Review: 2012 Mazda3 Sedan SKYACTIV-G

Brendan McAleer
by Brendan McAleer
review 2012 mazda3 sedan skyactiv g

Picture courtesy

One of the constant dangers for your humble TTAC correspondent is drifting away from gimlet-eyed and ruthless objectivity towards developing a soft spot for a particular manufacturer. Lord forbid you should ever start becoming an “ advocate”.

Should such tendencies emerge, one of our larger and hairier Senior Editors will show up on the front stoop bearing a large boat oar emblazoned with “Integrity” and begin beating you about the ears in the manner of the berserker school-master from Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht. Leaving aside semi-obscure references to mid-century Irish literary satire for the moment, there’s one company for which I’d cheerfully risk the aforementioned major head trauma: Mazda.

How could you not? The homologation-special 323 GTX, the curvaceous FD RX-7, the gutsy MX-6 GT, the sharp-yet-practical Protege5, the apex-predator Mazdaspeed3, the Brit-that-don’t-break Miata; over the years, Mazda has produced a veritable pantheon of great cars, all relatively affordable, all moderately practical.

Picture courtesy

Well, the MX-6 GT was a bit crap, if I’m honest. I had one, and it was really fast and ran forever, but it also torque-steered like a helicopter with the tail-rotor shot off.

And, lest you think that I’ve entirely become Mazda’s – ahem – protégé, it’s worth noting that Mazdas appear to be plagued with rust issues that don’t seem to affect other Japanese competitors (we’re rarely afflicted with this problem in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s a common complaint among Easterners). Also the early ‘speed3 ate motor mounts like milk-duds and the RX-7’s twin-turbocharged engine couldn’t have been less stable if it was made out of nitroglycerine, anti-matter and bits of the Middle East.

So, there are occasional flaws. And with the current Mazda3, two warts immediately hove into view, and beg to be looked past.

Picture courtesy

First, the styling, about which they’ve done little with this new car. A tweaked front fascia makes the grin a little less idiotic, they’ve added blue mascara ’round the headlights, and there’s a “Skyactiv” badge out back. That’s about it.

In fact, the reason you’re looking at press shots here rather than my own ham-handed photography is that so little is changed, I plumb forgot to take pictures of the car. But everybody knows what the Mazda3 looks like already: lots of curvy styling, big goofy smile.

Who. Cares. While – based on the conservative-but-interesting looks of the CX-5 – I look forward to seeing a new, KODO-ized Mazda3, the current ‘3 now blends right in to modern traffic alongside bulbous Hyundai Velosters, basking-shark Ford Focii, and bug-eyed Nissan Jukes. If the smirk really bothers you, just buy a black one.

Picture courtesy

We can also take any interior criticisms “as read”. Exactly the same, but the lighting is now light blue, the official other colour of efficiency.

Which brings us to the other wart, perhaps the larger and hairier of the two. While the ‘3 has a certain verve with the 2.5L engine, it’s not particularly competitive in the economy department. Opting for the base 2.0L improves the fuel-consumption somewhat, but the power deficit is quite noticeable. What Mazda needs to stay competitive is more zoom-zoom from less fuel.

There isn’t the space here for me to fully explain the science of Skyactiv ( click here to read my somewhat bumbling attempt to do so), but let me lay out the Cole’s Notes. First, it’s not a hybrid. I’ve lost count of how many people have come up to me and asked what I thought of “Mazda’s new hybrid”.

Skyactiv is not a specialty trim level, it’s the tagline for the mindset of the engineer who’s currently designing your – they hope – next Mazda: a full suite of technologies designed to improve economy and enhance driver involvement. In the case of the Mazda3, you get partial Skyactiv tech in the mid-range models free-gratis-for-nothing.

Picture courtesy

Second, if we simplify things down to a level that would have Dave Coleman gnawing on his graphing calculator, Skyactiv-G engine tech is about the controlled burn. The high-octane, premium fuel normally required in high-pressure engines (including turbo’d and supercharged applications) is less prone to spontaneously combusting than regular. Mazda gets around this requirement for high-grade gas with precise multi-point injector technology and specially dished pistons that ensure regular flame-front propagation out from the spark.

