The 2012 Mazda3 has been changed in the nose and a little bit in the rear bumper, and there are great new wheels. Mazda has wiped the smile off the face of the Mazda3, or at least subdued it. It's like when Meg Ryan took the silicone out of her lips, she looked a lot better. If you nitpick you can say the Mazda3 still has a fat lip (front bumper, trying to hide in black), but gone is the big fixed grin that some dared call stupid.
The front fascia below the bumper looks great; it's not even ruined by knowing that the sporty black air intakes don't take in air. If SkyActiv were ruthless in its rule, they would be erased so the nose is more aero, but, hey, that's a bit too Prius. The intakes look better from a distance where you can't see that they're fake, also better when they're not being used to house optional foglamps.
The light facelift for 2012 is a big improvement: smoother, prettier and more aerodynamic, as the front fenders are also tweaked a bit, puffed out forward of the wheels. The sedan's coefficient of drag is now 0.27 Cd, with the 5-door at 0.29 Cd, great numbers for a hatchback that isn't also a fastback (like the Audi A7). The rear bumper on 2012 Mazda3 i models is cleaner and body-colored now. New 16- and 17-inch alloy wheels for 2012 are sporty and handsome. Thanks in part to those wheels, the cliche that it looks like it's moving when it's standing still is true.
Mazda is the manufacturer we long for, when we complain about user-unfriendliness in the cabins of other cars, not to mention the distraction quotient. Mazda gets it; our shotgun passenger for the day of the launch was an engineer who proved it to us with some backstory about Mazda's thinking. There are few changes from the interior of the 2011 Mazda3, but the changes for 2012 have a reason.
The mission: eliminate distraction, so that the driver can concentrate on driving. Mazda means it, too many others mouth it without studying it. With Mazda being neck-deep in racing, they know how to take up less of the driver's attention with necessary gauges and controls. Few if any other manufacturers act with such careful logic. Not Ford, with the new Focus and its optional and problematic MyFordTouch. Not Toyota, with the electronically ambitious Camry. Not Chevy with the new Sonic either; and we could go on.
Every control on the Mazda3 instrument panel is intuitive and easy to reach and use. Every one. The center stack is clean, the gauges clear, and digital information is accessed by a thumb scroll on the steering wheel; in fact, Mazda3 is the only car in its class with standard steering-wheel controls. The digital information is easy to read in the sun, at least in the SkyActiv models, with blue meter illumination. Others have gray, and the Mazdaspeed3 is red.
We drove a Mazda3 with terrific leather seats, and one with cloth seats, same padding and bolstering but firmer, maybe because cloth skin gets stretched more, and leather has inherent cushioning.
The sedan's trunk has 11.8 cubic feet of space, and the hatchback has 17 cubic feet behind the rear seat. The rear seats are split 60/40, and they fold nearly flat, so the cargo space can be expanded enormously.
The wonderful new 6-speed automatic transmission is shifted in its manual mode by the gated lever; you probably won't miss steering-wheel paddles, because it's not that kind of car. But maybe it is. The shift action is another place where Mazda logic rules: the lever goes back to upshift, forward to downshift, as in many race cars, because those directions flow with the g-forces on the body during acceleration and deceleration. It's a feel thing, not a think thing.