On the window sticker of the 2012 Mazda 3 SkyActiv automatic sedan it states that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates this car at 40 MPG on the highway. Right now, 40 is the number that matters. According to the maturation of Jay-Z, 30 is the new 20, but when it comes to cars, 40 is the new 30. The ability to rate a normal gasoline powered car at 40 MPG highway is one of those figures that manufacturers are happy to tout.
In order to hit this magic number Mazda combined several technologies and called them SkyActiv. The question that remained for me was if Mazda left the rest of its compelling formula behind on the path to a 40 MPG number.
For a more detailed description of SkyActiv, take a look at the video below. The executive summary is that it is a bunch of friction reducing and energy saving technologies that do not sink to the level of a hybrid drivetrain. This is a win; in most places they have made things more simple and have been able to improve efficiency. Simple and light will always beat complex and heavy. No contest. Around the Internet, there is quite a bit of debate about whether or not 40 MPG is a fair rating for the Mazda 3 SkyActiv. Allow me to close this debate. 40 MPG on the highway at 55 Miles Per Hour is easily attainable. Driven the way the EPA tests, the Mazda 3 SkyActiv will easily beat its rating, both highway and city. Whether this rating system is fair to the way people drive today with most speed limits at 65 MPH or higher, is a different debate – and one I do not plan to touch today.
Good news then? Well… A bit more meandering before we get to a conclusion. The other thing that Mazda does is tout their cars as drivers cars attaching their ZOOM-ZOOM tag line to all advertisements and on their website. This is another promise delivered. The Mazda 3 is the best driving (front-wheel drive) compact sedan on the market. The 155 horsepower engine motivates the 3000 pound car appropriately, and the suspension tuning provides a genuinely sporting character. When driving the Mazda 3 you may actually search out a back road to drive and that is something that cannot be said for many of its competitors.
Great news then? Well… There are two areas that prevent the Mazda 3 from being a clear cut leader in its class. First, that sporting suspension tuning results in a noticeable trade-off in ride quality. I have to admit that prior to having children, I might not have noticed so clearly. After driving around a sleeping child I can attest that the Mazda 3 is busier on choppy roads that its competition. To me, this is a forgivable trade off. What is not forgivable is the quality and layout of the interior. When the Mazda 3 first hit the market it was a revolution. It was the compact car that offered class leading interior materials as well as luxury level options. It lead the way in the US market for a small car that could be appointed with options like heated leather and navigation. Today, the interior of the Mazda has fallen behind the rest of the market. If it was just a small navigation screen and an overly simple interface it would be forgivable. What lets the interior down of the 3 is the fit and finish. Panel gaps are inconsistent and components don’t fit together well.
The Mazda 3 that we tested was the Mazda 3 i Grand Touring 4-door. This model gets you most of the luxury items that are available on the 3 as well as the SkyActiv engine and the 6-speed automatic. This model starts at $22,550 with $795 in destination charges. The model that we tested also included the $1400 tech package and the $200 interior lighting package for a total $24,945. The tech package does get you some neat features like adaptive (turning) Xenon headlights, but the navigation is so disappointing that it makes the package feel overpriced. Our recommendation would be the Mazda 3 Touring with the very good automatic, which would come in just under $20,000. At that price you get something sporty, economical, and practical. The extra 25% that the Grand Touring model with the tech package costs is not worth the money, and in fact causes the Mazda 3 to feel more outdated than it is.
With the Mazda 3 SkyActiv Mazda is still honest with its ZOOM-ZOOM tag line. They have made a small, good driving car that can manage 40 highway miles on a gallon of regular gasoline. The odd thing is that, in a car, which less than 10 years ago had us so excited about premium features in a compact car, has managed age so poorly. We are happy that options that were once reserved for the most expensive cars are still available in economy packages, but just like their expensive counterparts, these features to be updated more quickly than the rest of the car. In that, Mazda has done something rare. Mazda has managed to make a less-expensive model the most desirable one in their lineup. If enough buyers heed our advice and steer clear of the Mazda 3 Grand Touring and its pricey options, the company may have cost itself some profits, but consumers will win.
Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.