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2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv

2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv
2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv Wheelbase Media

It’s common for automakers to give labels to their more fuel-efficient offerings, whether that efficiency is real or perceived. It’s marketing and sales at its finest.

There’s Ford’s EcoBoost line of engines as well as Chevrolet’s Ecotec and eAssist. And of course there’s Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive electric/gas system.

Mazda, however, has taken the name game one step further by branding a whole car with its new “Skyactiv” magic wand.

The rationale behind this approach is straightforward. Mazda thinks traditional gasoline and diesel engines will remain the most popular form of automotive propulsion for the next 20 years or so. It therefore makes sense to continue refining those powerplants to be more efficient rather than spending millions of dollars on alternative-fuel vehicles, which make up a tiny slice of the pie.

Fair enough, but the reality is that other manufacturers are also refining internal combustion while still finding the resources to explore hybrids and electrics. Just look at the Chevrolet Volt. But what you won’t read elsewhere is that Skyactiv is really a wholesale approach to a better driving experience with a reengineered chassis, transmissions and steering. Fuel economy is just one aspect.

But that ideal splits the Mazda3 into two camps for the 2012 model year: the highly revised Skyactiv model that even carries exterior styling updates; and the carryover model from 2011. Skyactiv is not an engine or an option package, but rather a whole different car. Skyactiv will next find the 2013 CX-5, which replaces the Tribute.

Compared to the standard Mazda3, there’s a revised —‑as in more aerodynamic — nose and tail. There’s also a new Skyactiv 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that’s brimming with high-tech tricks. It produces 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. The base non-Skyactiv 2.0-liter engine makes 148 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. It’s only available in base the sedan. The optional 167-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder also carries over in both sedan and hatch.

The Skyactiv’s performance is achieved from a higher-than-usual 12.0:1 compression ratio. Usually this would necessitate a liquid diet of premium gas, but numerous changes in fuel management and engine design allow it to burn lower-octane — and less expensive — regular fuel.

With improved driving in mind, the six-speed manual gearbox has been designed to offer similar direct-shifting action and feel as the transmission in Mazda’s MX-5 Miata roadster. That means reduced shifting distance — or throw — with less effort. Reducing the number of moving parts has also made the transmission lighter and more compact.

The Skyactiv’s six-speed automatic is the real fuel miser here with a consumption rating of 28 mpg city and 40 highway. That’s a major improvement over the 24/33 rating of the five-speed-automatic/base-2.0 combo. The manual-gearbox Skyactiv’s 27/39 numbers are nearly as good as the automatic’s and they significantly outperform the 25/33 rating for the base 2.0 equipped with the five-speed manual.

Plans call for new tech that shuts off the engine when the Mazda3 is stopped and instantly starts it up again when the brake pedal is released. That should provide a noticeable boost in economy to city dwellers who have to contend with gridlock.

The Skyactiv Mazda3 also receives a more rigid body structure plus its own specific suspension tuning. An all-new electro-hydraulic power-steering unit is designed to transmit a lighter feel at low speeds along with greater high-speed feedback.

A few hundred miles of seat time confirms that the nature of the Mazda3 has changed for the better. Although hardly a rocket ship (check out the 263-horsepower Mazdaspeed3 if that’s your pleasure), the new model drives in a much sportier manner and certainly feels peppier. And actual real-world fuel economy is also a pleasant surprise.

The slightly more dressed-up interior won’t be confused for a luxury car, but the seats are excellent for long-distance hikes and cabin and trunk size remains as generous as before.

At $19,250 ($19, 750 for the hatchback), including destination charges, the Skyactiv Mazda3 is priced about $3,250 more than the base car with its lesser powertrain, and the Touring trim designation endows it with some added features and a bit more bling. More importantly it changes the Mazda3’s character in a way that heightens driving pleasure while reducing fuel consumption, making it well worth the price.