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2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv – First Drive

Its that time of the year when the news is full of the successes of the weekend gridiron heroes. You know the ones: the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. The linemen only draw notice when they are blamed for the heroes’ failures.

Transmissions are the linemen of the car world; indispensible but overlooked unless there is a problem. So it was interesting to see Mazda’s presentation of a refreshed version of its critically acclaimed Mazda3 compact model, because of the focus on the work to get all the components working together to maximum advantage. You know; as a team.

Carmakers regularly pay lip service to the need to develop all of a car’s attributes in concert, but the truth is that engines, transmissions, suspensions, brakes and bodyshells are mostly mix-and-match subassemblies that carmakers plug together like Lego blocks to make cars.

But as the first model bearing a suite of fuel-saving technologies that Mazda dubs “Skyactiv,” the Mazda3 serves as an example of random pieces can’t be pasted together anymore if efficiency is the goal.

That’s because the engine, as installed in the Mazda3, isn’t as powerful and efficient as it will be when it appears in the CX-5 crossover, because the CX-5 was built to accommodate the Skyactiv engine, while the Mazda3 was an existing platform.

What difference does that make? It means that the Mazda3 lacks the underhood space for the racing-style exhaust header that is part of the Skyactiv technology. The absence of that header pipe means the engine can’t run at the specified 12:1 compression ratio, leaving the Mazda3 short on power and efficiency in comparison to the models to come.

But it does get the new Skyactiv transmisisons, automotive linemen that let the heroes shine.

Inside job

As the 2012 Mazda3 is a refresh of an existing successful model, the cabin changes are evolutionary, a matter of cleaning up loose ends. A small but significant improvement to the cohesiveness of the dashboard is a switch from an amber monochrome information display to one with white lettering that matches the other instruments.

All of the trim is upgraded, including a richly finished matte-texture plastic dashboard and brushed aluminum-look trim. The cloth seats now feature nicer fabric, so skipping the optional leather feels less like a sacrifice and more like a smart value.

As before, the driver grips a racing-style small diameter leather-wrapped steering wheel, now with standard steering wheel controls for all trim levels. Mazda has also responded to the advance of technology by dropping the obsolescent 6-disc CD changer as a factory option, replacing it with a segment-exclusive blind spot monitoring system.

Slippery skin

Outside, thankfully, the goofy Joker grin has been wiped from the Mazda3’s face. Mazda tactfully describes this adjustment as corporate responsiveness to customer feedback. Secretly they must have been feeling a bit red-faced about the silly excess previously heaped on the car by a now-departed designer.

But they not only cleaned up the car’s lines aesthetically, Mazda was also able to trim the coefficient of drag down to a segment-leading 0.27, contributing to the Skyactiv version’s 40 mpg EPA highway rating.

The 2012 Mazda3 isn’t only better to look at, it is also better for seeing from, thanks to the addition of bi-xenon headlights (that means it has the super-bright xenon high-intensity discharge lighting for both high and low beams), headlights that automatically point where the front wheels are steered and automatic rain-sensing windshield wipers like those on premium brand cars.

Still zoom-zoomy

The new Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter gasoline four-cylinder (future models will offer Skyactive-D diesels for even greater fuel economy) is rated at an impressive 155 hp, while delivering 40 mpg highway without the handicap of grip-impaired low-rolling-resistance tires.

While the heroic engine draws the accolades, the two six-speed transmissions do a lot of blocking up front to contribute to the effort. Front-drive cars use cables to actuate the manual transmission. This typically (and understandably) gives them vague shift feel compared to direct-acting rear-drive transmissions, as on the industry benchmark MX-5 Miata.

Mazda has refined every part of the cable system to eliminate slack and slop, giving it precision that approaches that of the Miata. But the bigger news is the job the company did with the automatic transmission.

Most buyer choose automatics and are accustomed to their smooth acceleration from a stop, their ability to hold their position on hills effortlessly and their steady smooth progression through the gears at higher speeds. But automatics normal extract a penalty in efficiency for all this user-friendliness.

Mazda attacked that problem at its source: the torque converter. This is a hydraulic fan that connects the engine to the transmission and allows for the transmission to be in drive while the engine is running but the car isn’t moving. Give it some gas and the fan blows hydraulic fluid harder on the downwind fan, which starts to turn, easing the car from a stop with effortless smoothness.

But that same interface isn’t efficient at higher speeds, so Mazda has slipped a computer-controlled clutch in there too. At speeds above 5 mph, the clutch controls the flow of power, just like on a manual transmission, giving the Mazda3 the smoothness and comfort of an automatic with the efficiency of a manual. That’s some impressive blocking.

Confusing complexity

The Mazda product planners would disagree, but we’d say that a compact car line with seven different models or trim levels and four different engines is too confusing. They have reasons why each one is critical, especially to a company with the kind of sporting aims Mazda has. But having a cheap 2.0-liter for entry models, the efficient Skyactive 2.0-liter for more than half of customers, the muscular 2.5-liter for sport-minded customers and the turbocharged Speed3 for hot-rodders seems like needless complexity for manufacturing and for dealer inventories.

The Skyactive model starts at $19,300 for the four-door i Touring model with the six-speed manual transmission, with the five-door priced $500 more. The i Grand Touring version of both cars slathers on more luxury equipment.

So many trims and packages and engines combined with the usual variety of colors make it increasingly unlikely that the car you want will be on a dealer’s lot. As masterful a product as the Mazda3 is, be prepared to wade through a confounding variety of options and choices when picking your car. This superlative team deserves a simplified playbook.

Mazda is a small company with a memorable philosophy in its “zoom-zoom” ad campaign. Unlike so many slogans, this one has endured because of its truth. These guys love cars. If you love cars too, you should probably be looking at the ones they build.

Because it is small, Mazda’s marketing budget is commensurately small and it is often overlooked by buyers who reflexively consider Toyota, Honda, and maybe one wildcard like Nissan, Ford or Hyundai.

But the compact landscape is changing fast, with the Chevrolet Cruze topping sales charts in recent months. While people are breaking old habits, they need to be looking at the Mazda3, if they have a hint of zoom-zoom in them. It only seems fair to recognize the good work being done by the linemen in the transmission department.


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