Review: 2012 Mazda3 Sport SkyActiv

Zoom Zoom?  Probably not the word I’d use.

Before I start hacking on this car though, let’s find out what it’s all about, and what it does right.

The Mazda3 Sport has become somewhat of a fixture on the road – there are a lot of them and although the styling is different from anything else out there, they kind of blend in, because they are so plentiful.

The Mazda3 is Mazda’s second from the bottom model – a step up in most departments from the entry-level Mazda2.  It’s available in sedan or hatch – the hatch is the Sport.  And from there, you can choose a variety of drivetrains, 3 to be exact, and a number of trim levels.  Hence the number of them on the road – you can get into a Mazda3 for a very affordable CDN $16,595 and can more than double that amount if you want a loaded-up Mazdaspeed3.

The SkyActiv we have here starts at CDN $19,995.  I wasn’t given an invoice so I priced it out online – as tested, you’d be looking at CDN $24,710 plus taxes.

So what’s this SkyActiv business then?  Other than a misspelled word, I mean.  Well, it’s Mazda’s way of giving the consumer more horsepower and torque (than the entry-level model) and better mileage than all the Mazda3s.  They achieve this by using a new 2.0 L high-compression, direct injection engine coupled with weight reduction within the body structure, and coupling that motor to SkyActiv-specific transmissions.  In this case, it’s a 6-speed automatic “that combines the best of manual, CVT and automatic transmissions”.  Okaaaayy.  Mind you, there are some neato things, such as only using a torque converter at low speeds, and then a wet clutch at higher speeds.  Body and chassis see a 30% increase in rigidity whilst enjoying a 100 kg (220 lb) weight loss, for “more of that exhilarating Mazda driving feel while increasing crash safety performance and reducing weight”.  Right.  I’m going to question the exhilarating part before long, as you’ll see.

Numbers?  Sure!  155 HP @ 6000 RPM and 148 lb.ft of torque @ 4100 RPM.  These numbers sit smack in the middle – between the entry-level GX model and the upper-end GS and GT models, which use the bigger 2.5 Litre engine.  With that said, the fuel economy is better than both of those models, even with the automatic transmission.  It’s rated at 7.1 L/100 km (33 mpg) in the city and 5.0 L/100 km (47 mpg) on the highway.  You get a 55 Litre fuel tank.



In terms of styling, as mentioned earlier, it’s a unique take on the small 4-door hatch/mini-wagon, yet the look has become familiar.  In a good way.  Most of this styling exercise works quite well, and is pleasing to the eye.  I enjoyed the sculpted front fenders, the smooth flowing lines that never get too complicated, and the little details – such as the rear spoiler, and the nice exhaust tip.  Mazda calls it a sport-exhaust garnish – as if it were a sprig of parsley or something.  Worst choice of wording I’ve seen in a long time when it comes to trim.  Garnish?  C’mon, Mazda! Anyway, it looks good – simple, clean and effective.

The most polarizing part of the current Mazda3 has been the toothy grin at the front.  I shouldn’t actually call it polarizing, because that would imply that some people love it while others hate it.  I haven’t come across anyone who likes it yet.  So really I should say most off-putting instead of most polarizing.  They have lessened the goofy grille-dentures a bit, but it still looks dumb.  If you don’t see a cartoonish overbite in the front end here, you’re probably blind.

I think that the car would benefit from a slightly lower stance and bigger diameter rims, such as the GTs or those on the delicious Mazdaspeed 3.  It looks a bit…. econo.  Tough to explain, but beside a higher-end model, it makes sense.   Speaking of the wheels, they are 10-spoke SkyActiv specific ones, and they’re alright, but nothing special.




Open the door, and get into the easily accessible front seats.  Both front seats are manually adjustable and heated.  I felt the seat was quite comfortable at first, yet over longer distances, it was a seat I was generally trying to adjust to get more comfortable in.  I haven’t experienced that in any of the cars I’ve reviewed, and I found that I might take issue with these seats if I was headed into a road-trip with this car.

The heating on these seats is funny.  It’s a 5 position rotary switch – the first position is quite toasty, and the second is already hot.  I mean, you will likely get a tan on your rear-end in position two.  I can’t imagine what positions 3, 4 and 5 would bring, other than skin grafts and a stay in the burn unit.  Mind you, you could pack a griddle and you could forget about bringing a camp stove if you were car camping.  Just use the seats to cook things.

The seats are well-bolstered, on both upper and lower cushions.

