2012 MAZDA3 SP20 SKYACTIV REVIEW
What’s Hot: Quieter, more refined, and brilliant fuel consumption
What’s Not: 2.0 litre engine feels a little 'doughy' until you get the revs up
X-Factor: Quality motoring with breezy style and the right sporting feel
Vehicle Style: Five-door small hatchback
Price: $30,990 (SP20 Luxury); $27,990 (SP20)
Fuel Economy (claimed): 6.1 l/100km
Fuel Economy (on test): 5.9 l/100km
With the Mazda3, Mazda just keeps on winning. It's styled right, fun to drive, robustly built, has personality written all over it, and it's very easy to own.
And it has stolen the hearts of younger drivers, younger women in particular.
We got behind the wheel of the new Mazda3 SP20 SkyActiv Automatic. At $27,990 for both the sedan and hatchback, it’s priced to slot in between the MZR 2.2 litre diesel and SP25. The Luxury model tested here adds $3000 to the list price.
Visually, little has changed with this mid-term update to the 3: it gets new front and rear bumpers, subtle changes to the lines at the front, improved aerodynamics, blue SkyActiv-specific highlights and new wheel designs.
The big news with the SP20 SkyActiv however is below the skin.
With a lock-up SkyActiv-Drive six-speed transmission, stop-start technology and the free-spinning but super-frugal SkyActiv-G 2.0 engine, this Mazda3 is a good product made better.
Quality: Mazda does tactile surfaces better than most. Always a good interior, the changes are very minor - you'll barely notice them - with the arrival of this update.
The stippled dash feels good, so too the padded door-rests and trims. The black centre stack is cleanly styled and the brushed metal garnishes on the doors and dash set off a quality interior look and feel.
Comfort: The Mazda3 is both accommodating and comfortable, with well-shaped leather seats front and back, and good bolstering.
The steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach, and there's reasonable legroom in the rear - provided the legs in front are not too long.
Equipment: The Mazda3 SkyActiv is available in sedan and hatch form, in just two model grades: SP20 and SP20 Luxury. Both grades get the Maxx Sport equipment list, along with a sports grille, LED tail lamps, and stainless-steel scuff plates.
The Luxury adds Bi-Xenon headlamps, sliding centre armrest console, leather seat trim, premium Bose 242 Watt amplifier and ten speakers including subwoofer
There is also a 4.1-inch screen display, MP3-compatible CD-player (with aux-in), sat-nav, Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control, air-conditioning, auto-on/off headlights, rain-sensing wipers, cruise-control, alloys, side skirts and rear spoiler (sedan), fog lamps, leather-wrapped gearshift knob and steering wheel
Storage: A big wide boot has always been one of the strengths of the Mazda3. It's also easy to access, with a low lip and a flat load area.
There are handy storage-bins in the doors, a good-sized oddments bin under the console (big enough for an SLR camera) and a useful glovebox.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: The 2.0 litre SkyActiv-G petrol four-cylinder produces more torque, more power, and better fuel economy. What’s not to like about that?
It’s more than just a glib word – the "SkyActiv" thing. The engine runs a high compression ratio (12:1 here), internal components are lighter, mechanical friction is reduced by 30 percent, and changes to the combustion chamber produces a better 'burn'.
And it's clever. Pull up at the lights, and Mazda’s ‘i-stop’ technology cuts the engine while leaving one piston in the optimum position, ready to fire.
The moment you slide your foot from the brake, there is a slight shimmy as it springs to life, and you can accelerate away seamlessly. In the Mazda, it's as good as we've experienced for transparency of operation - you simply forget about it.
For output, its figures are good on paper though a little peaky in the real world, with 113kW @ 6000rpm and peak torque of 194Nm @ 4100rpm.
Even mated to the six-speed auto transmission (which ‘locks-up’ 90 percent of the time, reducing efficiency-loss from slipping), it feels a tad ‘doughy’ until you get it up and into the meat of the torque band.
But the handling - typical Mazda3 - is sharp. You can really punt this thing around a winding road if you keep the revs up using the ‘manual’ shift.
And it can take a pounding without troubling the fuel gauge. We returned 5.9 l/100km on mostly open roads (but giving it a bit of a wring-out).
Refinement: Another plus for the SkyActiv; this is the most refined Mazda3 in the range, by a long chalk.
Besides the beautifully balanced free-spinning engine, Mazda has done a lot of work on road noise and NVH (noise/vibration/harshness) with the new SkyActiv - something we've criticised in previous models of both the 3 and 6.
It's immediately apparent that road noise, particularly from the rear, is significantly dampened; there is also less intrusion of mechanical noise into the cabin.
In fact, the new engine is so quiet it has lost some of the appealing sporty rasp under acceleration of the previous model.
Suspension: The suspension tune to the McPherson strut front and multi-link rear is just right. It’s flat and controlled but not too firm over choppy secondary roads, and silken on the freeway.
Put it round a mountain road and turn-in is sharp and flat, the back-end is beautifully controlled and it’s a really tight and enjoyable steer. Increased body rigidity certainly pays a part here.
The steering has been sharpened in the SkyActiv and it’s apparent at the wheel - it can be placed really accurately into a corner. The only comment we’d make is that the action is just a little light: we’d prefer a more robust feel to the wheel.
Braking: Pedal feel is just right, and braking performance is good.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars (Mazda3)
Safety features: Dual front, side and curtain airbags, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Traction Control System (TCS), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Emergency Brake Assist (EBA), active front head restraints.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Volkswagen Golf 90TSI with DSG ($27,490) – Bettered by the Mazda for ride, power and fuel economy, but the Golf has perhaps the more premium feel to the interior. Also packs less value and features into its RRP. (see Golf reviews)
Ford Focus Trend Hatchback with Powershift DSG ($26,790) – Ford’s new small car is a terrific drive. It accelerates more strongly than the SkyActiv SP20, and the DSG drivetrain feels more engaged.
Which is better? It’s line-ball. More personality in the Mazda3 SkyActiv, and better fuel economy, but more outright performance in the Focus. (see Focus reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Mazda3 was the top selling car in Australia last month. Another couple of months like August to round out the year and it's headed to become the top selling car for 2011 (which, if it happens, will be the first time since nearly forever that an imported car has headed the field).
It might take buyers a little time to wrap their heads around the SkyActiv technology, but they will understand the improved fuel consumption.
This 2.0 litre engine makes the Mazda SP20 SkyActiv the most fuel-efficient, petrol-powered small car in Australia. That’s easily understood.
Also easily understood is the fun-factor: there is none missing in this Mazda3.
It’s the first of a wave of SkyActiv models we can expect from Mazda. It is, as Mazda Australia head Doug Dickson commented, “... a cost effective and elegant solution to the enduring challenges that face the industry”.
This Mazda3, the SP20 SkyActiv, like its more conventional siblings, will sell its buns off.