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2012 Mazda Mazda3 i 5-Door Grand Touring Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO

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2012 Mazda3

Impressive Performance and Driving Pleasure


2012 Mazda Mazda3 i 5-Door Grand Touring

Mazda is an engineering-driven automaker that has made affordable cars that combine a fun-to-drive character with innovative technology its niche in the marketplace. It's the only manufacturer to be successful with the Wankel rotary-piston engine (now in abeyance but never count it gone), and its MX-5 Miata pioneered the rebirth of the sports roadster.

   • SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyers Guide

The best-selling Mazda worldwide and in the U.S. is the compact Mazda3. It accounts for nearly two-thirds of Mazda's American sales, so what better place to introduce new technology that reduces emissions and fuel consumption while improving performance?

That would be SKYACTIV TECHNOLOGY, caps Mazda's and hereafter left uncapped. Skyactiv is a system-oriented implementation of engine, transmission, and chassis technologies that were designed to work together to make better Mazdas. The all-new SKYACTIV-G engine has the same 2.0-liter displacement as the old MZR (which continues) but is lighter in both castings and internal moving parts and uses direct fuel injection, allowing higher compression for increased efficiency and power. With other internal enhancements, horsepower is up from 148 to 155, and torque increased from 135 lb-ft to 148. That power is transmitted to the front wheels via a six-speed transmission, either manual or automatic, both of which are new, lighter and more efficient than the old five-speeds, and designed to work with the new engine's power characteristics and further reduce fuel consumption. Unibody and suspension revisions for increased strength and decreased weight are the finishing touches.

Outside, both the four-door sedan and five-door hatchback have been given a mid-product cycle freshening with subtly-new front styling that also reduces aerodynamic drag, for, you guessed it, improved efficiency and economy. More improvement there comes from careful under-car air management. Interior enhancements accentuate the Mazda3's upscale nature.

The model range for 2012 is "i" SV and Sport, with the old MZR engine, "i" Touring and Grand Touring with the Skyactive-G drivetrain, and "s" Touring and Grand Touring with the 167-horsepower MZR 2.5-liter engine in sedan form. The hatch is positioned a bit upscale, so there are no lower "i" models, only the Skyactiv "i" and MZR 2.5 "s" versions -- and the fire-breathing Mazdaspeed3 for those with a need for speed.

I've just spent an impressive week with an automatic-equipped i Grand Touring hatchback. It's a class or two above "econobox" in specification, especially with the optional Technology Package's blind-spot monitoring system and xenon adaptive headlights, but one of the selling points of the Skyactiv system is fuel economy, and it didn't disappoint. EPA estimates are 28 mpg city, 39 highway. I got around 28 around town -- and over 40 on the highway, at real highway speeds -- 65 to 75 mph -- on a road that was far from straight and level. Add the responsive handling that is part of Mazda's nature and the versatility of a five-door hatchback and the result is a fine combination of sport and efficiency. And fun.

Watch TACH's exclusive Mazda3 on-road promo video

APPEARANCE: You can be excused for not noticing the styling changes to the 2012 Mazda3. The huge grin on the front has been toned down a bit, and the "splitter" extensions at the bottom of the grille are more pronounced - and more functional, as they help manage underbody airflow to reduce aerodynamic drag and improve fuel efficiency. More of the undertray is covered, for the same reason, and there are diverters in front of all wheels to further reduce drag. Skyactiv cars get blue-tinted headlight covers and badging.

COMFORT: No little econobox here! In premium Grand Touring trim the Mazda3 edges toward luxury with leather seating, steering wheel, and shift knob, a tilt-and-slide moonroof, heated (6-level!) front seats, with the driver's power adjustable, a navigation system, a good BoseŽ audio system, and more once-upscale features as standard equipment. Want a blind-spot monitoring system and adaptive headlights? Technology Package, which also gives Sirius satellite radio, rain-sensing front wipers, and a perimeter alarm. The front seats are as good as any a class or two above, and the simple interior design is highlighted by soft-touch materials on the doors and instrument panel and honest plastic trim, no blatantly faux "metal" or "woodgrain". Instrumentation is shaded and backlit for easy visibility, and the information display/nav system screen, although small, is placed closer to the base of the windshield and to the center of the panel for easier visibility. Controls are through buttons on the steering wheel, as are cruise and Bluetooth phone systems. The contoured rear seat is best for two, with space for medium-sized adults. No demerits there, the same can be said of nearly every sedan or hatchback regardless of size. And the 5-Door has all of the versatility and usefulness of a four-door-plus-hatch body, with a 60/40 folding rear seatback, integrated cargo cover, and plenty of space even with the rear seat in place. There's a real space-saver spare tire under the load floor, although if you need to get to it you will need to remove the subwoofer first.

