By Christopher A. Sawyer
“Skyactiv” sounds like the name of the crime-fighting daughter of ‘60s hippies, not a technology suite Mazda claims will allow it to pursue both fuel efficiency and dynamic performance. It’s not an engine or transmission or battery pack, but a way of looking at a vehicle holistically in order to increase efficiency, reduce weight, and retain a fun-to-drive personality. Fun-to-drive has always been at the center of Mazda vehicles, so it’s nice to see that the company isn’t willing to sacrifice one of its most unique characteristics on the altar of fuel efficiency. In fact, that attribute actually can be strengthened by the weight reduction that is part of the Skyactiv mantra, though the opportunity is limited in this vehicle. That’s because the Mazda3 i Touring and Grand Touring, the first cars to wear the “Skyactiv” badge, are not new vehicles from the ground up. Therefore, the scope of this technology suite is necessarily limited in this application.
Under the Hood
This is where the engineers spent most of their time. Unlike the rest of the Mazda3 line, both the Touring and Grand Touring are powered by a new 2.0-liter engine (“Skyactiv-G”) driving through one of two new transmissions; a six-speed manual (“Skyactiv-MT”) or six-speed automatic (“Skyactiv-Drive”).
The engine is approximately 2 kg (4.4-lb) lighter than Mazda’s current MZR 2.0-liter four cylinder, and runs a surprisingly high 12:1 compression ratio. To deliver the fuel into the cylinders precisely and keep the engine from knocking (a real possibility with high compression ratios), the Skyactiv-G engine utilizes multi-hole fuel injectors and uniquely shaped piston cavities. The latter reduce combustion duration and, says Mazda, suppresses knock and its effect on engine power and torque. (When knock is encountered, the engine computer retards the spark to prevent it from occurring. This reduces both horsepower and torque. By reducing this tendency, the engine safely can be run closer to the edge of in-cylinder detonation, producing more power from less fuel.)
Power output for the new motor is 155 hp @ 6,000 rpm, an 148 lb-ft @ 4,100. That’s seven more horsepower and 13 more lb-ft of torque than the MRZ 2.0 motor, and it’s all done without increasing displacement or running on premium fuel. Furthermore, the Skyactiv engine isn’t “peaky”. In fact, the higher torque number comes 400 rpm lower in the new engine, making it a slight bit more flexible. Stir in a transmission that has one more gear and a computer control system integrated with the engine’s (in the case of the automatic), and this flexibility can be spread across a wider gear set without having the engine bog down. In fact, it can pull a higher gear at most everyday speeds, making the engine much more fuel efficient.
How much more? Mazda says the automatic-equipped version like the one I drove gets 17% better fuel economy in the city (28 mpg according to the EPA’s tests) and 21% better on the highway (40 mpg). That translates into a theoretical 540-mile range. Now, it’s highly unlikely anyone will average 40 mpg over an entire tank (or drive it down to a reserve of one gallon), but my 35-mpg average was good enough that the car was still showing a 130-mile range after a week of driving. I never had to put a drop of fuel into the 14.5-gallon tank, despite running all over and across town. That’s impressive.
What was even more impressive is the fact that I never noticed anything out of the ordinary. No knock. No hesitation. No lack of strength. And with the greater number of speeds in the automatic gearbox combined with the integrated powertrain control, the right ratio was always at hand. In fact, the transmission was blessedly free of hunting up and down for the right gear, would default to the highest gear it could pull without dropping into a hole, and retains the option of a manual override by slotting the gear lever into a “+/-“ gate. This gives the Mazda3 Grand Touring a very mature and accomplished feel without taking away any of the sportiness that comes with the option of manual control of the gear selection. You can drive it like you stole it or waft around if you’d rather.
Ride and Handling
This level of refinement is apparent throughout the car, and that’s a big step forward for Mazda. In the past, its vehicles have felt a bit light and fragile, and things like noise suppression have taken a back seat to ultimate weight savings and sportiness. Not so the Mazda3 Grand Touring. It feels surprisingly robust, and exhibits none of the corner-cutting of the past. It’s almost as though the development team had as its mission light weight, robustness, quiet and comfort all at the same time.
If there is one fault, it is that the ride is a bit firm for a car carrying the “Grand Touring” label. Impact harshness on washboard and pock-marked surfaces is transmitted into the interior as sound and a firm response to the input. It isn’t a harsh jolt or “slap” as the wheels ride over these surfaces, but it is indicative of a suspension setup that is biased toward ultimate handling at the expense of ultimate ride comfort. Call it an example of the personality Mazda has chosen for its cars. One that marries serenity with sport.
