Driving Impressions

By November 3, 2011

New for 2012, the 2.0-liter SkyActiv powertrain performs ideally. We tested it hard, and it works. The engine makes 155 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque, enough for plenty of acceleration. The 6-speed automatic transmission, also new for 2012, works 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.

It's just an internal combustion gasoline engine. But this is what SkyActiv means: energy losses were reduced in the intake, compression, expansion and exhaust cycles (smaller bore, longer stroke, higher compression ratio, unique combustion pockets in the domed pistons, still 87 octane Regular gas). Sequential valve timing. Mazda attacked every source of friction it could find, claiming 74 percent improvement in oil pump drag, 31 percent water pump drag, 25 percent reciprocating internal drag, 54 percent reduction in valvetrain friction, 27 percent belt drag, and 13 percent valvetrain pumping loss. They looked for energy loss all the way down to the radiator fins.

Mazda estimates 28/40 miles per gallon, not yet EPA. 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.

Mazda hasn't said it, so we'll say it for them: We don't need no stinkin' hybrids. Mazda has said its goal is to get diesel fuel mileage with their gasoline cars, and hybrid fuel mileage with their 2.2-liter diesel engine coming to the Mazda3 by June of 2013.

With Mazda3, the idea is to be like a sports sedan, when compared to the 40-mpg competition, namely the high-economy versions of the Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus and Honda Civic.

We give raves for the new 6-speed automatic transmission. The engineer behind the transmission rode with us with backstory that boosts our faith in carbuilding. He wanted to make the transmission shift as fast as a twin-clutch automatic manual, and 15 milliseconds is the result.

SkyActiv philosophy rules again, driving engineers back to the drawing board to meet the goals for shifting performance and efficiency. Detailed examination of all metal-to-metal contact, and redesign to be slicker. The transmission increases fuel mileage by about 2 mpg, out of the total increase of about 5 mpg.

It brings a breath of fresh air, in Manual mode. Obedience, a remarkable concept! Such a simple path to perfection. We ran the transmission through all the obedience tests where other automatics usually fail, and it did not fail. It will downshift aggressively, and upshift at low rpm. It will do what you ask it to, and no more, quicker and smoother than before.

Other manufacturers use CVTs, because they say they're more fuel efficient. Nobody really likes CVTs; some drivers don't notice, and some live with them, but these continuously variable transmissions turn cars into clothes dryers. There's a CVT in the Mazda3 for Japan, where it's all stop-and-go, slow driving. But CVTs aren't more fuel efficient out on the open road where zooming happens, so it wasn't even considered for this North American Mazda3.

The manual 6-speed transmission also got done by SkyActiv. This time the goal was make it feel like the Miata MX-5 gearbox. Finding a shorter but not heavier throw at the shift lever, meant redesigning gearbox internals, not just the linkage. The throw came down to 45mm from 50mm, the shortest throw of any passenger car made, claims Mazda.

“We've been making transmission for 20 years, we know what a good one feels like,” said our passenger. We've been testing them for 20, we do too. This one feels great.

The suspension on all 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.

The suspension on all models has been tweaked to deliver a more European feel. We ran a lot of harsh patchy pavement on curvy roads, and the feedback was direct, driven hard with the 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 truly gets the job done. The best happens when the tachometer swings through the 4500-4800 rpm range and keeps pulling to near redline. It climbs hills with confidence and cruises on the highway effortlessly. Of course you pay for the power, as the 2.5-liter is EPA-rated at just 22/29 mpg with the automatic, 20/28 mpg with the manual. But stay tuned for the SkyActiv 2.5-liter. Mazda plans to do them all.

Fuel economy for the base 2.0-liter engine is an EPA-estimated 25/33 mpg with the 5-speed manual, 24/33 mpg with the 5-speed automatic.