2012 Mazda 3i Touring road test: Very practical and, yes, fun to drive

2012 Mazda 3i 5-Door Touring edition

2012 Mazda 3i 5-Door Touring edition

The 2012 Mazda3 has gotten a mild mid-generation styling update but, as the cliche goes, the real beauty of this car is more than skin deep.

What we’re talking about is the Japanese manufacturer’s SkyActiv Technology, a revamp of the car’s inner workings to make it significantly more fuel efficient and even more enjoyable to drive.

The car I tested is the 2012 Mazda 3i 5-door Touring, a car probably best visualized when called a compact station wagon. Why manufacturers insist on complicating the nomenclature of their various models is a mystery to me. It certainly does not make it easier for the average buyer.

But I digress.

Mazda instruments

Mazda instruments

The folks at Mazda concluded several years ago that the traditional internal combustion gasoline engine will remain the primary automotive powerplant for the foreseeable future.

But they also realized that the engine would have to be significantly more efficient and that many other parts of the vehicle would also have to be re-imagined and remade to help meet the increasingly stringent fuel mileage and emissions standards.

While I do not have the space nor the expertise to discuss in detail all of the upgrades that evolved over an intense multi-year program, it’s probably fair to say the engineers took a look at almost every part to see how best it could be updated.

Among the major jobs undertaken were increasing the efficiency of the engine and transmission, weight reduction,  and improving overall drivability.

In the front-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback I drove, the previously standard 2-liter, four-cylinder engine  (148 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque) has been replaced by the SkyActiv 2-liter, four-cylinder engine that generates 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. It actually is 4 pounds lighter that its predecessor.

Mazda cargo space

Mazda cargo space

Most importantly to the consumer is the nearly 10 percent fuel mileage increase,  from 25 mpg to 27 in the city and from 35 mpg to 38 on the open road.

In my week with the Mazda 3i Touring, fuel mileage ranged from a low of 23 mpg in slow-moving  urban traffic to a high of 38 mpg on the open road. Overall, I averaged 32 mpg over  several hundred miles.

Acceleration is not what you would call brisk, but it certainly is adequate. An all-new automatic 6-speed transmission will probably be the shifter of choice for most buyers, and it actually helps to improve gas mileage slightly, to 28 mpg city/39 mpg highway.

But, for those of us who think of driving as a pleasure unto itself, the manual-transmission model will be the way to go. The new shifter is precise and  silky smooth, with properly spaced gears.

It allows drivers to easily run up and down through the gears to keep the engine humming in the fat part of its power band. Combine the new engine and transmission with accurate, communicative steering, strong brakes, a stiff body structure and the near absence of steering-wheel-tugging torque steer, and you have the ingredients for a playful back-road companion.