I've written countless reviews of facelifted cars saying "I was really worried when I heard they were going to change the so-and-so, but it's actually much better now," so many that I figured it's time for an attitude change. I went into my test drive of the 2012 Mazda3 thinking that my old favorite would get even better. And in many ways, it did -- but I'm also disappointed by some of the changes. Let's take a closer look at what the 2012 Mazda3 gets right -- and where I think it's gone wrong.
First Glance: Mazda's greatest hit
The Mazda3 is a long-time favorite of many automotive writers, myself includes. When it was last redesigned in 2010, we fell in love with it all over again for its fun-to-drive nature, its high-lux interior, and a list of options not commonly found on small, inexpensive cars. But with more and more compact sedans breaking the 40 MPG barrier, the Mazda3 was falling behind on fuel economy.
For 2012, Mazda has updated the Three in an effort to catch up. Among the changes is the fantastic new SkyActiv powertrain, which serves as the Mazda3's ticket to the 40 MPG club. Improvements to the suspension make the new Mazda3 even better to drive than ever.
Exterior styling changes are as subtle as a window pane, and you'd almost have to park the old Mazda3 and the new one next to each other to spot the differences. The front fascia (link goes to photo) has been redesigned to downplay big grin of the grille, and the sedan now gets the same back bumper as the hatchbacks. Ho-hum. The real news is on the inside -- and it isn't good.
In the Driver's Seat: Mazda taketh away
One of the things I've always liked about the Mazda3 was that it brought a new level of luxury to the small-car segment. Unfortunately, that's gone a bit by the wayside, at least in terms of décor. The dashboard is now a uniform black, even on cars with a tan interior. And the center console, once swathed in metal-look trim, is now finished in cheap, flat-finished plastic. Compare this photo of the 2010 Mazda3's interior with this one of the 2012, and you'll see what I mean.
Mazda says the new dashboard finish provides better contrast between the controls and the background, and even cited internal studies showing that a driver can find the fan dial a couple of tenths of a second of a second faster than they could in the old car. Not for the first time with Mazda, I call B.S.: I think they cheapened the dash in order to offset the cost of the new engine.
That's a real shame, because the Mazda3 (thankfully) still offers more equipment than most of its rivals. Sure, more and more compact sedans are available with leather seats, automatic climate control, and navigation, but how many offer headlights that steer with the wheels or rain-sensing wipers? Just one, and that's the Mazda. Not that you'd ever guess from new low-rent cabin trim. At the press preview, I hopped in the closest car, took a quick look around, and figured I'd picked the entry-level 3i SV model, or maybe a 3i Sport -- but then I looked at the price sheet and realized with dismay that I was in a top-of-the-line 3i Grand Touring with a sticker price of $24,495. Ugh. But the good news is that you can get all these features with the SkyActiv-G engine – in the previous version, you had to step up to the thirstier 2.5 liter engine to get all the goodies.
On the Road: Mazda Giveth
The big news is a new powertrain, feating the new 155 horsepower 2.0 liter SkyActiv-G 4-cylinder. This engine uses every trick Mazda engineers could come up with, from the obvious (direct fuel injection, high compression) to the subtle (specially-shaped pistons, off-center crankshaft) to squeeze out maximum fuel economy. It's coupled with a pair of brilliant transmissions: A brand-new 6-speed manual with the sweetest shift action this side of a Miata, and a six-speed automatic that uses an innovative torque converter with a multi-plate lockup clutch.
Quick geeky detour: Most automatic transmissions have a single-surface clutch that locks the converter (creating a solid connection between engine and transmission) at cruising speeds. Mazda's new SkyActiv Drive transmission locks up at around 5 MPH, so the transmission does most of its work with the clutch locked, which improves fuel economy and makes the car feel a bit more lively. The pared-down torque converter is used only at low speeds, which makes starts, stops, and low-speed maneuvers like parking much smoother and easier. (Anyone who has tried to parallel-park a car with a twin-clutch transmission on a hill will know what I'm talking about.)
Bottom line: The SkyActiv-equipped Mazda is now rated for 27 MPG city/39 MPG highway with a manual transmission and 28/40 with an automatic. Welcome to the club, Mazda!
There's a catch: The SkyActiv engine is only offered in 3i Touring and 3i Grand Touring models; the cheaper Sport and SV get the old 148 hp 2.0 liter MZR engine, rated at 25/33 and 24/33 MPG with manual and automatic transmissions (both 5-speeds) respectively. Acceleration with both 2-liter engines is a bit tepid, so for those who want more, the 3s can still be had with the 167 horsepower 2.5 liter engine.