SAFETY: Passive safety features include Mazda's "Triple-H" construction, with rigid reinforcement to the floor, sides, and roof of the passenger cabin to reduce deformation in the event of an accident. More use of high-tensile steel and more side reinforcement have been added this year. Dual front, seat-mounted front side, and full-length side curtain airbags are standard, as are four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA), plus Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and a traction control system (TCS). A roadside assistance program is also standard fare. Unusually for the compact class, a blind-spot monitoring (BSM) and adaptive front lighting (AFS) systems are offered for Grand Touring models.

RIDE AND HANDLING: It's more "sporty" than "sports", with a moderate suspension tuning that combines supple comfort with good handling characteristics, but that is appropriate to the Skyactiv Mazda3's place in the world. Detail improvements to the fully-independent MacPherson strut/multilink suspension and use of electo-hydraulic power-assisted steering make the car comfortable and predictable, with no sudden surprises from driver inputs. Steering feel is much better than with pure electric-assist systems. Brakes are first-rate. There is a little MX-5 sports car in every Mazda, and the Mazda3 is no different there.

PERFORMANCE: Watch this space… The Skyactiv concept debuts here but will likely spread throughout the Mazda line, and that's a Good Thing. Meaning: better fuel economy *and* better performance, and all on unleaded regular. Compared to the old 2.0-liter MZR four-cylinder engine, the new powerplant has a narrower bore and longer stroke for greater torque. It doesn't rev as high, and has been optimized for low- and mid-range torque and power, right where you need it. Direct fuel injection and careful optimization of combustion chamber and piston shapes allow a high 12:1 compression ratio for higher output on less fuel, with lower emissions, and careful design of the exhaust manifold allows it to help extract spent gasses from the engine, further improving power and efficiency. "Tuned exhaust", despite what some ad copy may lead you to believe, does *not* mean "tuned for a nice sound"… The result is 155 horsepower (at 6000 rpm), with torque peaking at 148 lb-ft at 4100 rpm. I personally prefer a manual transmission, but Mazda's new six-speed automatic is the perfect match for the Skyactiv engine as it keeps revs low for economy but shifts up or down quickly and very smoothly when needed, and hold gears when it should. Manual mode is useful only for entertainment or for sports driving on a really steep, twisty road. With scant attempt for high mileage I still managed high 20s or better around town and high-30s to low 40s on the highway. With no suffering from lack of performance or driving pleasure.

CONCLUSIONS: Mazda introduces interesting new technology in its 2012 Mazda3.


2012 Mazda Mazda3 i 5-Door Grand Touring

Base Price $ 22,800

Price As Tested $ 24,995

Engine Type DOHC 16-valve aluminum alloy inline 4-cylinder with variable cam phasing and opening

Engine Size 2.0 liters / 122 cu. in.

Horsepower 155 @ 6000 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 148 @ 4100 rpm

Transmission 6-speed automatic with manual-shift mode

Wheelbase / Length 103.9 in. / 177.4 in.

Curb Weight 2969 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 19.2

Fuel Capacity 14.5 gal.

Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded premium gasoline

Tires P205/55R16 89H Bridgestone Turanza el400 m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, EBD, BA, DSC, TCS standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multi-link Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive


EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 28 / 39 / 32

0 to 60 mph (est) 8.5 sec


Technology Package -- includes: Blind-Spot Monitoring System, bi-xenon headlights w/auto leveling, pivoting adaptive front lighting system, Sirius satellite radio w/4-month subscription, perimeter alarm, rain-sensing windshield wipers, auto on/off headlights $ 1,400

Destination charge $ 795