Advantage? A clean, even burn that runs leaner and gives you a bump in power. Theoretically great, but what about real-world application?

Picture courtesy

Here it is then, finally, the meat n’ potatoes of this review. Assuming you’ve read this far, you don’t care about styling commentary, you don’t care that they’ve swapped all the red interior lights for blue ones, you don’t care about high-flown hyperbole, or even how Skyactiv tech actually works. You want to know: is this ‘3 any good?

Well, first the bad news. The first Skyactiv ‘3 is a bit of a mongrel. It’s the same old Mazda3 chassis with an engine and transmission swap, and part of the Skyactiv-G gasoline tech has been watered down. There isn’t room underhood to fit the 4-2-1 header that allows the CX-5 to attain that sky-high 13:1 compression ratio with tuned exhaust pulses. The mill in the ‘3 is therefore restricted to 12:1.

However, the six-speed automatic gearbox in this tester is fully Skyactiv (conventional but lightened with improved shift control and a greater lock-up range), and while the chassis is roughly the same as last year’s – with a slight enhancement to rigidity – there was nothing wrong with the old one. In fact, there was everything right with the old one.

And here comes the good news. This heart-transplanted ‘3 is better than ever.

Picture courtesy

I was invited to the launch of the Skyactiv-equipped Mazda3 in sunny Los Angeles, but elected to wait for a locally-available tester instead. I’m glad I did, and not for some imaginary independent-can’t-be-bought-hipster-journo street-cred: I knew the ‘3 would be great to drive on a Mazda-planned canyon route; I’m pleased to report that it’s also great to drive in rain-soaked, volume-snarled, suicidal-pedestrian, militant-cyclist, turn-signal-absent everyday horrible traffic. It is such a hoot.

The new automatic transmission delivers crisp, rapid shifts, and is actually fun to operate in manu-matic mode. No paddle-shifters (yet), but it’s an engaging transmission that makes a mockery of weaksauce dual-clutch systems like that found in the Focus.

The engine, while lacking the outright grunt of the 2.5L, provides considerably more poke than the somewhat dowdy 2.0L, splitting the difference between the two engines at 155hp and 148lb/ft of torque. Mazda claims the power of a 2.5L from a 2.0L, but that’s pushing it a little: there is still plenty of room for more down-low power.

Picture courtesy

Expect the full-fat, 91-octane burning 14:1 Euro-versions to have a little more panache, but if I’m going to express jealousy of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, it’ll be for their upcoming Skyactiv-D diesel with its 300lb/ft of torque and 5300rpm redline.

But I digress, back to what we actually get. In my normal driving style, which is to careen everywhere as though pursued by a brown 450SEL with a rocket-launcher-wielding Robert DeNiro hanging out of its sunroof, the Skyactiv-G Mazda3 returned a very respectable 33mpg.

Granted, that’s about 15% off the promised 40mpg highway, but seriously, we’re talking depleted uranium Dr. Scholl’s inserts here. I beat that thing like a concrete piňata and not only did it feel like it loved every minute of it, but there was also little penalty at the pump.

Picture courtesy

Currently, this kind of fuel-economy puts the ‘3 right up there amongst other – alleged – fuel sippers. Should the little Mazda fall mid-pack for operating costs in the future as others catch up, its fun-to-drive quotient should do the rest of the selling.

Of course, there’s a worry. Any time words like “high-compression” start getting tossed around, the image that immediately pops into mind is of some brightly coloured Italian exotic on the shoulder and en flambé. And while most Mazdas have a reasonably good track-record for reliability, there’s still the long shadow cast by that FD RX-7 and its, um, explosive performance.

But I’m bullish on Mazda’s new tech, and can’t wait to see it range-wide and try it in full effect in the CX-5. It’s all well and good to have interesting niche enthusiast cars like the GT 86 and the EVO-X but we need a car company that champions driving pleasure as a core value for all its models.

It’s nice to have a company like Mazda around, and I’m happy to report that their SKYACTIV technologies seem to indicate that they’ll be able to compete on both fronts: not only as the enthusiast choice, but also as a manufacturer of economically efficient daily drivers. This new Mazda3 is certainly a car I’ll be recommending next time somebody asks.


