Forty is the new thirty, or so the automotive fuel economy cliché goes.
But the dark side of the penny-pinching trend is the slew of well-intentioned cars that strike the magic 40 mpg figure at the expense of good ‘ole fashioned driving dynamics. Folks who take pleasure in piloting a vehicle are (ironically) pouring a forty on the graves of steering feel, brake feedback, and seat-squishing acceleration — all victims of the quest for that nice, round, and eminently marketable highway fuel economy number.
Can budget-strapped enthusiasts find bliss in this brave new world of electric steering, low rolling resistance tires, and detuned engines? Mazda thinks so, and it’s invented a fancy word for its eco-minded, driver-oriented technology: Skyactiv.
The moniker identifies a series of tweaks debuting on the facelifted 2012 Mazda3, though this particular application isn’t as extensive as you’ll find on the first Mazda to receive the full-blown Skyactiv treatment, the upcoming, redesigned CX-5 crossover.
But the Mazda3 Skyactiv still has plenty of slick tech up its sleeve, helping boost its 2.0 liter, 4-cylinder engine’s fuel economy by up to 21 percent over its predecessor. Mazda’s mad scientists say they spent a decade studying high compression ratio powerplants. Their research led them to minimize heat loss by downsizing the Skyactiv’s combustion chamber, and to counteract the displacement change by lengthening stroke. Fuel is pressurized to a stratospheric 2,900 psi, and introduced using a multi-injection strategy during both the intake and compression stroke. Though the mill achieves a 12:1 compression ratio on 87 octane fuel, that figure is curtailed by limitations in the current chassis; the European version already comes packaged with enough room for a bulkier exhaust system, enabling a 13:1 compression ratio on 87 octane, and a superbike-like 14:1 ratio when running on 91 octane gas. That system will be available in the next-gen Mazda3 along with a diesel variant, though the current US model benefits from tiny improvements throughout, and reduced drag and friction everywhere from the oil pump to the valvetrain.
The Mazda3 Skyactiv squeezes 155 hp and 148 pound-feet from the same displacement as its weaker, thirstier, and lower-priced 2.0 liter offering. The new Skyactiv is also available with an all-new automatic gearbox which uses a torque converter for low speed creeping, but switches to a multi-plate clutch when quicker shifts are in order. Mazda says the ‘box offers greater efficiency than CVT or dual-clutch setups.
Nostalgically inclined drivers can mate the engine to an all-new manual transmission that’s been revised for slicker shifting, lighter effort, and better fuel economy — though its 27/39 mpg figure is bested by the 6-speed auto’s 28/40 mpg (Bingo!) numbers. The five-door version barely misses 40, achieving 28 city and 39 highway with an automatic transmission. If you’re not afraid of combusting some additional dino juice and spending a few more Benjamins, there are 167 hp “s” and 263 hp Mazdaspeed3 versions also available.