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.
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 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.