Oh hang on, someone’s at the door.

Mazda provided the vehicle tested and insurance.

Join the conversation
3 of 124 comments
  • Ddr7 Ddr7 on Dec 29, 2011

    Brendan McAleer, "Also the early ‘speed3 ate motor mounts like milk-duds" Just as reminder, my 2006 hatch ate the #3 motor mount 4 times in 5 years, that is for only 66k miles and all under warranty, this looked like a bad joke, how is one part can not be made right? Also, about MPG, my 2011 2.5 hatch, at 60MPH, running at about 2100 RPM, the old 2.3 was more like 2300 RPM, there is not much difference in fuel consumption, a 2010 Ford Fusion I was driving, with the same 2.5 engine, was running at 1750RPM at 60MPH. I don't know why Mazda can't have the engine run a little slower. When I took the 2011 for my first oil change, they came up with a $120 bill, when I asked why so high? the representative said Mazda recommend synthetic oil and also gave me 2 pages from Mazda to read explaining what synthetic oil is and why it's recommended, the main thing was fuel consumption. Immediately, I told him nicely that he got 2 options, one is to charge me for regular oil, the second is to take back the car and put regular oil, there is no way I'm paying for synthetic, it took him about 2 min to come back with a reduced bill, less than half. Mazda probably found a way to screw up their customers, I mean, customers who don't ask questions.

    • Rpn453 Rpn453 on Dec 29, 2011

      Don't blame Mazda for a shady dealership. If the manual doesn't specify synthetic, then that info is not coming from Mazda. Notify Mazda if you feel they were trying to scam you. No need for synthetic in that car under factory recommended intervals unless you're cold enough for a 0W, especially considering how good any modern (API SN/GF-5) oil is these days. I don't know about the current Speed3, but the first few years didn't even specify synthetic for their turbo engines. My local dealership was trying to push 2500 mile intervals when I bought my Mazda3. The transmission mount (#1, I believe) is a contributing factor in the frequent demise of the front liquid-filled mount. It's so flimsy to reduce NVH levels that it causes excessive stress on the front mount. The engine flops around like a fish if you're on and off the throttle hard in 1st gear and wheel hop is excessive with the stock setup. The Speed3 mount is a little stiffer and will improve the situation without adding any significant engine noise or vibration. The aftermarket CP-E mount will stiffen it up perfectly but increase NVH, though not nearly as much as any other solid mount I've tried or heard about. Roughness while idling with the A/C on is the only real problem with the CP-E. Not an issue for me because I never do that. I enjoy open windows when I'm driving around the city on a warm day, and I modified my HVAC control unit so the compressor never comes on automatically on any setting.

  • Manny Calavera Manny Calavera on Jan 16, 2012

    I do have a soft spot for Mazda too. Used to have one of the rare-ish 323 GT-R's, after owning the cheap boxy 1.5l 323 sedan when I was a student. The Zoom Zoom marketing thing does have some merit. All Mazda's I've driven have been smile inducing, and (apart from the GT-R eating through clutch pads like no tomorrow) surprisingly reliable.

  • SCE to AUX Good summary of the circus, Matt.The UAW members should see this as typical uniparty pandering - nothing more. As I said before, no President should be visiting a picket line.They should also realize that their jobs depend more on their employers than the government.UAW jobs were evaporating long before modern EVs came around. Ironically, more EVs are built by non-union workers, anyway, because the UAW's employers can't figure out how to scale up. Tesla already employs about 2/3 as many people as Ford or GM.
  • Parkave231 Something's fishy here.
  • Kcflyer I should have said clowns, plural. I guess the only difference between Trump and Biden going to Michigan is that Trump will know that he is in Michigan.
  • SCE to AUX The surface rust on the sanded areas indicate the owner has had this car for several years, then despaired of the project scale.Too many unknowns - interior soft goods, wiring, bushings, etc - these are the things that slow a project down and drive costs through the roof. Drivetrain and body work are pretty straightforward.Could turn out nice if you invest several years and multiples of the purchase cost into it.
  • Fred Nothing like a nice project to help relieve the stress of life.