Attempting to hammer the 2012 Mazda3 i Grand Touring through the twisty roads of the Santa Cruz mountains, I wished the car had a manual transmission, instead of the lazy six-speed automatic. But getting the six-speed manual would have entailed a downgrade in trim, which would have meant no navigation system, Bose audio, or blind-spot detection. Automaker trim and option choices don't tend to make much sense.
With the 3, Mazda presents a baffling array of trims. Will that be the four-door sedan or the five-door hatch? Touring or Grand Touring? The i or the s? Or how about the Mazdaspeed 3?
The choice of i or s model will be the most confusing for buyers. The i denotes a Mazda3 with the new Skyactiv technology, essentially a direct-injection 2-liter engine. The s model uses the older 2.5-liter port-injection four-cylinder engine.
Mazda only manages to eke 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque out of its Skyactiv engine, and it shows in the Mazda3's acceleration. The older, 2.5-liter engine makes 167 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque.
To highlight its Skyactiv engine, Mazda gives the cover a blue resin treatment.
But the real win for the Skyactiv engine comes with its fuel economy, which is rated at 28 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. That is up to 10 mpg better than the 2.5-liter version, which got 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.
And after spending a week driving the Skyactiv-equipped Mazda3 around, I would certainly take its superior fuel economy over the slightly greater power of the 2.5-liter. The direct-injection 2-liter engine's 155 horsepower pulled the car along, with its front-wheel drive, adequately through the city and on freeways.
Its roadworthiness suffered little with five people piled into the car, as its acceleration proved ample enough to handle freeway merging. It had no difficulty maintaining freeway speeds so loaded, or climbing typical San Francisco hills.
While perfectly adequate transportation, the Mazda3 was not particularly exciting on twisty back roads. The six-speed automatic transmission gave the throttle a rubbery response, as if it were transmitting power to the wheels on a rubber band. It lacked a sport mode, but its sequential manual shifting was typical for an automatic transmission, with soft and slow gear changes.
The six-speed manual transmission, available on the lesser-trim Touring model, would have made for a more pleasurable experience, allowing faster shifts. The car's suspension felt well-tuned for this type of driving, stiff enough to prevent sway when going around the corners and giving me high hopes for the Mazdaspeed version of the 2012 Mazda3.
The automatic transmission's 6 speeds helped fuel efficiency, but the unit didn't have much Zoom Zoom.
The stiff suspension translated to some uncomfortable moments during normal driving. Potholes and rough pavement were translated into the cabin with bumps and shimmies. It was typical economy-car ride quality, in an era in which economy cars are improving greatly in this regard.
On first getting into this Mazda3, I was disappointed not to find a USB port, and figured Mazda remained a laggard in the cabin tech department. But then I found the Bluetooth streaming audio source. Although not offering the control or information capabilities of good iPod integration, Bluetooth streaming is effortless, and works with a large number of phones.
Even in this 2012 model, Mazda's cabin tech is still moderate. Beyond Bluetooth streaming audio, the only other digital audio sources in our test Mazda3 were an auxiliary input and satellite radio. Of course there was also a Bluetooth phone system, but it was very basic. It didn't give access to a connected phone's contact list, and the voice command system, which controls only the phone, doesn't include dialing by name.
Another nicety of the Grand Tourer trim is a Bose audio system with 10 speakers. The audio quality was better than I would have expected in a Mazda3, but faces stiff competition from other carmakers, which have also begun to offer quality systems in lower-priced cars.
Mazda conveniently places the radio display, which shows two lines in big fonts, up at the top of the dashboard, just below the windshield. This placement is excellent, as it doesn't make drivers peer down at the central console for extended periods of time. Not that the radio display has much data to show. When playing audio over Bluetooth, it merely says BT Audio, with no song information. With satellite radio it will show the artist, but not the station, making it difficult to find specific stations.
Mazda fits a small navigation system next to a large-font audio display.
Next to the radio display in our top-trim Mazda3 was the navigation screen, a 3x5-inch color LCD. It doesn't match the look of the radio display, and it is small as navigation screens go, but I liked it. Again, the positioning is up near eye level, so it doesn't distract from the road. With maps stored in flash memory, the refresh time is very good.
The system's route guidance is subpar, with few graphics showing turn information. While navigating around suburban streets, I found the apparent position of the car on the map seemed slightly off from what it was in reality, once making me miss a turn. The voice prompts don't do text-to-speech, either, so the system doesn't say the names of streets for upcoming turns.
The interface for destination input is very cleverly designed, mostly relying on a rocker switch set into the right steering-wheel spoke. Pushing it in brings up a destination input menu, and alphanumeric selection uses a racetrack-style interface. The latter is a bit tedious, but given the lack of a touch screen or dial, works amazingly well.
Given the limitations of controls and screen size, this racetrack paradigm for alphanumeric entry was very clever.
One final bit of tech that was surprising to find on this car was a blind-spot detection system. An icon in the sideview mirror lit up when a car was traveling in the Mazda3's blind spot, and the system sounded an audible warning if I also hit the turn signal when it detected a car in the blind spot. This system generally did its job, although it came on once when the Mazda3 was in the leftmost lane next to a concrete lane divider.
Beyond this one false positive, the system gave useful warnings a few times when I wanted to change lanes and hadn't realized another car had crept up into the blind spot. Like the navigation system, blind-spot detection is only available in the Grand Touring trim.
The 2012 Mazda3 i Grand Touring came with more cabin tech than I expected, but that is more measured against past Mazda models than other automakers. The cabin has some good tech features, but some serious deficiencies as well. I liked the compact nature of the navigation system, but its lack of traffic data and good route guidance are real problems.
I also expected more from the new direct-injection engine, as other automakers have been able to pull more horsepower out of similar displacement. But Mazda seems to have tuned for fuel economy, which is quite good in the Mazda3 i Grand Touring, especially considering the sizable cabin. As a multipurpose family vehicle, the Mazda3 i Grand Touring is practical and economical.
|Trim||i Grand Touring|
|Power train||Direct-injection 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||28 mpg city/39 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||30.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard flash-memory-based system|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||None|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Bose 265-watt 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Blind-spot detection|
|Price as tested||$24,985|