The 2012 Mazda 3 is a versatile compact sedan/hatchback that should appeal to a wide spectrum of buyers. Firstly, it’s an excellent little car and secondly, it’s offered in 32 different trim levels. If you can’t find an acceptable combination, then you and Goldilocks should buy a bus pass.
Suggested list prices range from approximately $15,000 to $24,000. Most models fall in the high-teens to low-twenties depending on options. Our tester Mazda 3i Touring 5-door hatchback with the SKYACTIV engine and six-speed manual transmission had a base price of $18,950. Four options boosted the price to $19,830 before the $795 delivery fee.
The Mazda 3 is fun to drive in addition to being highly functional. That’s important, because there are so many capable, high value cars on the market, but some of them can be boring. The Mazda grille resembles a broad smile that reflects the car’s attitude. That happy aura translates into driver/ownership enjoyment.
Great variety plus many, many positive traits have made the 3 series Mazda’s bestseller.
Walkaround: As mentioned previously, the Mazda 3 seems to wear a permanent smile. At times it can seen a little cartoonish, but we prefer it to the more warrior-like styling of some contemporary Asian vehicles. The car’s basic lines are clean and crisp. Handsome alloy wheels enhance the car’s sporty appearance. Our tester had the optional Crystal White Pearl paint, which was beautiful in bright sunlight.
Interior: The Mazda 3i Touring had excellent front legroom. It was stretch-out spacious; we had to move the seat up slightly for better clutch operation. Backseat legroom was passable with the front seats moved up, but knee knocking tight with the seats fully extended.
Headroom is fine throughout the cabin. Storage cubicles and beverage holders favor front seat passengers. The large glovebox lacks a lock.
The interior design and execution was quite nice for a car so reasonably priced. Designers made great use of contrasting colors and textures, which made the interior seem larger and much more interesting. Our tester’s interior was done in tan and black with brushed stainless trim. The bucket seats were comfortable and supportive with pleasantly soft headrests.
Cargo capacity and flexibility were excellent. The split rear seats fold almost flat. The pass-through from the trunk area is quite wide. The hatch clears tall people and the entire opening is expansive. The cargo floor is flat. The excellent utility factor is a big plus for active families that occasionally need to haul big objects, but don’t want the daily bulk and expense of a mini van.
Under The Hood: Our Mazda 3i Touring tester was equipped with the two-liter SKYACTIV four-cylinder engine that’s rated at 155 horsepower with 148 lb-ft of torque. It was backed by the excellent 6-speed manual transmission, which helped us get the maximum performance and fuel economy out of an already efficient engine. The EPA fuel economy rating covers a lot of ground from 27-mpg city to 38-mpg highway. We averaged high twenties to low thirties in mixed driving conditions.
SKYACTIV is Mazda’s name for their advanced technology 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine. It produces 10 to 15 percent more low and mid-range torque (where it’s most needed and most noticeable) while providing 15 percent better fuel economy than their previous 2.0-liter engine. The SKYACTIV technology has also been applied to the 6-speed automatic and 6-speed manual transmissions offered in the Mazda 3i. If you’re looking under the hood of prospective Mazda 3, the ones with SKYACTIV have bright blue engine covers.
Behind The Wheel: Mazda puts a strong emphasis on driving dynamics and it shows in the majority of their cars (we’re not overly fond of the Mazda 2). Their “zoom — zoom” ad campaign wasn’t just a clever catchphrase. The fine 6-speed manual transmission added a lot to our driving enjoyment.
Ride quality is good for a compact car. It was relatively quiet on most road surfaces. We felt the blend of control and comfort was well suited to our driving style. The top-of-the-line MazdaSpeed 3 has much more aggressive handling, but at a significantly higher price and greater ride harshness.
Whines: The headliner was noticeably cheap. Rear seat room was a little snug.
Bottom Line: There’s much to like about the 2012 Mazda 3i Touring 5-door hatchback. The well-built compact sedan is versatile, economical, comfortable and very importantly, fun to drive. It’s not a sports car (although the MazdaSpeed 3 does come close), but it is sporty. That’s a reasonable compromise for compact family sedan.