While making 7hp more than its predecessor, the 155hp 2.0 liter SKYACTIV-G engine left us craving more power but that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Considering what the SKYACTIV Mazda3 is competing against in the market though (Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze Eco, Honda Civic) we agree with Mazda's assessment: “Our 40mpg is better than theirs!” We had an opportunity to drive the Focus and the Cruz Eco back to back but neither could match the nimble 3's handling and steering feel. You can tell the car was designed with “spirited” driving in mind rather than as an afterthought.
Mazda offers both a 6-speed automatic and a 6-speed manual for the new 3. Keeping with Mazda's SKYACTIV philosophy, both options required complete redesigns–something Mazda hasn't done since the 80's! Starting with the automatic, designers wanted a transmission with the efficiency and smooth connected shifting of a dual clutch transmission, but without the miserable low speed characteristics when trundling along in bumper to bumper traffic or inching up a driveway. CVTs and conventional torque converter setups are good at the low speed stuff, but at the cost of a disconnected feel and overall boring driving experience. Mazda's solution? Just combine the two technologies–use a torque converter to handle the low speed work (below 5mph) and a wet, multiplate clutch setup for everything else! The result is the SKYACTIV-Drive automatic transmission. The best illustration of how this all works I could find was by this guy from Mazda–in Japanese…
Mazda's engineers helped close the gap between shifts by moving the transmission control and all of its shift solenoids into a new integrated Mechatronic module (yes, that's what they call it) that actually lives inside the transmission. By shortening wires and removing connectors that each have a tiny amount resistance and keeping everything in a controlled, corrosion free environment, inconsistencies and latency can be eliminated from the shift control. What you end up with is in an automatic transmission with smooth, seamless upshifts, nearly instantaneous downshift response at 150 milliseconds and 4% increase in fuel economy over the previous transmission. So how does it feel? Our test route took us through Hollywood surface street traffic, the freeway and about 20 miles of twisty foothill backroads. Sliding the shifter over to manual mode, shift speed seemed pretty comparable to VW's DSG transmission we tested when we purchased Project Golf TDI. That “connected” feeling of the automatic was just as promised and is easily the nicest automatic transmission we've driven in this class.
The manual transmission also got a complete redesign with the objective being to improve shifter feel and packaging. Manuals feel better with shorter throw shifters, the problem is shortening the shifter changes the geometry, requiring more leverage to complete the shift. To address this, Mazda reengineered everything in the new manual to shorten shift travel and reduce friction. Here's our friend from Mazda again explaining the manual transmission:
Called the SKYACTIV-MT, the new manual is a compact lightweight transmission with a light and direct shifter that feels very similar to the Miata–which was actually the benchmark the engineers had in mind. Mazda claims the manual transmission is good for about 200lb/ft of torque with a larger version developed for the SKYACTIV-D diesel capable of handling 330lb/ft. Comparing the two tranny offerings, the control freak in us had more fun in the manual with its crisp, precise shifts and found it more confidence inspiring when driving close to the edge around canyon twisties. However, for the chore of daily driving in stop and go traffic, we wouldn't feel like we were giving away the world if we opted for the automatic. The automatic also gets a little better fuel economy than the manual too–most likely attributable to its slightly taller 6th gear.
If you're in the market for a great handling fuel miser for a daily driver right out of the box AND you need to buy something right now, the SKYACTIV Mazda3 should be on your short list of new cars to check out. MSRP for the 4-door starts at $18,450 for the manual transmission and $19,300 for the automatic. Want the 5-door hatch? Just add $500 to any trim level.
That said, IF you can wait for the next generation Mazda3, you'll get the full suite of SKYACTIV technology that Mazda wasn't able to incorporate into the 2012 chassis. Look for the engine to have even higher compression with the tuned Tri-Y header, a chassis that's 30% more rigid while being 8% lighter, and roomier rear seating! The SKYACTIV-D diesel engine option with two more brand new transmission offerings may also be available for the next generation Mazda3!
…or just get a Mazdaspeed3!