Strengths and weaknesses:
- fun factor
- great handling
- nothing to speak of
Sky's the limit for reworked Mazda3
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Mazda3, the little car with the gaping, maniacal grin, has a different smile for 2012 that seems to say it knows something you don’t.
That something is what’s hiding under the revamped skin - SKYACTIV technology that gives Mazda3 a boost in power, a tweak in handling and a lift in economy.
It’s the first appearance of the new technology in North America, but it’s not the complete package yet. This edition has the engine and the transmission, but not the exhaust system that’s part of the complete Skyactiv package.
No company is going to mess around much with a car that represents the bulk of its sales and, besides the smiling face, there’s not much outside change, just a tweak here and there and a Skyactiv badge on the trunk lid.
The front fascia and fog lights are new, as is the rear lower bumper. Three new exterior colours are available and there’s a new design for 16-in. and 17-in. wheels.
Interior changes include interior trim, updated information display with white lettering, and new cloth seating material. The gauge display has been tailored to the models - Skyactiv models have blue illumination, Mazdaspeed3 gets red and other models have grey.
The Mazda3-SKY fits what Mazda North America president and CEO Jim O’Sullivan calls “the sweet spot” of the line-up. It comes with standards like six-speed manual transmission, heated cloth front seats, alloy wheels, traction and stability control, air conditioning, Bluetooth and power locks, mirrors and windows. In short, it’s all the equipment you’d like to have with the addition of the Skyactiv gear.
Mazda3 for 2012 gets the new Skyactiv-G 2.0-litre gasoline four-cylinder engine, and either a Skyactiv six-speed manual or Skyactiv-Drive six-speed automatic.
Under the hood, the 2.0 “four” with its blue cover puts out 155 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 148 lb. ft. of torque at 4100 revs. The Skyactiv engine is designed with an extremely high 13:1 compression ratio (for North American vehicles to allow use of regular gasoline; other markets get 14:1). For Mazda3, though, the ratio is 12:1 since the car does not have the technology’s 4-2-1 exhaust system which will not fit in the car’s current design.
The standard shifter is a super-slick six-speed manual that is, quite simply, a joy to manipulate. Engineers used the short-throw MX-5 manual as a benchmark, and then redesigned every part to achieve a gearbox with the shortest shift stroke of any competitive passenger car. And it’s lighter than most.
It adds to the fun when you consider the newly tweaked suspension, a more rigid body structure, and the electro-hydraulic power assist steering which still provides an excellent feel for what’s going on under the wheels.
It’s hard to remember that this is not a sports sedan, but a car with room for four people and enough cargo space to carry a good deal of stuff.
Cornering is flat and the tires stick firmly to the pavement. If you turn the steering wheel a little, you get a small change of direction – immediately. If you turn the wheel a lot, you get a big change of direction – right now.
The engine pulls strongly if you remember to keep the revs up and it doesn’t take long to discover the car’s happy place – fourth gear. There’s enough torque to carry us up and over and around the delightfully twisty and steep mountain roads east of the world’s entertainment capital, and enough engine braking to decelerate without resorting to brakes.
Through it all, the Mazda3 Skyactiv-ation maintains its stability even when I deliberately lift off the accelerator or touch the brake in the middle of a corner. If anybody’s going to upset this car’s composure, it’s going to take something a lot more stupid that that.