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2012 Mazda3 SP20 SkyACTIV Review and Road Test

by Brad Leach -

  • OUR VERDICT: 4/5 rating4/5 rating4/5 rating4/5 rating4
  • PRICE RANGE: $27,990*
  • PROS: Ride and handling up with the best; Mazda quality; impressive fuel consumption
  • CONS: Tyres get noisy on poor roads; doesn’t match the German for trim style
  • Safety Rating: 
  • Green Rating:  N/A
  • Fuel Consumption:  6.1L/100km
  • Write your own review

Well the car industry finally agrees on one thing: we all need more power/torque combined with less fuel consumption/exhaust emissions. Gee, that’s a surprise! And just like the running styles we saw in the marathons at the London Olympic games…well there’s numerous ways to achieve the same goal. 



Mazda’s SKYACTIV technology is one such method and it’s now been applied to the top-selling Mazda3 small car (sedan and hatchback). In this model cycle the ‘3’ adds the SKYACTIV G direct-injection petrol engine and SKYACTIV-DRIVE six-speed automatic transmission.

As we know, Mazda will roll-out more SKYACTIV technology as - in its way - it pursues power-torque-up, fuel consumption-emissions-down while simultaneously developing alternative sources of propulsion.

Important for Mazda Australia as the Mazda3 is singularly the biggest-selling passenger car in Australia. Nope it doesn’t get more important than that.

 

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV Overview


The SKYACTIV version of the Mazda3 comes in both four-door sedan and hatchback derivatives. You can get the regular version, priced at $27,990, or a more upscale ‘Luxury’ model stickered at $30,990 (both drive exclusively via a six-speed automatic transmission). Car Showroom tested the sedan model.

Mazda3 first appeared in 2003 and has become Mazda’s top-selling individual model with global sales around 4.0-million.

 

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV Engine


Here is the big deal with the Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV – Mazda’s SKYACTIV-G direct-injection 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine and SKYACTIV-DRIVE six –speed automatic transmission.

More than just a label, the SKYACTIV engine delivers 4.6-per-cent more power (now 113kW at 6000rpm) and 6.6 per-cent more torque (now 194Nm at 4100rpm).

But those figures are eclipsed by the gains in fuel-consumption – how does a 25.6 per-cent improvement sound? At 6.1l/100kms (combined cycle) Mazda reckons the Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV is Australia’s most fuel-efficient petrol-powered small car. 



Exhaust C02 emissions are rated at 143g/km (sedan as tested).

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV runs Mazda’s fuel-saving ‘i-stop’ auto start/stop system but of course there’s much more to this remarkable technology than just that. As we know, a lot of Mazda’s SKYACTIV technology at first seems counter-intuitive but there’s no doubt it works to provide the required improved power/torque and reduced fuel consumption/exhaust emissions.

Mazda actually went to a higher compression ratio with the petrol engine (12.0:1) to deliver a different combustion process which in itself required new pistons and conrods. And in developing those new components, Mazda went on a weight-saving mission – each cylinder is 127g lighter thanks to the new pistons and conrods and a thinner crankshaft was developed which saved 690g.

Fastidious stuff.

The SKYACTIV-DRIVE six-speed automatic transmission provides an increased lock-up range for enhanced fuel-efficiency and better feel when shifting.

And Mazda’s new drive control system keeps both the SKYACTIV engine and transmission on the ‘same page’.

 

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV The Interior


We’ve always liked the driver-oriented/sporty feel of the Mazda 3’s interior. Like all Mazda vehicles, the ‘3’ caters very wheel for the driver with a nice, leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel (not standard in some rivals) which adjust for rake/reach and combines with multiple seat adjustments for that ‘just-right’ position. 



Instrumentation too is conventional, with everything falling to-hand for the driver. For the SP20, white text/graphics were adopted at the most recent Mazda3 upgrade and SKYACTIV models score blue backlighting. The audio is displayed on the Multi-Information Display screen mounted left of the driver – it also covers satellite navigation and reversing camera displays.

