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2012 Mazda3 Sport with SKYACTIV (Mazda)
2012 Mazda3 Sport with SKYACTIV (Mazda)

Road test

Mazda3 Sport GS-SKY: Dated, but still delightful Add to ...

Two of Mazda’s brand strengths are quality and resale value, but that’s not why the Mazda3 compact is Canada’s fourth most popular car, with sales this year up 11 per cent.

No, the Mazda3 sells first on price – $15,795 to start (not including a number of juicy sales sweeteners on some versions) and $20,195 for the least-expensive Sport hatchback model with the latest SkyActiv powertrain technology.

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Second, the 3 remains a tidy-looking small car, even though the basic design is not the freshest in the compact car segment. Third though, the Mazda3 is an entertaining small car, perhaps not quite as alluring as the Ford Focus from behind the wheel, but certainly with an edge over Canada’s best-seller, the Honda Civic, and the No. 3 seller in Canada, the Toyota Corolla.

It’s fair to say the Mazda3 is in fact a work in progress, and we can expect more and better things in the coming year. The work began in earnest late last year when Mazda rolled out the SkyActiv versions of the 3.

This was a partial launch of SkyActiv, a buzzword Mazda uses to describe a “suite” of technologies ranging from engine and transmission refinements to lighter components and designs that are more aerodynamic. The SkyActiv way is all about squeezing fuel economy out of all Mazda models with the traditional internal combustion engine.

The plan is to offer a lineup from top to bottom with vehicles that are lighter, sleeker and more fuel-efficient, but above all, entertaining to drive. While it’s a bonus that late last year Mazda also led all mainstream brands in ALG Canada’s Perceived Quality Score, and it’s important to note that Mazda finished second in ALG’s recent Retained Value Awards, the Mazda3 will only stay atop the best-seller list if it’s an entertaining and stylish ride.

Fuel economy? Well, the 2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv does get brilliant fuel economy for a quick and nimble four-door hatchback (7.1 litres/100 km in the city and 5.1 on the highway). But fuel-efficient as it is, the Mazda3 is as close to a “driver’s car” as you’ll find in the $20,000-something corner of the new-car market.

Of course, you don’t need to go the SkyActiv route with the 3. The base car has a 148-hp four-banger with decent fuel economy (8.1 city/5.9 highway). But the powertrain here is not nearly as refined and delightful as the SkyActiv package.

The 2.0-litre gasoline direct injection engine of the latter is also mated to either a reinvented manual or automatic six-speed transmission and both are very good. Truthfully, the 2012 Mazda3 SKY exceeds expectations – expectation that were very high given the months of hype coming out of Mazda. This is an entertaining little car, especially the version with a slick-shifting manual gearbox.

And, aside from the drivetrain work, Mazda has also dialled in minor changes to the suspension and body structure of the 3, making the car slightly more rigid. That’s good for handling, in particular, but also for highway ride comfort. On top of that, the Mazda3 no longer has that fish-mouth look up front thanks to some tweaking of the grille and so on.

Nonetheless, this car is most of all about power and fuel economy. That 155 horsepower comes at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm. Those numbers should tell you that the new 2.0-litre engine is free-revving, responsive and smooth.

If you have the coin, the SKY version of the Mazda3 is the one you’ll want. If you doubt this, test the entire lineup, back-to-back. High compression is the key to the SKY’s combination of usable performance and excellent fuel economy, but you don’t need to be a geeky gearhead to feel from behind the wheel what Mazda has done to the powertrain. Better still, the car runs on regular 87 octane fuel, even though it is a high-compression engine with direct fuel injection.

As for the transmission story, a new six-speed manual, Mazda’s first totally new manual gearbox since the 1980s, is a gem of short shift throws and light effort. It’s possible to flick from gear to gear with fingertip effort.

A reinvented six-speed automatic has excellent low-speed torque while delivering solid all-around shifting performance. It has a manual mode, but no shift paddles. The engine itself spins up nicely to its 6,500-rpm redline, delivering its best power above 3,000 rpm. Look for 0-100 km/h times in the mid-9.0 seconds.

But it’s not straight-line acceleration that makes the Mazda3 so interesting. This is a responsive and affordable sport compact with good cornering grip, tight steering and a generally responsive chassis for a car at this price. It is more fun to drive than any $20,000 car has a right to be.

The rest of the package is good, too. The cabin has not changed for a few years now and, while that makes the car feel dated from the inside, the design is attractive and functional. The seats are as supportive as any in this class and better than many, too. And the list of standard equipment is long enough to be competitive with the best of a big lot of good compacts – from the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla, to the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Kia Forte and more.

For the time being, the Mazda3 Sport SKY is an appealing package. And that’s why it’s selling in strong numbers despite an older design, inside and out.

Tech specs: 2012 Mazda3 Sport GS-SKY

Type: Compact four-door hatchback

Price: $20,195 ($1,595 freight)

Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 155 hp/148 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.6 city/5.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Chevrolet Cruze, Mitsubishi Lancer, Subaru Impreza

jcato@globeandmail.com

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