Since its debut, the Mazda 3 has been one of the best choices for enthusiasts on a budget. The 2012 3 has lost some of the previous car's character but it makes noticeable gains in refinement. In the cabin, the central console is still dominated by hard plastic, but its shiny finish has been toned down slightly and the new HVAC controls are easier to use by feel, so you don't have to take your eyes off the road. The overall design is also more cohesive and the look is more upscale, especially in the two-tone color scheme in this tester.
On the road, outside noise is largely sealed out, furthering this new 3's more grown-up feel. (I did hear a significant amount of tire noise at highway speeds, but that can probably be attributed to the winter rubber on this car.) The smooth, 2.0-liter Skyactiv four-cylinder lends some maturity to the 3 as well, but it's also a bit dull. It sounds like a sewing machine at low speeds -- albeit an extremely refined sewing machine -- and, although it puts out power progressively and provides acceptable acceleration, it drains some of the sporty character we've come to expect in the 3. Even still, it is a lovely engine that helps the 3 return incredible fuel economy.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
I make little secret of the fact I really like Mazdas. Call it bias, but every single car I've driven, from the MX-5 and RX-8 to the Mazda2 and Mazda6 have enchanted me with that silly promise of "Zoom Zoom."
I had high hopes of this tweaked, fettled 3i with the oddly named engine. On paper, Skyactiv is what Mazda desperately needs: the new 2.0-liter engine tops out at 40 mpg -- a whopping 12 miles farther on a gallon than the top-spec 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine -- but promises to be every bit as much fun.
In the end, the 3i delivers on this promise, but not in the way I'd like. Leave the car to its own devices and you'll be rewarded handsomely. The on-board instant MPG calculator routinely showed me getting 40 mpg or higher, even around town. But that "Zoom Zoom" isn't around all the time anymore. The transmission and engine will play ball if you really push it, but not before you receive the automotive equivalent of "are you sure you want this?": a reticence to downshift and a slow-rising tachometer. That instant-fun attitude is gone.
No, Skyactiv is the new norm: keeping the fun, but putting it in reserve. For most people, this move will pay great dividends. But for us lead-footed enthusiasts, it's going to be a while before we'll be truly happy.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
This Mazda 3 returns 40 mpg on the highway and is much better to drive than the average compact sedan. So what if straight-line acceleration is only average? Very few normal consumers will ever find the 3's acceleration lacking. I think buyers looking for a practical, efficient sedan could do a lot worse than picking the new Skyactiv versions of the Mazda 3.
I wish I fit in it better, though. I struggled to find a comfortable seating position in the Mazda because of the seat and pedal locations. The power driver's seat doesn't go as low as I would like, so I felt like my head was scraping the roof. There also is a big difference in spacing between the throttle and brake pedals, so I have to sit far forward in order to reach the accelerator, but then bend my knee uncomfortably to use the brake.
Our tester wears Indigo Lights paint, which is a new color for 2012. The purple-blue color accents the 3's lines quite well and matches the optional electric-blue interior lighting. Speaking of the interior, I don't particularly care for the light-colored Dune upholstery in our test car; it clashes with the black interior plastics and looks out of place in a compact sedan.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
I wouldn't have guessed there was a Skyactiv engine in this Mazda 3. Even merging with highway traffic from a short on-ramp was no problem. The car doesn't feel like it gives up any meaningful performance to hit the magic 40-mpg figure, which is nice considering how many cars fall short of 40 mpg and still feel anemic.
Mazda offers some deluxe equipment on the 3, such as automatic bi-xenon headlights. But it doesn't go too far with technology. There's no touch-screen navigation system, and all the controls for the car have old-fashioned buttons or knobs. Everything works as it should, so it's easy to adjust the temperature, change radio stations, or do most anything else you wish without taking your eyes off the road. While I enjoy the simplicity of the interior controls, the overall impression the interior leaves is that this is a very old compact car. Virtually every other entry in this segment has seen an extensive overhaul or totally new product debut in the last year or so. That puts Mazda at a real disadvantage.
In short, the Mazda 3 is a great compact car for people who really like to drive. In fact, you have to prioritize driving dynamics over pretty much everything else to put the Mazda 3 at the top of your list.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
Mazda has done a very good job of being the poor man's BMW. That's especially true of the 3 sedan, as it's so easy to find the perfect driving position shortly after slipping behind the wheel. While some of the ergonomics may not be perfect (the plethora of buttons and knobs for the stereo, in example), the important things are easily viewed and read (speedo, shifter). It may not matter that the secondary controls aren't quite in reach, given the high fun-to-drive factor, even equipped with the new Skyactiv 2.0-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic. The 3 is still lively and tossable with great sightlines and well-weighted steering.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
The Mazda 3 has aged very well, as it proved by finishing second in a six-car comparison test -- almost exclusively against much newer designs -- that we conducted last spring. Its handling characteristics are excellent, and its ride quality impressed even my father, a retired Chrysler mechanic who doesn't hide his distaste for small cars as well as inexpensive foreign cars.
The new (ridiculously named) Skyactiv powertrain did its job quite well over my weekend with the Mazda. It didn't strike me as amazing, but it didn't offend me, either, and I usually can't stand driving compact cars with automatic transmissions. That says a lot.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Why do bad things happen to good automakers? Mazda is a company that has almost always built reliable, frugal, and fun-to-drive cars -- cars like the Mazda3. The 3 checks all the practical boxes: 40 mpg highway, a comfortable interior, and a top reliability rating from Consumer Reports. It also drives better than most of its competitors (most of which are much newer), with steering and handling developed for people who actually enjoy driving. And yet, the 3 sells at about half the rate of the aged Toyota Corolla. Even worse, Mazda as a whole faces financial losses and an uncertain future. The sad, unfair truth is that the modern auto industry favors sheer quantity -- volume and the resulting ability to absorb development costs -- over quality. Ultimately, Mazda needs a new partner to replace Ford. Meantime, the only thing I can do is to advocate for more people to buy the excellent 3.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor