LOS ANGELES – With its new Skyactiv technology, Mazda is attempting to reinvent the automobile, hoping that if you indeed build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.

It’s not uncommon for auto makers to make such bold claims. It is uncommon when they actually back them up.

Mazda manages this feat with the ’12 Mazda3, which features the first production-ready Skyactiv technology, a 2.0L direct-injection I-4 that earns a 2012 Ward’s 10 Best Engines nod in its first year of eligibility.

The 155-hp I-4 achieves 28-40 mpg (8.4-5.8 L/100 km) city/highway in the sedan model equipped with the choice of a new Skyactiv 6-speed automatic or manual.

Mazda engineers literally went back to the drawing board in developing Skyactiv, which encompasses just about every mechanical aspect of a car, including engines, transmissions, chassis and suspension, and makes reduced weight and friction a priority.

The Mazda3 we tested in Southern California represents the first step in the Skyactiv rollout, with systems beyond engines and transmissions to be introduced on future models.

The new Mazda3 straddles the line between fuel economy and sportiness. A 12.0:1 compression ratio, unheard of in most mainstream cars, allows for this split personality by providing maximum power without sacrificing fuel economy.

Traditionally, a high compression ratio means premium fuel is required, but Mazda engineers avoided that potential deal-breaker by employing specially shaped piston cavities and new multi-hole fuel injectors. Pumping losses are mitigated by dual sequential valve timing.

The result is a spunky and spirited package. During our test drive here, we fail to achieve the 40-mpg highway bogey but come close, averaging 35.6 mpg (6.6 L/100 km). Not too shabby considering our heavy-footed driving. Hyper-miling we are not.

Throttle response is excellent, and the car pulls strongly and in a linear fashion, with no lurching about.

Of the two transmissions, the manual proves more rewarding to drive, with quick throws that Mazda says are 10% shorter than the outgoing manual offering.

Like other components, the manual transmission underwent the Skyactiv treatment, receiving a lock ball-type synchronizer, shift-load canceller, slide ball bearing and the relocation of second and third gears on a common shaft.

Mazda says the changes result in weight savings of 4.4 lbs. (1.9 kg) and a “crisper” shift feel.

While the manual is an ideal match for the Mazda3, the automatic falls short of expectations. While not a bad transmission, the real-world performance is not as dramatic a change as other Skyactiv systems, despite some nifty engineering by Mazda.

The auto maker says it combined the best attributes of transmissions currently available, including conventional automatic, continuously variable and dual-clutch gearboxes.

Additionally, a torque converter with a lock-up clutch was developed to ensure optimal fuel economy and a direct-drive feel.

Although the automatic doesn’t feel much different from traditional setups, it does yield respectable fuel-economy numbers.

Complementing the peppy Skyactiv engine is Mazda’s unique and spot-on electro-hydraulic- assist steering system. Mazda says the system employs a new setting for pump-flow characteristics that enables a lighter touch at low speeds while providing more feedback and better feel at medium and high velocities.

This is evident during our drives on the winding mountain roads of Southern California. The steering system, which is tuned toward sportiness rather than the disconnected feel some C-segment competitors exhibit, makes the Mazda3 a joy to drive.

Interior tweaks are minor, but there are a handful of notable upgrades over the outgoing model. In keeping with the trend in the segment, Mazda makes a concerted effort to give the interior a more upscale look and feel.

Distinct differences include silver-colored rings around the climate-control switches, audio panel and ventilation louvers.

There remains plenty of plastic with a black-matte finish, which tends to accentuate fingerprints and other smudges but is better than the piano-black surfaces the auto maker previously used.

Mazda chooses wisely in changing the text color on the center liquid-crystal display from red to white. The red, used throughout previous-generation Mazdas, was difficult to read in bright sunlight.

Another nice touch is the leather-wrapped shift and parking-brake knobs, which lend a premium  feel while maintaining Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” performance philosophy.

The ’12 Mazda3 has a revised front fascia and updated 5-point grille opening, largely due to criticism of the outgoing model’s fascia, which some said resembled a smile.

The car’s aerodynamic properties are enhanced by the addition of a larger, smoother engine cover, front-tire deflectors and a clamshell silencer positioned on an angle underneath the vehicle to minimize drag.

The result is a 0.27 coefficient of drag for the Skyactiv sedan, a 7% improvement over current models. The hatchback has a 0.29 Cd, also a 7% gain.

The exterior tweaks were much needed and should bolster sales by luring customers who previously were turned off by the polarizing design.  

The Mazda3 is the Hiroshima-based auto maker’s highest-volume model in the U.S., accounting for 40% of its business, so it was imperative the vehicle represent the company’s best effort. For the most part, it does.

While the ’12 Mazda3 is solid all-around, we look forward to more Skyactiv applications in future models, including a new exhaust system and a long-awaited diesel engine.

If Mazda can sway the public with its Skyactiv technologies, the sky indeed is the limit for the auto maker.

bpope@wardsauto.com

 

’12 Mazda3

Vehicle type:Front-engine, FWD, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 2.0L DOHC DI I-4

Power: 155 hp @ 6,000 rpm (SAE net)

Torque: 148 lb.-ft. (201 Nm) @ 4,100 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 103.9 ins. (263.9 cm)

Overall length: 180.9 ins. (459.4 cm)

Overall height: 57.9 ins. (147.0 cm)

Curb weight: 2,950 lbs. (1,338 kg)

Base price: $15,200

Fuel economy: 28/40 mpg (8.4-5.8 L/100 km)

Competition: Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla, VW Jetta

 

Pro/Con

Manual gearbox top-notch     /    Automatic transmission nothing special

Fuel economy improved   /  Failed to reach advertised 40 mpg

Upgraded interior     /     Competitor interiors getting better, too