2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky
2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky. Click image to enlarge

First Drive: 2012 Mazda3
Test Drive: 2012 Mazda3 Sport GS-Sky

Manufacturer’s web site
Mazda Canada

Review and photos by Chris Chase

Photo Gallery:
2012 Mazda3

The fuel saving race is in full swing, and every manufacturer in on it is taking a different approach; Mazda’s suite of SkyActiv technologies seems like a simple, elegant one.

The 2012 Mazda3 was the first of the company’s vehicles to feature SkyActiv technology, in the form of a direct-injected 2.0 L engine and six-speed automatic and manual transmissions, all exclusive to the GS-Sky model. Chassis changes aimed at reducing weight will come to this compact car for 2013; the first Mazda model to get the full deal is the recently introduced CX-5 compact crossover.

2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky
2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky
2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky. Click image to enlarge

My, tester, a GS-Sky sedan with the automatic transmission, is the most efficient version of this car, with Natural Resources Canada ratings of 7.1/4.9 L/100 km (city/highway). In early February city driving, this car averaged 9 L/100 km. Bear in mind that I had to calculate this figure manually (using math – gasp!), because Mazda doesn’t include a trip computer in this car; the top-end GT is the only one that has that feature). It’s a curious omission in a car whose mission is to save fuel.

But I digress: 9.0 L/100 km isn’t terrible considering the chilly weather, but I expected better. James Bergeron drove the same car (http://www.autos.ca/mazda/day-by-day-review-2012-mazda3-gs-sky ) to an average of 7.8 L/100 km, but his daily driving routine is mostly highway, where mine is almost all city slogging.

Beyond the trick engine and transmissions, the GS-Sky gets a few extra goodies that didn’t come standard in the 2011 Mazda3 GS, like heated seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and premium illuminated entry. And as that suggests, the GS-Sky is now the only way to get this mid-range Mazda3 trim, which slots in between the GX and GT. Standard kit carried over from last year includes alloy wheels, air conditioning, heated mirrors, automatic wipers and headlights, Bluetooth, cruise control, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and a six-speaker sound system.

Along with the new fuel-saving technology comes a lower price for the GS-Sky, compared to the 2011 GS: my tester’s starting price was $20,195, $600 less than last year’s GS model with its five-speed auto-box. Mazda added the $2,395 Luxury Package to the car I drove (it includes fog lights, leather seats, power driver’s seat, sliding centre console cover and vinyl door trim), for an as-tested price of $22,590.

2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky
2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky. Click image to enlarge

The good news is that the extra efficiency of the SkyActiv powertrain is virtually transparent: aside from taller gearing that results in lower engine speeds on the highway (the engine turns just 1,800 rpm in sixth gear at 100 km/h) and the extra forward gear ratio, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference from a comparable 2011 model. It’s not impossible, however: the SkyActiv motor doesn’t idle as smoothly as the regular 2.0 L.

A nice side effect of the new transmission is that the engine is barely audible in highway cruising. It’s a lovely gearbox too, shifting smoothly and when it’s supposed to, and offering prompt downshifts in response to aggressive throttle inputs for highway passing. The tall, fuel-saving gear ratios would normally make for lazier acceleration, but that is offset by the SkyActiv motor’s extra output (compared to the 2.0 L used in the GX model), up 7 hp (to 155) and a more significant 13 lb-ft of torque (for 148), both of which peak at lower engine speeds.

Sharp handling remains a hallmark, too, thanks to responsive steering. That appeals to me, but the harsh ride doesn’t; something got lost in the translation from the first- to second-generation versions of this car, and I still miss that first-gen’s more compliant suspension.

2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky
2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky. Click image to enlarge

This year also marks a mid-cycle refresh for the Mazda3, last redesigned in 2010; the changes include a new grille and front bumper, and similarly subtle updates to the dashboard. There wasn’t much that needed doing, as this car remains one of the richest-looking (and feeling) compacts available.

Too many powertrains conceived to save fuel do so at the expense of driving pleasure. Mazda has avoided that trap and found a way to make one of Canada’s most popular small cars a little thriftier (but not as much as I’d hoped for) without diluting the driving experience. But this car’s performance, economy-wise, makes me wonder how much of a reduction in fuel consumption is possible without resorting to the more extreme measures taken lately by other manufacturers. I’m thinking of specifically of the 2012 Subaru Impreza’s more efficient, but smaller and less-powerful engine, and Kia’s driver-selectable (thankfully) ActiveEco system, which sucks all the fun out of driving the cars it’s installed in. And with a price that’s already over the $20,000 mark, I might consider spending another $3,000 or so to get into a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, whose fuel savings will be even more significant. That car is bigger inside, too, and rides more comfortably.

Suffice it to say I’m more interested to see what the full SkyActiv treatment will do for the 2013 Mazda3 than I was in my experience with this 2012 version.

Pricing: 2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky automatic sedan
  • Base price: $20,195
  • Options: $2,395 (Luxury Package of leather seats, fog lights, power driver’s seat, sliding centre console and vinyl door trim)
  • A/C tax: $100
  • Freight: $1,595
  • Price as tested: $24,285

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