3

If so, the Skyactiv powertrains added to the Mazda3 for the 2012 model year are arriving just in time. As much as we've liked the Mazda3 since the current generation was introduced for 2010, the car's one glaring weakness has been its fuel economy. A 28-mpg highway rating for a compact starts to look pretty ridiculous when there are much larger, mid-size sedans that can hit 35 mpg.

Actually, some versions of the Mazda3 still are only rated at 28 mpg, which underscores the need for Mazda buyers to educate themselves on the three different four-cylinder engine choices. Basically, the one you want is the Skyactiv 2.0-liter. It maxes out at an impressive 29 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, in the sedan with the automatic transmission. The hatchback shaves 1 mpg from both figures, as does opting for the manual transmission in the sedan. The manual-transmission hatchback drops them both a further 1 mpg. However you slice it, though, this is excellent gas mileage and it puts the Mazda3 in league with the class leaders. Other gasoline-powered compacts that can reach 40 mpg are the Hyundai Elantra (all versions), at 29/40 mpg; the Ford Focus (with SFE package), at 28/40 mpg; and the Chevrolet Cruze (ECO model, manual), at 33/42 mpg.

Three four-cylinders

While the Skyactiv engine is far and away the most economical Mazda four, its 155 hp and 148 pound-feet of torque put it in the middle of the trio of Mazda3 engines. Base sedans are equipped with the old 2.0-liter MZR engine, which makes 148 hp; it gets 25/33 mpg (5-speed manual) or 24/33 mpg (5-speed automatic). At the top of the lineup is a larger, 2.5-liter four; it makes a bit more power, 167 hp, but has a serious drinking habit. Its 20/28 mpg (manual) and 22/29 mpg (automatic) ratings are embarrassing for a compact.

At least as confusing as the engine offerings are the Mazda3 trim levels. There are the Mazda3i models, which are then divided into four trim levels: SV, Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. There are also the Mazda3s models, which come as Touring and Grand Touring only. SV and Sport are the price-leader sedans with the MZR engine. To get the Skyactiv powertrain, you have to seek out the Touring and Grand Touring versions of the Mazda3i, sedan or hatchback; all Mazda3s models have the 2.5-liter engine. (You're not missing out on much by passing up the "s": sport seats, 17-inch wheels, and LED taillights, are the most notable "s" exclusives.)

What's makes it "Skyactiv"?

The fuel economy gains for the Skyactiv engine do not stem one major new technology but instead are due to a host of smaller changes to both the engine and the transmissions (a six-speed automatic and a six-speed manual). Direct injection is employed, as is variable valve timing, a high compression ratio, redesigned fuel injectors, and reshaped piston cavities; the automatic transmission optimizes the use of its lockup torque converter; both transmissions and the engine are fractionally lighter.

Happily, squeezing more miles out of every gallon has not squeezed the fun out of the Mazda3 driving experience. The car's essential goodness remains. The driving position is excellent, with a prominent dead pedal and very good sight lines. The firm, composed chassis gives the 3 a lively feel. Even on squishy, Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, the Mazda 3 turns in eagerly. The 155 hp and 148 pound-feet of torque make for acceleration that is lively (in the context of 40-mpg compacts), if not blistering.

The current Mazda3 was on the vanguard of the movement to add more premium features to small cars, and my Grand Touring test example is evidence of that trend. Standard items include Mazda's mini-sized navigation system, leather, heated seats, a power driver's seat, Bluetooth, and a 10-speaker audio system. Blind-spot monitoring and swiveling bi-xenon headlamps were the highlights of the optional technology package, but it's richly priced at $1400. Actually, the Mazda3i Grand Touring sedan, although well equipped, is pretty richly priced, at just over $23,000. But you can get the Skyactiv powertrain in the 3i Touring, with a sticker price that starts under $20,000.

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