This choice is evident elsewhere throughout the car. The electro-hydraulic rack and pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes are both linear and consistent, biased toward responsiveness, but not at the cost of heaviness. There is no slop. From the initial application of force, each responds with a reaction that fills you with confidence and trust as you get out what you put into the system. It’s the same feeling you get from a European sport sedan, but remixed for this application, brand and nationality. Spend enough time behind the wheel, and you start to get a feeling for what “Mazda” means and how it might translate to other vehicles; much as you would behind the wheel of a BMW or Mercedes. It’s a hallmark of a mature automaker, and rare in this end of the market.
Equipment, Interior, Styling
Also rare is the level of equipment found on this car. Standard equipment includes: a tilt/telescope steering wheel, eight-way power driver’s seat, heated exterior mirrors, leather-trimmed seats and door panels, a power moonroof, a 265-Watt Bose Centerpoint 10-speaker surround sound system for the AM/FM/CD/Aux radio, multi-stage heated front seats, and a full-color compact navigation system sequestered in the upper level of the two-tier instrument panel. In addition, the instrument panel has a soft-touch top cover, though the hard plastic of the lower half is carried over to the top of each door panel.
In addition, the test car was fitted with the $1,400 Technology Package. It includes a blind-spot monitoring system, rain-sensing wipers, bi-xenon (high and low beam) high-intensity discharge headlamps, adaptive front lights, auto on/off headlights, a perimeter alarm system, and a Sirius satellite radio with a four-month subscription. That’s a lot of stuff for a reasonable price. And I can’t think of any cars in the affordable compact class that offer bi-xenon HID headlamps that swivel to follow the road. It’s apparent that Mazda wants buyers to know it hasn’t diluted it “driver’s car” credentials.
What the Mazda3 could use more of, however, is rear seat leg room. The car is about on-par with most in the class, but almost two inches shy of the 38.1-in. of leg room VW has in its Jetta. Its trunk also is tighter with just 11.8 cu. ft. versus the Jetta’s 15.5 cu. ft. This makes the Mazda3 feel a bit less roomy, though the trunk is regularly shaped, and has a high floor that meets the leading edge of the split-fold rear seat to create a flat load surface. If near mid-size rear seat room is important, go with the VW. If it’s not, the Mazda3 should meet your needs.
One area where the Mazda goes a bit overboard is in its styling, especially from the front. In a day and age where every car has pulled back “insect eye” headlights or a “scowling” under bumper air intake, Mazda has gone for a smiling face for its cars. Unfortunately, the air intake is huge and bisected by a bumper beam with a dark, grainy finish. Hiding the beam behind the opening would have made the enormous opening visually larger, but covering it with the body-color front fascia might have given the car a less maniacally happy face. Thankfully, Mazda is hard at work on a new design language that will debut with the next-generation Mazda6 in 2013.
TVD Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Mature. Sophisticated. Consistent. Responsive. All these words describe the Mazda3 i Grand Touring. Yet it is what they represent that sets this car apart from some of the newer competitors in the segment. This feel is combined with Skyactiv Technology that includes a lighter, more powerful engine mated to a slick six-speed automatic transmission; a combination that is not only more powerful, it is more efficient. Though still short of perfect, the changes made to the Mazda3 should put it at or near the top of the list for most compact car buyers.
2012 Mazda3 i Grand Touring
Options: Interior lighting kit, $200; Compass/auto-dim mirror with Homelink, $275; Technology Package (Blind-spot monitoring system, Sirius satellite radio with four-month subscription, perimeter alarm, rain-sensing wipers, bi-xenon headlights with auto-leveling, pivoting adaptive front lighting system, auto on/off headlights), $1,400.
Destination charge: $795
Price as tested: $24,970
Engine: Transverse 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder. Aluminum block and heads. Dual over head cams with variable valve timing, and four valves per cylinder. Gasoline direct injection.
Horsepower: 155 @ 6000
Torque: 148 @ 4100
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
EPA mileage rating: 28 city/40 highway/33 combined.
Steering, Suspension and Brakes
Steering: Electro-hydraulic power rack and pinion.
Suspension F/R: MacPherson struts./Independent multi-link with twin-tube dampers.
Brakes F/R: 10.94-in vented discs/10.43-in solid discs. ABS, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
Dimensions (in inches)
Fuel capacity (gallons): 14.5
Cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 11.8 (seats up)
Powertrain: 5 years/60,000 miles
Vehicle: 3 years/36,000 miles
Roadside Assistance: 24-hour roadside assistance for 36 months/36,000 miles.