Materials around the cabin are pretty good.  The bulk of the dash and the center console armrest are covered in a nice, rubberized soft-touch plastic – it felt good and looked good.  It also seemed to attract dust (not that unusual) and fingerprints (significantly unusual).  Other than that, you’ll find textured hard plastics and a couple of slashes of brightwork in the form of aluminized plastic – the door grab handles and a bit of dash trim.  That attempt at brightening things up is in vain – it remains a dark and relatively sombre place to be.

In front of you you’ll find an excellent steering wheel.  The rim is grippy and of medium thickness, and everything just feels right with it.  Comfortable to hold, easy to crank.  It’s manually adjustable for reach and height.  Behind it sits a dual-binnacle holding a traditional set of gauges.  They use white writing on blue backlit halos – the effect is very nice, and easy to read too.  Between them is a small digital screen, with a digital fuel gauge, odometer and two trip meters.

You use a traditional key to start this car, and you get a remote-lock FOB to go with it.

In the dash, above the center stack, there is a monochrome driver information screen, under a little eyebrow in the dash and tilted toward the driver.  Below it is the stereo system, and below that, the climate control system.  At the left of the bottom of the center stack are the two seat heater/stove controls, and on the right is a hinged lid over a cigarette lighter/12V plug.

On the center console, you’ll find a traditional automatic shift gate, with a nice parking brake lever on the left side – nice and close!

I like the red backlighting of the switchgear – it’s easy to see, to read and it’s pleasing to look at.  And it contrasts well with the touches of blue they throw in there.

I found the legroom to be fine in the front, but knee room felt a bit tight.  I’m not tall and my knees were precariously close to the underside of the dash.  My knee often rested against the hard plastic of the center console too – that’s not a complaint though – it was comfortable for me.



Well, there isn’t a ton of it, but it’s mostly good stuff.  Power locks, windows and mirrors can all be controlled from the driver’s door.

Overhead, you’ll find a power tilt and slide sunroof.  I can honestly say that this was the most refined sunroof mechanism I’ve ever used.  Operation was perfectly smooth – no grinding sounds, nothing like that.  It just glides.

The stereo system has an average amount of buttons, but it seems busy on the dash, and requires a second look to figure out what you’re doing – button-wise anyway.  It’s a 6-speaker unit, and it doesn’t sound particularly good.  Especially with digitally compressed music – streaming from my iPhone sounded brutal for the most part – tinny, or boxy.  Audio sources are AM, FM, CDs, auxiliary line-in and Bluetooth streaming.  All work very well – none sound very good.  Sirius satellite radio is optional – there’s a button, but you have to get the capability added for it to work.  I saw it was a $580 upgrade, and can be had a la carte instead of part of a big, pricy package.

Strangely, because the competition all offers it, you can’t connect any USB devices.  There is a second 12 V plug in the center console bin, along with the line-in plug.

The car offers voice control and phone control – pairing a phone is a breeze and the voice recognition system is excellent – and quick!

That driver information screen in the dash shows you the outside temperature, a clock, and information about either the phone or the media system, pending on what you’re using.  Nothing else from what I could figure out.

The climate control is nothing special – no automatic control here, but it works well.

The steering wheel has rudimentary cruise control, media control, hands-free and phone controls.



There’s not a whole bunch of it.  There are two inline cupholders in the center console, which can be covered with a hinged lid.  The glove compartment is small, and is completely filled with the biggest owner’s manual I have ever seen for a car.  Honestly, there must be a couple of Shakespeare classics in there too, because I can’t imagine what would take up that much room.  Maybe they have the owner’s manual translated into all the languages of the world and keep it all in one book.

The door bins are small, and there are just no little nooks and crannies for you to put anything.  It’s actually quite irritating in a car this small, and I’ve seen much better use of space in other cars, where manufacturers will find and use every spare cubic inch for storage.

The bin under the console armrest is small, but deep and quite useful – it also has a removable tray in it.

The main storage story is the cargo area.  It’s a good size (335 Litres) and has a tonneau cover for security.  It’s not huge, but very usable space.  You can multiply that space by folding the 60/40 split seats down.  The trunk is lit well, and very nicely upholstered – no screws or hardware sticking out anywhere – and that’s more than I can say for some cars costing twice as much as this one.  You’ll find 4 tie-down hooks back there too.


Rear Seat

The seats in the back are comfortable, and considering how small this car is, it’s easy to get into the back.  The seats are barely bolstered at all, and I’m finding that quite typical for back seats in this class.  Although there are three seats and three seat belts, I’d consider the middle one an emergency seat at best, or just reserve it for a well-behaved dog.  A small dog.

Legroom in the back is not good.  As noted, I’m not tall, and had the driver’s seat where I normally keep it.  Sitting behind it, I found my not-very-long legs crowded back there.  I’m guessing six-footer passengers will not be happy in this car unless they’re riding shotgun.  Happily, foot room is very good and the space under the front seats makes keeping your feet there not too bad.

I thought the visibility was nice from the back seat, and it’s not claustrophobic back there at all.

Door bins are basically just cupholders.  Convenience-wise, you have power windows, and a ceiling-mounted reading light.  No plugs, no 12V plugs, no storage – other than one seatback map pocket.  I suppose you could throw a couple of things on the tonneau cover behind your head.

The middle seatback folds down to form a lovely armrest with two cupholders in it.

In terms of accommodating your family, you’ll find two LATCH anchors.  I could fit three kids back there, if one wasn’t in a child seat.  Three child seats won’t work.

The Drive

Here’s where I found the biggest issue with this car.  When you get into the car, the driver information screen flashes a bright blue “Zoom Zoom” at you. You’ve seen the ads, the literature.  That’s Mazda’s thing – the Zoom Zoom thing.  I HAVE driven Mazdas that have Zoom Zoom.  But unfortunately that’s where this car fell short for me.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first.  They weren’t kidding when they talked about increased rigidity.  The chassis felt very solid, regardless of what you throw at it.  The handling manners are impeccable, and I was duly impressed that this car didn’t flinch at any corners.  The car stays relatively flat, and you can point this thing in a direction and it will follow your lead – immediately.  My tester had winter tires, and it outhandled most cars I’ve driven with good summer tires.  I felt that, for the most part, the handling was crisp and very predictable and competent.

Low-speed handling, including parking lot maneuvering and u-turns are a breeze.  Steering effort is light and it’s accurate.   I did enjoy the engine noises.  It was throaty under load, and loud enough to remind you of the cool exhaust “garnish” back there.

The ride in this car is firmer than I expected.  I was taken aback by it right away, and to be honest, there were times when I felt the ride was harsh and almost punishing – especially over irregularities like potholes and expansion joints.  Which aren’t irregularities here – we have more of them than we have smooth pavement, so this is a big consideration.  Although the ride can be jarring, it’s not horrible – it’s just less comfortable and stiffer than average.  It is very good on the freeway or highway, and smooths out at higher speeds.

Now where I had no smoothness complaints was in the transmission department.  This new automatic is definitely one of the smoothest transmissions I have driven.  Shifts are mostly imperceptible, and I never really felt that this transmission was confused.  It does seek higher gears, but this car’s mission is to be efficient, so that shouldn’t be surprising.  There is a manual slap-shift, but no paddle shifters – you just use the shift lever.  I feel that Mazda did a fantastic job in refining this transmission.

Visibility out of this car is quite good.  The exception are those huge rear pillars – they’ll get in the way of your shoulder checks a bit, but it’s nothing alarming.

I don’t know if you can tell or not, but I’ve been trying to talk about everything but the actual performance.  But there’s nothing else left to talk about.  So let’s get to it.

This car made me sad when I stepped on the gas.  I truly expected more.  To be fair, when it comes to everyday driving – commuting, keeping up to traffic, etc, this car fares well.  It just does its job quietly and I had no complaints.  But should you try to wring even a little bit of aggressive driving out of it, or worse yet, should you require some emergency power in a dire driving situation, you’ll be in trouble.  It just feels like a slow car.  Acceleration is lackluster and it gets worse at speed.  If you’re on the road, doing 50-60 km/h and you want to get into a passing position and step on the gas – well, go ahead and take some knitting with, because you’ll finish a couple of rows of Uncle Harold’s Christmas sweater before you get where you want to be.  Honest to Pete, the power just never seems to show up in this car.

An example for you.  I put this car into manual mode, and was in second gear, at 3500 RPM.  Now most cars, even underpowered ones, will get out of their own way if you step on it in this situation.  Not the Mazda3 Sport SkyActiv however, and you’ll be experiencing either total frustration when you want to do some truly sporty driving (because it doesn’t like getting to fun speeds AND you have this awesome handling capability just waiting to be used) or you will experience moments of sheer terror where you pull into the fast lane, step on it, and realize you’re nowhere near getting ahead of where you were and the semi behind you is bearing down on you like in a bad dream.

The 2012 Subaru Impreza I tested recently definitely feels faster and more responsive in all driving situations, even with the CVT transmission that I’m not a fan of.  And that’s saying a lot.

Again – this performance is doubly frustrating because this car has handling chops.  They’re just wasted here.




I felt this car offered a dire lack of tech and frankly, basic information.  I’m used to being offered my fuel range and fuel economy (instant, average, both) – yet I couldn’t find that information anywhere.  Strangely, in stock photos, I see a second screen beside the driver information screen and the fuel information is in there – but that screen didn’t exist in this car.  Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong about this.

I didn’t enjoy the dot-matrix display in the driver information screen.  It’s ugly and crunchy text and it’s quite far behind what I’ve seen in the competition – Ford, for one, does these things right, and their displays make this look like an Atari from the 80’s.

Opening the rear hatch requires you to put your thumb on a round sensor button, and simultaneously grabbing under a small cut-out on the bottom edge of the door.  In our snowy, slushy conditions, if your car is grimy and dirty, you are guaranteed to get that sludge on your hand if you’re opening the trunk.  There’s no way around it.

When this transmission is in manual mode, I felt it wanted to do more of my thinking for me than I wanted it to do.  For example, most manual modes will let you lug the engine along – if you put it in too high of a gear, it will lug, but it won’t correct you.  Learn your lessons, learn your car – that’s what I think.  Yet this one will automatically downshift for you if it feels you are letting revs drop too low for the engine.  I don’t appreciate that kind of granny kicking in for me, thank you very much.

When at a light that turned green, I found that letting go of the brake pedal and stepping on the gas resulted in a slight, half-second hesitation before anything happened.  Not that much happens when you step on the gas anyway, but still – I found this hesitation a tad irritating.  It felt as though everything was electronic and the delay was caused by some bureaucratic anti-Zoom Zoom department having a board meeting somewhere in the bowels of the car and debating whether they should let the driver get off the line at all.

Finally, the main control knob for the stereo doesn’t stick out nearly far enough, and it’s actually difficult to grab and rotate it.



The stereo has a horizontal dividing line and a halo circle that are backlit with a nice, deep blue.  These are highly noticeable in the dark.  When you do something stereo-related, using buttons on the dash or the steering wheel, such as changing the volume, radio station, etc, those blue backlit parts glow brighter for a brief second.  It’s a cool detail.

I like that there is a blue engine temperature light that glows until your coolant has reached optimal temperature to be driven efficiently.

There is a red light that glows right above the ignition slot, so you can find it with your key in the dark.

Lastly, I appreciate the excellent handles on the inside of the trunk lid – it’s easy to grab and shut the hatch.  Also, the gas shocks for the hatch are perfect – they open nicely, and they have just a perfect amount of resistance to make it very easy and quick to close, without feeling cheap.  Well done.


The Verdict

I have to say that this car does a lot well.  But when your company sells you to us as a Zoom Zoom product, and you flash that at me when I get into the car, I expect at least a little Zoom Zoom.  And that’s what hurt this car in my opinion.  Most people will be happy with this car, and it’s a refined product that felt well put together and relatively well designed.

But I felt this car fell flat on its grinning face whenever I asked slightly more of it.  I’ll say it again – couple that lack of performance with a car that has great handling capability and it makes it even more irritating.

I give this car a 6 out of 10, which seems like a shame for a car that does so much so well.  It’s a small car, and it doesn’t make many compromises.  But it does make a few – in addition, Mazda is likely running into some issues is that the competition hasn’t stood still.  Build quality is up across the board, tech offerings far surpass this car where most other competitors are concerned, and the Zoom Zoom thing that used to set Mazdas apart isn’t easy to find here.  Frankly, I found the competition to be much Zoom Zoomier for the most part.  Price is a consideration, and although relatively sparsely equipped, this car does manage to keep the price down, and let’s not forget one of its key missions – fuel economy.  It definitely does a good job there, and that’s the one place where Mazda has kept their promise with this car.  Too bad they couldn’t figure out how to do a Zoom Zoom transfusion and keep the fun in it too.  I’d likely make this a 7 out of 10 for the higher horsepower versions of this car and that might be what it takes to make a good car head into great car territory.  With that said, I’d be shopping very carefully out there because the competition is offering a lot of good stuff in this category.

WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was middling.  My wife likes the shape of the Mazda3 Sport, and she liked the drive.  My wife simply doesn’t drive with any sporting intentions, and for folks like her, who don’t need more space, this is a great car.

If you want to push your Mazda3 beyond mundane commuting duties and saving the planet with great fuel economy, you’ll want to look at the higher-trim, higher-power Mazda3s with the 2.5 Litre engine at very least – or better yet, look at the Mazdaspeed 3.  That’s where it’s at.  The SkyActiv, while seemingly achieving great things at the pump, has had a big part of the Zoom Zoom fun sucked out of it.

Disclosure:  Vehicle was provided by Mazda.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.