Despite the ink and bits-n-bytes being expended touting the second coming of the electric car age, which first dawned in the 1890s and amped up rapidly but briefly before its batteries went flat, professional services giant KPMG’s latest global senior auto exec survey states “the internal combustion engine isn’t going away any time soon.”
And one of the reasons is the SkyActiv technology-enhanced drivetrain available in Mazda’s revamped-for-2012 Mazda3 compact sedan and hatchback.
The gasoline-fuelled engine at the heart of the SkyActiv system indicates the industry isn’t done yet in wringing more economy and performance out of the internal combustion process, which got its start centuries ago by making power producing bangs with gunpowder and coal dust.
In case you’re interested, the consensus of industry leaders was that electric vehicles will comprise less than 15 per cent of the global market by 2025, with North American and European execs figuring it will be between 6 and 10 per cent.
“Electromobility” is definitely part of companies’ long-term strategizing, but almost two-thirds of those interviewed felt further optimization of the internal combustion engine offers the potential for greater efficiency and carbon emission reduction in the short term.
And optimize is what Mazda’s engineers – perhaps having time on their hands after decades of figuring out how to make Wankel’s rotary engine work and then finding out their bosses may not want it anymore – have done to the Mazda3 GS SkyActiv model we’re looking at here.
The big changes are to its engine and transmission, but are part of an approach that involves giving the same detailed treatment to virtually all components to maximize fuel economy and minimize its carbon tire-print. Mazda’s SkyActiv goal is a 30 per cent fuel economy improvement across its model range by 2015.
The SkyActiv 2.0-litre engine is a conventional-enough four-cylinder, twin-cam, 16-valve, variable valve timing design similar to the existing 2.0-litre that’s still offered in the base GX model. But with myriad internal tweaks that include a bore and stroke ratio reversed from the latter’s short-stroke “over-square” to an “under-square” design with a longer piston stroke and narrower bore.
In the SkyActiv engine, the bore is now 83.5 mm and the stroke 91.2 mm compared with 87.5 mm and 83.5 mm in the other 2.0-litre unit. The narrower bore and cavities in the piston crowns allow a high 12:1 (versus the other version’s 10:1) compression ratio that enhances combustion efficiency.
This new motor makes 155 hp versus the GX engine’s 148 hp. Long stroke engines have traditionally been torque-makers and so is this one, producing 148 lb-ft (versus 135 lb-ft), with plenty available in the mid-range where it aids drivability.
Two transmissions are offered: a cleverly rethought manual six-speed and a brilliantly reconceived six-speed automatic. The latter combines the attributes of a conventional automatic’s smooth torque-converter at launch followed by snappy dual-clutch gearbox shifts. An electronic management system co-ordinates throttle application, engine torque delivery and transmission response.
Does all this actually mean you burn less fuel? Yes, it does; Mazda claims a 15 percent reduction and a matching cut in emissions.
The GS SkyActiv with automatic tested is rated at 7.1 litres/100 km city and 4.9 highway compared to the standard engine and five-speed automatic’s 8.7 city/6.0 highway. With the six-speed manual gearbox it is rated at 7.6 city/5.0 highway, while a GX with conventional engine and five-speed manual is rated at 8.1 city/5.9 highway.
But burning less fuel doesn’t mean you have to limp around lamely doing penance for doing your bit to save the planet. There’s more power and torque available, enough of both to deliver adequate amounts of get-up-and-zoom.
Although this engine/transmission combination’s delivery feels “softer” and doesn’t perhaps stretch all the way to serious zoom-zoom. For that you need the urge generated by the GT’s 167-hp, 2.5-litre engine. On the highway it pulls a very “tall” top gear that results in the occasional uphill down-shift.
No significant mechanical changes were made elsewhere in this Mazda3 refresh, which means it retains the responsive steering and taut suspension that make it as entertaining to drive as always.
What did change was the front fascia with aero-enhancements that make the Mazda3 sedan a class leader with its 0.27 coefficient of drag, a new rear fascia and new wheels. SkyActiv versions come with blue badging, blue rings around the headlights and a bright blue engine cover. Inside, there are revised seats and controls and gauges rimmed in blue.
In the Mazda3 sedan lineup, the $19,195 GS SkyActiv fits in between the $15,795 GX and the $23,695 GT. And it comes equipped with the usual power assists, and things such as cruise, traction and dynamic stability control, tilt/telescope wheel, leather-wrapped wheel, Bluetooth, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats and mirrors, automatic headlights, keyless entry and a modestly complex audio system. Our test unit’s price tag, with $1,200 automatic and $895 moon roof, was $21,290.
Mazda got it pretty close to right with this generation of the Mazda3, which is why it was the third best-selling compact here last year and accounts for more than half of Mazda Canada sales – and the SkyActiv model should enhance its reputation.
2012 Mazda3 GS SkyActiv
Type: Compact sedan
Base Price: $19,195; as tested, $22,885
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 155 hp/148 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/4.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra