2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv - "Bah, hybrids"

After a week spent with the 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv G [for Gasoline], we could simply rave about how this sporting compact that will deliver 33 glorious miles per gallon of combined city highway fuel economy right out of the box on regular unleaded gasoline.

But we are “Drive…He Said”, so we wanted to talk about how Mazda has effectively said “Bah, to [costly and complex] gas-electric hybrids”, in the face of quickly approaching more stringent CAFE fuel economy standards.

The Mazda3 was already the darling of the sporting compact sedan segment, with its renowned snickety-snick manual transmissions,  accurate electric assist steering, easy to modulate brakes, just the right amount of suspension damping, and responsive, if not overly torquey engines. In suit with intuitive controls, exhibiting excellent input feedback, Mazda makes “point and shoot” driving a reality in a front drive compact car.  Mazda-speak:”Zoom, Zoom

No longer a member of the deep-pocketed Ford clan of automakers, Mazda has “Zig-Zagged” past expensive investments in battery development and production. Instead, the engineers went back to improve what has served the motoring world so well for over 100 years, the petroleum powered internal combustion engine (ICE).

Incorporating the latest advanced metal alloys to reduce reciprocating mass and increase internal strength, overall piston compression ratios were increased to levels of 12:1. Formerly the purview of diesel engines, the benefit is a spark ignited gasoline-air mixture which burns more completely, effectively squeezing more energy out of the fuel and reducing hydrocarbon emissions.

Mazda has also applied Skyactiv enhancements to its transmissions, through internal friction and mass reductions. Mazda claims that our Mazda3’s optional six-speed automatic transmission suffers less rotational losses through a quicker locking torque converter.

Skeptics might label Mazda’s Skyactiv technology gimmickry. If so, then what are BMW’s Valvetronic or Fiat’s Multiair throttle-less variable valve lift intake systems, or, for that matter, direct injection,variable valve timing,  turbocharging or supercharging?

Sounds too simple to be true? Well the numbers speak for themselves. No hyper-miling required. The Mazda3 2.0 liter 4 cylinder engine makes 155 hp @ 6000 rpm, and 148 lb-ft of twist at 4100 rpm. An EPA highway fuel economy rating of 40 mpg. Mated to the Skyactiv autobox, acceleration from a standstill to 60 requires an acceptable 9 seconds.

What we really sought to discover was how well Skyactiv G fuel savings efforts mate with the traditional Mazda3 driving personality.

We are pleased to report MOSTLY rather well.

The exception being the tardy throttle response until the engine speed rises above 2500 rpm. Somewhat reminiscent of  turbocharger-lag. What Mazda3 Skyactiv drivers won’t have to face is the [gas-electric] “hybrid effect”, such as: engine start-stopping, hunting CVT shifts, regenerative braking which can be tricky to modulate, or the extra weight of batteries which diminish the feel of chassis control.

Our 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv G model was the range-topping “Grand Touring i” package, with the added Technology package which packs a hefty $25,000 price tag.  Make no mistake, we like our power windows and hands-free communication (though the Mazda3’s hands-free system requires manual entry of phone book contacts).

Amenities such as smooth leather seat surfaces, a moonroof, a Bose surround sound hi-fi system and a blind spot warning system are nice to have.

But, what’s with the compact navigation system which features a 4″ display screen or what you might get if you turned a nav enabled smart phone horizontal? Or the lack of a automated climate control feature at the price? And we remain un-convinced of the advantages of pivoting bi-xenon headlights in anything less than a near supercar, especially when the high replacement costs drive up insurance premiums.

Ah, marketing is alive and well at Mazda.

When it comes to occupant and cargo utility, Skyactiv power- and drive-trains cannot remedy the Mazda3‘s deficiencies to the standard set by the Volkswagen Jetta . Where two adult passengers will find the Mazda3’s rear seat cozy,  the same two and a third, will find the Jetta’s a veritable stretch-limo. And thanks to a protruding rear shelf speaker, the Mazda3’s trunk holds only two large suitcases to the Jetta’s three.

For many, Mazda3‘s more predictable and controllable driving characteristics, thanks to an independent rear suspension, aggressive 205/55 tires on 16″ alloy wheels, 4-wheel disc brakes and more responsive steering, will win out the day against the Jetta. Ride compliance might not be Jetta cush, although it remains as tautly civilized as C1 platform cousin, once removed, Ford Focus .

In a case of avoiding haste to re-invent the wheel, the 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv seems to impart the following message: “Don’t dump all your money into Lithium mining.”

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