The big news for 2012 is the introduction of Mazda's new Skyactiv engine technology. Eschewing the forced-induction route that many of its competitors are starting to roll out, Mazda is trying to squeeze the most out of a naturally aspirated internal combustion engine with already-known technology. The new Skyactiv 2.0-liter takes advantage of direct injection, a high compression ratio, and weight reduction to help the compact 3 hit that all-important 40 mpg number. From behind the wheel, it's still clear that this is a small-displacement four-cylinder making at most 155 hp, but the six-speed automatic, which is also new, does wonders to make the 3 feel peppier off the line. The transmission's upshifts are Lexus-creamy, and its downshifts are relatively non-intrusive, especially if you use the manu-matic shift gate. That said, the gearbox stays in the highest ratio possible at all times, often requiring a double-downshift under acceleration. The brakes on the updated 2012 model seem to be taking a page from the sportier Mazdaspeed3 with their strong stopping power, but the pedal comes off as video game-like, being too stiff and fairly uncommunicative. That said, the Mazda 3 is still one of the best cars to drive in the compact class, and with the new engine, compact-car buyers can have fuel efficiency without giving up the fun factor.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
Here's an email I received from a very knowledgeable car-enthusiast friend who works on the retail side of the automotive business: "Regarding the Mazda3 and Skyactiv. A friend of mine, and my dad, both own Mazda3 2.5 automatic hatchbacks (2010 model year, I believe). They like the cars, but the fuel economy is horrible. They can barely break 25 mpg on the highway. I've driven my friend's Mazda 3 a bit, and it's a nice enough car but is seriously let down by the rough 2.5-liter engine and the crappy five-speed automatic."
So you can see that the 3's powertrain was in need of a updating, something that Mazda officials certainly didn't deny, especially after Chevrolet came out with a 40-mpg Cruze. Mazda announced its new Skyactiv technology for the 3 at the 2011 New York Auto Show, and now we've driven a 3 equipped with the 2.0-liter engine and the six-speed automatic. It's a big improvement, especially the automatic transmission. Put it in manual mode, and you have great power at 5000 rpm in third gear at 80 mph; I'm not saying you'd cruise in that gear, but it makes for great merging and passing ability. The manual gear shifting happens quickly and smoothly. The automatic gear shifting does, too. The engine itself is a little coarse, but ultimately it sounds pretty good. I enjoyed running it up to 6000 - 6200 rpm in second gear. A quick manual shift and I'm bolting along at 60 mph on a country road, and the engine seems very happy.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
This is one of the very nicest ways to get 40 mpg. The Mazda3 was already among the best compact sedans to drive, but newer entries had far eclipsed its fuel economy. With the Skyactiv 2.0-liter (could there be a dopier name?), and six-speed automatic, this very peppy and fairly refined powertrain now hits that magic number on the highway. All the other Mazda3 excellence remains: the very good driving position (with a large dead pedal), the lovely steering, the capable suspension, the good outward visibility. This Grand Touring model is also loaded up with luxury features unexpected for this class, such as a power driver's seat, a blind-spot warning system, leather (although it's a bit industrial), and swiveling headlamps. The interior is comfortable, but doesn't make much of a style statement, with its dull black and gray trim. That should perhaps be the next area for Mazda to work on, to keep the 3 in the thick of the fray. But even as it is, this version of the Mazda3 stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ford Focus as the driver's choice in the segment.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
Fuel economy had been the biggest reason not to choose a Mazda3 instead of a new Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, or Hyundai Elantra. As much fun as the 2.5-liter engine was in a Mazda3 chassis, getting the 25 or so mpg on the highway seems criminal now that so many compacts can hit 40 mpg. After all, the Focus is almost as much fun to drive as a 3 and it offered almost 50% better fuel economy! Now that a Skyactive engine is available, you can have the Mazda's superior driving dynamics and still achieve that 40 mpg rating.
With the fuel economy improvement made, Mazda now needs to revamp the 3's interior. It has fallen to the back of the pack quickly as competitors like Hyundai and Ford put lots of technology and connectivity into their compacts. The 3 will still appeal to enthusiasts because of its fun-to-drive factor, but it will most likely lag behind the more comprehensively updated newer offerings from nearly every competitor in the segment.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
As others have noted, the new 2.0-liter engine effectively eliminates the only reason not to buy a Mazda 3. It remains the best driving small car in the segment, challenged only by the Ford Focus, which feels heavier and more sluggish. I particularly like the fact that this new engine is eager to rev. Many direct-injected four cylinders behave like diesels, making lots of torque at low rpm but having not much energy or character at higher rev ranges. That's fine for getting around town but is terribly boring. This engine, however, still feels like a traditional, lively small four. It's a bit coarse, but in a good, enlivening way. I can imagine liking it in a Miata. Otherwise, the 3 is as engaging as always, with nicely weighted steering and balanced handling.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The Mazda 3's Skyactiv engine technology answers the main complaint we've had with the Mazda 3, namely it's poor fuel economy. What's nice is that it addresses that issue without sacrificing too much of the driving enjoyment for which we've come to appreciate the 3. I drove this car just a week or so after driving the 2.5-liter Mazda 3, and while I don't find it quite as engaging (due most likely to the fact that the 2.0-liter is mated to an automatic rather than a manual), it's still a pretty fun car to drive. Other shortcomings, such as the integration of technology in the cabin, have yet to be addressed.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I was in the market for a used compact this spring and the Mazda 3 was at the top of my short list. In the end, though, I bought something other than a 3. While there were several factors that guided my final decision, the most influential was fuel economy; the 3 just simply couldn't compete with cars in its class -- or even those offering more performance -- when it came to EPA figures. With the introduction of the Skyactiv engine, Mazda has effectively catapulted the 3 back to the front of the fun-to-drive compact car pack. While it isn't particularly punchy, the Skyactiv offers adequate acceleration and is surprisingly quiet at highway speeds. The new gearbox is quite refined as well, although there is a noticeable pause between the beginning and end of a completed shift.
The much-improved fuel economy has had few negative effects on the 3's personality; it still steers, rides, and handles well enough to satisfy the enthusiast on a budget. To me, the 3's only negative attribute is its exterior styling, especially in sedan form. It's front and rear fascias are evocative, even verging on garish, while its profile is a bit drab and anonymous.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms