Four doors have always been a design challenge for automakers.
Not that sedans are necessarily stodgy or bland, but they somehow lack the panache of their two-door counterparts.
A few mid-size cars come to mind: Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Infiniti G. All are handsome enough as sedans, but absolute knockouts as coupes.
Same goes for several compacts. Honda Civic, Kia Forte and even the fashionably redesigned Hyundai Elantra turn more heads with fewer doors—especially the Civic.
Mazda doesn’t offer a two-door model in its popular Mazda3 lineup—and that’s fine with me. Designers nailed it the first time when they launched this replacement for the tired Protege in the 2004 model year.
And after a redesign in 2010 and some fine-tuning this year, the Mazda3—both in sedan and hatchback forms—is one of the most attractive cars in the compact segment.
My tester for the week, in a striking shade of ‘sky blue mica,’ was the Mazda3 Sport GS SKY, which in Mazdaspeak means hatchback with the new fuel-saving Skyactiv technologies.
Skyactiv isn’t about electric and hybrid systems, but involves improving, in nearly every way, the kind of vehicles most of us drive. This includes their body architecture, chassis, transmission—and the internal combustion engine.
Yes folks, that means gas and diesel.
Even if the most optimistic prediction that 12 per cent of all passenger cars here will be battery-powered by 2020, the vast majority will still be making regular visits to the fuel pump.
This presents a welcome challenge to engineers, as today’s engines, despite being exponentially cleaner and more efficient than a few short decades ago, still only harness 10 to 30 percent of our fuel’s available energy. That leaves a lot of room for improvement, and an opportunity to exploit.
The company wisely chose to apply this new tech to the Mazda3, as it’s their top-seller worldwide and accounts for nearly half of all Mazda sales in Canada and the U.S.
Skyactiv is available in GS trim, which falls between the base GX (starting MSRP $16,895) and top trim GT (starting MSRP $24,845), and adds only $850 to the regular 2.0-litre GS models for a starting list of $20,345 with six-speed manual.
For starters, the all-new, direct-injection Skyactiv-G 2.0-litre gas engine delivers more power (155 vs 148 hp) and greater torque (148 vs 135 lb/ft) than the standard 2.0-litre engine. Better fuel economy too, thanks in large part to the substantially higher compression ratio of 12:1 versus 10:1.
The point of higher compression is to extract more energy from the same amount of fuel, which, thankfully here, is regular 87 octane.
But like any good thing, there are limits, and with compression that’s around 11:1 before knock sets in. Mazda has overcome this with some finessing of components.
An example is putting a small dip in the top of each piston to stabilize combustion. Looks a bit like a volcano, as the tops are also dome-shaped to increase compression.
Skyactiv also uses extremely high fuel pressure through its six-hole injector to more quickly deliver the air/fuel mix, and with better vaporization and cooling.
Aside from combustion, engineers examined nearly every component to trim weight and reduce friction. This includes refinements like pistons that are 20 per cent lighter, and valves with 50 per cent less friction.
Although there’s far more to Skyactiv, suffice to say these changes result in a thriftier engine—in particular with the six-speed Skyactiv-Drive automatic. This power combination is rated at 7.1/4.9 litres/100 km (city/hwy) compared to 8.7/6.0 for the regular 2.0-litre engine.
My tester included the six-speed manual, which is up a little at 7.7/5.0 litres/100 km—which I suppose is achievable if you have a gentle touch. My own result was a slightly thirstier 8.0 litres/100 km combined.
Much of my driving, however, was in town and the car’s nice, light clutch, smooth takeup and short-throw shifter that nicely ‘snicks’ into place, made it a joy rowing through the gears.
I won’t say it got my heart pumping, as the tall gearing wasn’t conducive to neck-snapping acceleration, but it was brisk enough for highway merging and for decisively passing any slow pokes along the way.
Inside, the Mazda3 is well put together. Abundant soft touch materials, chrome and silver finishes, and fabric inserts in the doors create a smart, modern look.
Seats are upholstered in a grippy fabric combination, with checked inserts and pronounced side bolsters. Five-position seat heating comes standard for both front seats.
Opt for the Luxury package (GS, GS-SKY $1,300) and you get leather seating (along with 8-way power adjust), as well as faux leather in the doors and console lid. The only option that came with my tester, however, was the power moonroof for $895.
Although the GS is only mid-trim, it comes with plenty of standard features like 16-inch alloy wheels, side sill extensions, roof-mounted spoiler, rain-sensing wipers, and on the inside, leather-wrapped tilt/telescopic steering with audio and cruise controls, Bluetooth, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with auxiliary input, and the usual power locks, keyless entry and air conditioning you’d expect at this level.
What I like in this model is the simplicity of its instruments and controls. HVAC, for example, is handled by three rotary dials—a nice break from touch screens that take your eyes off the road.
Seats in back are raised for better visibility, both forward and to the side, where the high beltline creates a narrow side window.
I was comfortable in rear, but knee room may be tight for taller folks—headroom as well. An armrest drops down from the middle position, which like many today, includes cupholders.
Despite the Mazda3’s compact footprint, it has a surprisingly large cargo hold behind the rear seats. At 481 litres, it’s larger than many mid-size sedans, and the 60/40 seatbacks drop for a 1,212-litre capacity.
My take on the Mazda3 remains that the company hasn’t so much knocked it out of the park in any one area, but that Mazda has done so many little things so well.
Skyactiv is the latest of these, and without adding significant cost, it has given buyers yet another reason to consider this popular family car.
Mazda3 Sport GS-SKY 2012
Body Style: compact five-door sport hatchback
Drive Method: front-engine, front wheel drive
Engine: SKYACTIV-G 2.0-litre, 16-valve, DOHC four cylinder (155 hp and 148 lb/ft of torque)
Fuel Economy: 7.7/5.0 litres/100 km (city/hwy—manual); 7.1/4.9 litres/100 km (city/hwy—automatic)
Cargo: 481 litres behind second row, 1,212 litres with seats folded
Price: (base with six-speed manual) $20,345; automatic $21,545; moonroof $895