The big change for 2012 is the introduction of a new 2.0-liter engine that gets Mazda's SkyActiv treatment, delivering a terrific 28 miles per gallon in the city, 40 mpg on the highway. In fact, during one good run with that engine, we got 43.7 mpg. The SkyActiv engine runs on Regular gasoline.
The 2012 Mazda3 lineup features two new SkyActiv transmissions to go with the SkyActiv engine: a 6-speed automatic and 6-speed manual. We found both worked beautifully.
One big styling change on all 2012 Mazda3 models is the nose. That big grin that's been fixed on the face of the Mazda3 for the past two years has been wiped off, replaced by a smile that's more reserved.
Because the Mazda3 was redesigned for 2010, including a lighter stiffer chassis and new interior, there aren't a lot of other changes for 2012.
For 2012, the old 2.0-liter engine remains in the base model. The 2.5-liter engine in the up-level s models is unchanged as is the 2.3-liter turbocharged Mazdaspeed3.
The 2012 Mazda3 looks better without that stupid grin. It's smoother, prettier and more aerodynamic, as the front fenders are also tweaked, puffed out forward of the wheels. The sedan has a 0.27 coefficient of drag, and the five-door is 0.29 Cd, strong numbers for a hatchback.
There's one change from the interior of the 2011 Mazda3, satin rings around the three climate knobs, for a reason Mazda actually tested with human beings. Recognition speed and accuracy, and that means less distraction. Every single control on the Mazda3 instrument panel is intuitive and easy to reach and use. The center stack is clean, the gauges clear, and digital information accessed by a thumb scroll on the steering wheel. Mazda3 comes standard with steering-wheel controls.
The Mazda3 sedan's trunk has 11.8 cubic feet of space, and the hatchback has 17 cubic feet behind the rear seat. Both come standard with 60/40 split folding rear seats, and they fold nearly flat, so the cargo space can be expanded enormously. In a pinch, the sedan can carry most of what the hatchback can.
In a day of hard driving on the Angeles Crest Highway and on some mountain roads in Southern California, we couldn't find a flaw in the 2.0-liter SkyActiv powertrain. We tested it hard, and it worked.
The 2012 Mazda3's 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine makes 155 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque; good hp, excellent torque increase for the 2012 models. Enough for plenty of acceleration, with the new 6-speed automatic transmission working beautifully with the available torque. At 70 mph the engine spins at a leisurely 2200 rpm, smooth and silent. With the 6-speed manual, it runs 70 mph at 500 rpm more, still can't really hear it.
Government fuel economy estimates for the new 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine were not available when this was written. Mazda officials place it at 28/40 miles per gallon. We got 29.5 mpg driving it hard over the curvy 4910-foot-high Angeles Crest Highway east of Los Angeles, and 43.7 mpg returning to the city mostly on the freeway, running 65-70, accelerating and decelerating with the fast flow of traffic.
The 2012 6-speed automatic will downshift aggressively, and upshift at low rpm; few do that. It will do what you ask it to, and no more, quicker and smoother than before. The SkyActiv goal was to make it upshift as fast as a twin-clutch automatic manual, and 15 milliseconds is the result.
The 2012 6-speed manual transmission also went SkyActiv. This goal was to make it feel like the Miata MX-5 gearbox. Bushings were changed to bearings, shafts re-splined, and oil reservoirs shrunk and moved, all to shorten the throw of the shift lever, from 50mm to 45mm, without making it feel heavier. That's about one-fourth of an inch. Shortest throw of any passenger car, claims Mazda.
The suspension on all 2012 Mazda3 models has been tweaked to deliver a more European feel. We ran a lot of harsh patchy pavement on curvy roads, and it wasn't quite a sport sedan, but the feedback was direct, driven hard with the 6-speed automatic transmission in Manual mode. The harsh patches never made the ride uncomfortable.
As for the 2.5-liter engine, with 167 horsepower and 168 pounds of torque, it gets the job done with room to spare. The best happens when the tachometer swings through the 4500-4800 rpm range and keeps pulling to near redline. It climbs hills confidently and cruises on the highway effortlessly. Of course you pay for the power, as it only gets 22/29 mpg with the automatic.
For 2012 there are also a number of changes to the packages and standard equipment of models, mostly 2.5-liter S models. Price increases reflect this, although Mazda says that when weighed in the context of equipment against 2011, prices don't change much.
The 2012 Mazda3 lineup includes six models using three engines, four transmissions, and two body styles. The five-door hatchback is usually $500 more than the four-door sedan.
The well-equipped base Mazda3 i SV 4-door ($15,200) uses the older 2.0-liter engine and 5-speed manual transmission; it has power windows and steering-wheel controls, but lacks air conditioning and power locks. The Mazda3 i Sport sedan adds air conditioning, power locks, remote keyless ignition and comes with the 5-speed manual ($16,845) or the 5-speed automatic ($17,695).
Mazda3 i Touring features the new SkyActiv 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed automatic ($19,300) or 6-speed manual ($18,450); Touring also upgrades with Bluetooth, alloy wheels, cruise control, leather trim, and upgraded sound system. The i Grand Touring ($22,300), also with that powertrain, throws in moonroof, Bose sound system, 8-way power driver's seat, and more.
Mazda3 s Touring gets the 2.5-liter engine and 6-speed manual ($21,300) or 5-speed automatic ($22,100). The fully loaded Mazda3 s Grand Touring includes leather and navigation and 6-speed manual ($22,900) or 5-speed automatic ($23,700).
The Mazdaspeed3 ($24,000) is the pocket rocket; this hot hatch comes with a 263-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-4, 6-speed manual transmission, limited-slip differential, and sport seats. For 2012, the Bose 10-speaker surround sound system has been added as standard equipment.
Options include rain-sensing wipers and bi-xenon headlamps, offered in only one other car in the compact segment; also dual zone air conditioning and 8-way power driver's seat, offered only by a few others.
Safety equipment on all Mazda3 models includes dual front airbags, front side airbags, curtain side airbags, active front head restraints, tire-pressure monitor, and anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution. Traction control and electronic stability control are standard on the i Touring and all s models. Optional safety equipment, in the Technology Package, includes a blind spot monitoring system, adaptive headlamps and LED taillamps.