We re-visit Mazda’s SKYACTIV 3, now with a hatch and manual transmission.
Say what you want about the merits of automatic transmissions when it comes to fuel consumption, performance, ease-of-use around town and so forth—all true, but if you ask me, one of the most rewarding aspects of driving comes when you nail that perfect downshift, or even just moving up and down through the gears. Next to the steering wheel, the shift lever is one of the best ways for drivers to communicate with their car; it also remains one of the few mechanical aspects of any given car that is purely analog with no electronic buffer in between what the driver asks, and what the car does.
Which is why when we first tried the Mazda3 SKYACTIV sedan back in March, we knew that we’d have to give the manual a shot as well. Especially since that along with the new 2.0-litre SKYACTIV-G four-cylinder motor, the only mechanical bits that the 3 gets from Mazda’s new SKYACTIV tech is the SKYACTIV-Drive transmission. It’s a more compact and lighter-weight unit, featuring a lever-throw that Mazda claims is almost as short and precise as that which is found on the MX-5 roadster.
I can’t quite concur (that MX-5 set-up is one of the world’s best, so that was a pretty lofty standard set by Mazda for the 3) after sampling the 3, but what I can say is that the new geometry is a big step forward over what was found in the old car. Problems I experienced then such as a sticky lever that made the 2nd to 3rd gear switch a pain and a rubbery feel have been mostly eradicated, although I did still get caught on the 2-3 transition once or twice in this latest car. The result is a much more sporty feeling than both the old 3 and the auto sedan we tried, and in a car like this, that’s an important feeling to achieve.
Other than the transmission and the hatchback body style, the Sport is identical in every way to the sedan (our tester, however, had the Leather Package, which adds an additional $1,300 to the cost of the sedan)—it starts at $1,000 more, which I’d be willing to pay considering the practicality added by having a hatch.
Plus, the hatch is a slightly better-looking car than the sedan, as hatch models often are. The Sport just seems much more compact and ready for action in hatch mode—I’m especially a fan of the roof-mounted spoiler which gets winglets on either end to add a real race-car like look to the proceedings, but manages to stay away from the boy-racer styling often associated with factory spoilers. Then under the spoiler the hatch itself seems angled just right to prevent the 3 Sport from looking like a station wagon, but doesn’t infringe on interior cargo room while it’s at it. Very nice.
It does indeed have a level of practicality that the sedan simply cannot provide, especially considering that a bit of trunk space was sacrificed in that car in order to make for a more roomy interior. The hatch doesn’t suffer from that affliction; you have the same interior space, and more cargo room to boot.
The rear seats split 60/40 and can almost be folded flat which is great. I would like to have been able to remove the rear tonneau cover as it makes fitting taller items more of a chore than it needs to be. Still, at 481 litres with the seats up and 1,213 if you fold them, there should be plenty of room for vacation needs, sports equipment or trips to Costco and that practicality alone will be enough to sway folks away from the sedan and into the hatch, even if they care little for the sporty aspects or the fact that they’ll be paying a $1,000 premium.
However, I hope they do appreciate the handling, steering and performance aspects of the car because this is a very sporty hatch; remember that Mazda has always espoused the “if it ain’t fun to drive, then it ain’t a Mazda” mantra.
Like the sedan, suspension duties are handled by independent struts up front and a multi-link set-up at the rear, with stabilizer bars at both ends. The result is a very, very athletic-feeling car that demands to be driven with gumption into the corners and rewards you when you do. The fact that the hatch weighs less than the sedan also helps in the handling department.
The handling is really what this car is all about because it’s not really a straight-line barnstormer. The SKYACTIV lump loses half a litre to not-so equipped car so you push it harder to reach its 155 horsepower limit; you’ve got to rev it quite far up the dial (to 6,000 r.p.m.) if you want to access all 155 ponies. The peak torque figure of 148 ft.-lb., however, comes at a slightly saner 4,100 r.p.m.
Of course, while driving pleasure is a big part of the SKYACTIV mantra, fuel efficiency will always be number one and if you don’t keep sending that needle to the redline and beyond, you can expect to see fuel usage at a rate of 7.6 litres per 100 kilometers in the city and 5.6 on the highway (it should be noted that the auto actually gets slightly better numbers; 7.1 and 4.9, respectively). Our calculations, however, averaged a little more—we saw about eight litres in the combined cycle, and there is no on-board computer to tell us otherwise. Which, I might add, is a little chintzy on the part of Mazda; we have all this tech to help us reduce our consumption, and you’re not even going to let us track it? Hmm.
However, this stands as a small niggle in what is otherwise a fine auto that definitely merits it’s sales figures—I would be surprised if I drove 15 minutes in most parts of Canada without seeing one. This new SKYACTIV tech, then is really some tasty icing on the cake.
2012 Mazda3 SKYACTIV Specifications
Price as tested: $21,240
Body Type: 5-door, 5-passenger hatchback
Powertrain Layout: Front engine/front-wheel drive
Engine: 2.0 litre SKYACTIV-G inline-4 DOHC
Horsepower: 155 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft): 148 @ 4,100 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed SKYACTIV-Drive manual
Curb weight: 1,318 kg (2,906 lb)
Fuel economy, city:
Claimed: 7.6L/100 km (31 US mpg)
Fuel economy, highway:
Claimed: 5.1L/100 km (46 US mpg)
Observed combined: 8.1 L/100 km (29 US mpg)