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Mazda3 (Mazda)
Mazda3 (Mazda)

2012 Mazda3 Sport GS-SKY

Mazda3: Reach for the Sky Add to ...

Aiming for and achieving lofty posted fuel economy numbers is laudable, but everyone knows that real-world performance is what matters most.

At the first drive of the 2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv, Mazda officials argue their car gets brilliant fuel economy and is the most entertaining to drive from a long list of compact entries. Fuel-efficient as it is, the Mazda3 is a “driver’s car.”

To drive that point home, Mazda set in motion an informal test of real-world fuel economy, pitting its own cars against five leading rivals. Over a mix of city and highway driving, here’s what the cars achieved in miles per gallon: Honda Civic, 34.5; Mazda3, 33.7; Ford Focus, 32.1; Toyota Corolla, 30.7; Hyundai Elantra, 29.9; and Chevrolet Cruze, 29.8.

In what passed for something resembling “normal” driving, the Civic won, but the Mazda was close behind. And make no mistake, the Mazda3 Sky (starting at $18,995) is a far more entertaining car than the 2012 Civic.

It should be. Mazda is devoting all its engineering resources to its SkyActiv effort and the 2012 Mazda3 is just the start of something much bigger. While there are some styling updates to this model, the Sky part of the story is essentially limited to the four-cylinder, 2.0-litre, gasoline, direct-injection engine under the hood – along with the reinvented manual or automatic six-speed transmissions.

Mazda is planning a marketing blitz to tell Canadians about the new powertrain and a price cut for the Mazda3 line that ranges from 3 to 8 per cent depending on the model. The Mazda3 is a year or two away from a complete redesign, but the company simply could not wait to start rolling out the SkyActiv powertrains, not with this model accounting for about one-third of Mazda’s entire global sales volume.

For me, the 2012 Mazda3 Sky exceeded expectations, which quite frankly were high given the months and months of hype coming out of Mazda. This is a very entertaining little car, especially so the version with a slick-shifting manual gearbox.

For the record, aside from the drivetrain work, for its core model Mazda also incorporates minor changes to the suspension and body structure. The car now is slightly more rigid and the front end no longer has that fish-mouth look.

This story is about power and fuel economy, though. Rated for 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm, the new 2.0-litre engine is responsive and smooth.

Sure, Mazda is still offering its older, port-injected, 148-hp 2.0-litre MZR engine as a less-expensive alternative on base models (starting at $15,595), and the 167-hp, 2.5-litre MZR engine is also available on Mazda3 GT models starting at $23,695. The 263-hp Mazdaspeed3 carries over unchanged. Buyers who choose not to go the Sky route will find Mazda3s with more equipment at lower prices.

The Sky cars are what most buyers will want once they’ve tested the entire lineup, back-to-back. Gearheads will understand that high compression is the key to the Sky’s combination of usable performance and excellent fuel economy. What Mazda has done is an engine geek’s dream and ’nuff said about that, other than to tell you the car runs on regular gas.

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.

As for the engine itself, it 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 very good cornering grip, tight steering and a generally responsive chassis – considering the price, especially.

Mazda is in the fight of its life to carve out its share of a market dominated very good entries from the world’s biggest auto makers. With SkyActiv now active, the company looks to be punching above its weight.

Tech Specs

2012 Mazda3 Sport GS-SKY

Type: Compact four-door hatchback

Price: $19,995 ($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

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