The $3,000 ‘Luxury’ pack brings leather seats, 10-speaker Bose audio with a 242-watt amplifier and a sliding centre arm-rest. 



Rear seat accommodation is on-par with rivals and Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV sedan provides a reasonable 400-litres of luggage space.

 

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV Exterior & Styling


In the small sedan segment, when it comes to looks, Mazda3 is definitely a medal contender – gold, silver or bronze is a matter of opinion. We reckon the proportions are spot on and we’ve always liked the abundant curves, stylish wheel arch flares and aerodynamic front-end/headlights. 



The most recent upgrades brought a new-style front bumper, updated five-point Mazda grille, round fog-lights and new-design alloys wheels (16-inch alloys on the SP20 SKYACTIV). The SKYACTIV model is also distinguished from the front with a blue ring around the centre lens of headlights.

And to give some sporty style, the Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV adds side skirts and rear spoiler.

Included in the $3,000 ‘Luxury’ pack are Bi-Xenon headlights.

 

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV On The Road


While this version of the Mazda3 wasn’t developed with the full SKYACTIV chassis technology, the latest round of model updates did get some fettling of calibrations for the MacPherson strut front/multi-link rear suspension in order to flatten the stance during cornering and provide a sportier response on turn-in.

We guess it paid-off. In our opinion, Mazda3 has always mixed with the best of the small cars for ride and handling and we again liked our week in the SP20 SKYACTIV model. 



There’s a sporty dynamic with the Mazda3 – positive turn-in, good grip and balance – but we wouldn’t mind a tad more weight in the power steering.

Having said that, there’s no doubt the ‘3’ is a smooth operator in the city with good visibility and a handy 10.9-metre turning circle aiding maneuverability.

 

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV Challenges


We deducted points from the Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV on two grounds.

Firstly the 205/55R16 91V rubber was fine on smooth surfaces but surprisingly noisy on the crook stuff. This was exaggerated on our normal test route up to Olinda and back where you encounter several switches from smooth-to-coarse-to-smooth bitumen.

Secondly, some of Mazda3’s interior trim materials/plastics don’t match the tactile feel and look of the Germans (Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf).

 

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV Verdict


Small cars don’t come any better than the Mazda3 SKYACTIV. A match for the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf? In most areas we think so.

SKYACTIV is smart stuff and right off the bat Mazda has delivered a fuel economy gain surpassing 25 per-cent. And there’s even more to come.

Performance drivers might still lean towards the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, but really, unless you’re heading to track days there’s very little to separate the Mazda SP20 SKYACTIV from the Germans. 



Value-for-money is where Mazda plays its strong hand with the ‘3’. You get a lot of small car for the coin - even with the SP20 SKYACTIV models.

For these reasons alone we reckon everyone should get used to the Mazda3 being Australia’s most popular passenger car. As they say: “The Tribe has spoken” and new car buyers have voted the Mazda3 number one with their hard-earned dollars.

 

Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV The Competition


A pair of Germans are Car Showroom’s favourites in the small car segment.

To match the Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV ($27,990/$30,990), you’re looking at Ford Focus in ‘Sport’ grade ($30,190) or range-topping ‘Titanium’ ($33,090). In those grades, Ford Focus’ 125kW/202Nm 2.0-litre engine does trump the 113kW/194Nm Mazda3.

Beyond a shadow of doubt, Focus is now the ‘driver’s car’ in this segment – its ride, handling and steering is the pick of the field.
 



Of the multitude of Volkswagen Golf models, probably the 118TSI Comfortline comes closest to the Mazda3 SP20 SKYACTIV. Volkswagen’s supercharged and turbocharged 1.4-litre (118kW/240Nm) is one of our favourite powerplants and its sophistication is a pointer to the future for small cars. All-new Golf has appeared in Europe and is due here next year.

Honda’s all-new Civic hatch definitely must be considered. Nice to drive and exuding hallmark Honda quality, the latest Civic in range-topping VTi-L is handily priced at $29,990. However Civic’s 103kW/174Nm engine and five-speed automatic are a bit under-done in this end of the small car segment.

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