Mazda3 SKYACTIV is gourmet engineering at early-bird special prices

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by TOM VOELK / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on March 23, 2012 at 7:13 AM

Updated Friday, Mar 23 at 10:48 AM

My wife and I recently splurged at a very nice restaurant. The décor was trendy, the cuisine quite good. The check is something our Visa card and we would like to forget though. Afterward, Mariko posed this question- Was that expensive meal really any better than the favorite picks at our favorite affordable Chinese haunt?

Yes, I appreciated the swanky experience, but it’s tough to beat an order of Szechwan Crisp Beef. Appealing, affordable and someone else does the cooking and cleaning.

The same goes for cars. The appealing and affordable part anyway, cars don’t cook or clean.

Like good Chinese food, Mazda3 is easy to buy, a great value and offers up a bit of spice. Less edible though. You can spend a lot more on other vehicles and not get the same driving satisfaction. Mazda3 offers auto enthusiasts with smaller bank accounts big driving fun. Historically though it’s been a little thirsty with fuel. 

Enter SKYACTIVE

What does SKYACTIV mean? Sorry, it’s not a flying car. SKYACTIV is Mazda’s new marketing term that describes a whole bunch of techniques and technologies that make their cars cleaner and more fuel-efficient. In a nutshell, the SKYACTIVE Mazda3 is slightly more aerodynamic, gets six-speed gearboxes instead of five cogs, and uses a new engine bristling with tech. In short it’s like “gourmet engineering” at “early-bird special” prices.

Let’s break it down. In the aerodynamics department, the undercarriage gets smoothed out a bit and the rear fascia is different from standard 3s. The new front fascia, common to all of the models, has less of a grin this time around. SKYACTIV’s aero numbers have dropped to Cd .27 for the sedan and .29 for the hatch I’m driving. That’s about seven percent better.

Next up, transmissions. The six-speed manual in my tester has an overdrive to keep it efficient at highways speeds. Short throws and precise engagement make it best-in-class, hands down. Mazda says the six-speed automatic combines the key advantages of a conventional auto box, a CVT, and a dual clutch transmission. I have not driven it but have heard good things concerning quick decisive shifts, with some respected auto writers preferring it over the manual.

Last but hardly least is the 2.0-liter SKYACTIV G engine. G stands for gasoline, there’s a SKYACTIV D which is a diesel (not available in the USA). Topped by a pretty blue engine shroud, the four-cylinders make 155 horsepower @ 6,000 RPM and 148 ft-lb or torque @ 4100 RPM.

Here’s where marketing SKYACTIV might prove tricky for Mazda. The average consumer could probably care less about the special direct fuel injection with multi-hole injectors, unique piston cavity shapes that allow a shorter combustion time, and a high compression ratio of 12:1 which is up there with some Ferraris (Euro models that drink premium fuel run at a lofty 14:1). Most people will just stop at the more power and better fuel economy part and be happy. 

How Fuel Efficient Is It?

The manual transmission car is EPA rated at 27 city, 38 highway. Go with the automatic and it rises to 39 MPG highway (40 MPG if you go with the sedan). That’s about 21 percent better than Mazda’s MZR 2.0-liter engine. But here’s the best part- you don’t have to drive like a sedated Prius owner to get those numbers. While running errands, I bopped around town in a frisky way and the trip computer read 27 MPG. Driving to Tacoma and back on a rainy day (which reduces mileage) I saw 39 at 65 MPH. Makes a guy wonder what it could do under light throttle.

I was having too much of a good time to try it. The best part of the Mazda3 has always been the compelling driving dynamics. 0-60 in a SKYACTIV model happens in just under eight seconds, making it brisk, not fast. But sometimes it’s more fun to drive a car like this hard than a powerful car easy. Power is matched nicely to the chassis dynamics making it fun to fling around corners and dodge through urban snarl. Mazda3’s ride quality isn’t harsh but doesn’t lean much in a hard turn. It’s easy to know what the tires are doing through the leather wrapped steering wheel too. Brakes stop surely with very good modulation.

Road noise is a touch higher than average at highways speeds. That’s typical for Mazda’s sporty approach to driving and a reminder that SKYACTIV is not a special “sport” model. Performance dynamics like these are what make a Mazda a Mazda.

The View From The Cockpit

Mazda3 started the trend of premium interiors in compact cars, and things still look and feel good. The sweeping dash uses soft touch material and there’s enough silver and cloth trim to make the environment look decent.  Current 3 owners will notice the center stack looses its silver coloring this year. Beverly Braga of Mazda says it was changed so controls were more readable. Seats get a grippy fabric and deep bolstering that hold snugly during sporty driving.

There’s Bluetooth for phones and music streaming plus a mini-plug audio jack. What? No USB port? No direct iPod integration? That’s unusual considering the demographic Mazda is chasing. Knobs and controls feel OK, not overly silky though. Two displays close to eye level give handy information and for 2012 they now match (last year they were oddly different colors). Still, they remain monochrome and coarse looking, especially compared to Honda Civic’s multi-colored unit.

Friends, Family and TP

In the back seat, your friends will be thinking there’s more zoom-zoom than room-room. Again, par for the coarse with Mazda3. At 5’9”, Evil Twin finds there’s just enough leg and foot room when sitting behind me. There are seatbelts for three, two will be comfortable.  Storage in the door is handy and the fold-down armrest has cupholders. There’s no power port for phone charging in the back but it’s easy enough to use the one in the center console. Just one seat pocket. The back seats drop 60/40 for cargo flexibility.

As I stated earlier Mazda3 is available as a sedan but hatchbacks are so usable. I mean, come on, who doesn’t load up on TP like I do every week? Huh? I always do the TP Trunk Test with the second row in the usable position and the 3 scores a six, which is about average in class.

While the 3 gets a subtle redo with improved aerodynamics, not a lot of people will notice. The sweeping lines might be too aggressive for those who gravitate toward Corollas but just right for the intended market. And even though the smile up front is toned down, the fun isn’t.

Pricing

A standard Mazda3 sedan starts at around 16 grand with destination. To get the SKYACTIVE engine and gear box, retail prices begins at 19.5 My tester goes for $20,625. Completely loaded with luxury car stuff like heated leather seats, Bose sound, navigation, and blind spot warning, and spoiler, it can zoom-zoom up past 26K. But you don’t need that stuff to have a good time, even a base Mazda3 with SKYACTIV is great fun. fewer emissions and better fuel economy is icing on the cake.

Other than Mazda3’s sporty handling, what I like about SKYACIV is the promise of refining the internal combustion engine. For those whose commutes contain long stretches of highway, it could be a more cost effective choice than a hybrid. Mazda is a small company and not likely to develop their own hybrid powertrain, there are rumors of a diesel for the US. But for now we have SKYACTIV and it is good and affordable. Like Szechwan Crisp Beef.  Hmm, now I’m hungry.

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