Partial Skyactiv Tech Debuts On 2012 Mazda3By Paul Seredynski October 27, 2011
Long a player in the C-Class segment, the Mazda3 makes up nearly half of all Mazda North American Operations U.S. sales. So important is the Mazda3, the company pulled forward the debut of its new Skyactiv fuel-saving technologies to make the 2012 Mazda3 a viable player in the compact-car segments new 40-mpg marketing wars. Mazda recently previewed its refreshed 2012 Mazda3 in Los Angeles, which sports a partial application of Skyactiv. Now on par in the class with its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) highway fuel-economy rating of 40 miles per gallon, the 2012 Mazda3 with Skyactiv has kept its engineered-for-the-driver focus along with the efficiency gains.
The development of Skyactiv Technology is likely one of the biggest R&D investments Mazda has ever made, said Robert Davis, senior vice president of Mazdas U.S. Operations Group. This is a critical part of Mazdas future product development and is key to our future sales success. We have said that our intention is to work toward 400,000 [U.S.] sales, and Skyactiv is going to help us reach it.
Beyond the new Skyactiv drivetrain enhancements, the mid-cycle refresh for the Mazda3 is mild. Both the base 2.0-liter and upper-trim 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engines will remain in the lineup, though the myriad sedan and 5-door trims have been shuffled slightly to accommodate the 2.0-liter Skyactiv driveline, which effectively becomes the 2012 Mazda3s mid-level trim. Mazda makes claim to a slightly more rigid body structure, while exterior tweaks run to a less smiley front fascia, new wheels and three new exterior colors. Inside, the Mazda3s dash/instrument layout sees some clarity improvements, trim materials have been upgraded, Bluetooth is now standard on upper trims and a blind-spot monitoring system is available. Skyactiv-eqipped models will sport a tail badge, and a blue engine cover and headlight bezels (below).
A suite of technologies developed in-house and applied holistically to the entire platform, Mazdas Skyactiv is a clean-sheet approach to improving vehicle efficiency by revisiting each of a vehicles major components, including the platform. The major points of Skyactiv are new lightened chassis, redesigned 6-speed manual and automatic transmissions and high-compression direct-injected gasoline (Skyactiv-G) and low-compression turbocharged diesel (Skyactiv-D) engines.
Mazda has yet to announce stateside plans for the diesel, but its expected to appear within 18 months; the all-new CX-5 crossover will be the first to use the Skyactiv-D engine when it launches in Japan next spring. Arriving shortly in dealers with the 2012 Mazda3, the first full-on Skyactiv suite arrives in spring 2012 with the coming U.S.-spec version of the CX-5, followed by the new Mazda6, premiering as the Takeri concept at next months Tokyo Auto Show.
For the Skyactiv-G gasoline engines, the compression ratio can be as high 14:1, but will reach only 13:1 for full Skyactiv applications in the U.S. due to Mazdas desire to use regular-grade unleaded. For the 2012 Mazda3s pre-Skyactiv platform, engineers were unable to use an exhaust manifold unique to the Skyactiv-G mill, requiring a further drop in the compression ratio to 12:1. What the refreshed Mazda3 does get is the entirely new Skyactiv 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and 6-speed transmissions. The upshot is a small jump in horsepower and torque compared to the base 2.0-liter and a marked improvement in fuel economy. The automatic version 2012 Mazda3 Skyactiv sedan earns the coveted 40-mpg highway figure (its 28 mpg in the city), versus 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway for the 2011 model.
New Engine Approach
Mazda started fresh with its Skyactiv-G engine (top), and though there are no radical new technologies at play, clever application has created a more-efficient, responsive and lighter powerplant. Countering recent trends in combustion-chamber design, the Skyactiv-G engine features a smaller bore and longer stroke, with new piston tops increasing compression. The reduced surface area and smaller combustion chamber are paired with a 6-hole, high-pressure (2,900 psi) multi-event direct-injection setup. The combo reduces heat loss and speeds combustion while reducing the chance for engine knock.
Mazda also went to work on mechanical losses inside the engine, cutting reciprocating drag and valvetrain friction by 25 and 54 percent, respectively. Accessory drive-belt drag was cut 27 percent and pumping losses also were reduced in the oil pump (74 percent) and water pump (31 percent). The one-pound lighter crankshaft has gone from iron to forged steel and overall engine weight drops by 10 percent. Net output is a respectable 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm, a gain of 7 hp and 13 lb-ft compared to the base port-injected 2.0-liter 4-cylinder.
Trick New Trannies
The all-new 6-speed Skyactiv automatic only uses its downsized torque converter below 5 mph, engaging a larger multi-plate clutch above those speeds to give the transmission a more direct throttle feel and increase power-transfer efficiency. The new mechatronic solenoid control module is calibrated for each transmission to adapt for production-tolerance variation and it has been moved inside the transmission to speed shift response. Mazda claims its new tranny is 7 percent more fuel-efficient than a conventional automatic and more efficient than a continuously variable transmission or dual-clutch automated manual.
On the road, the new automatic feels as smooth and transparent as any conventional automatic from a standstill or at parking-lot speeds, moving away from stops without delay or lurching. Upshifts didnt feel all that different, either, but downshifts are nearly instantaneous (Mazda claims 15 milliseconds or less). Thanks to the new clutch setup, under power, the automatic feels directly connected to the engine (like a manual transmission), with no delay or torque-converter slip when you get on the gas.
For the new six-speed manual transmission, Mazda revisited each aspect of its design to lighten shift feel, shorten throws and reduce overall gearbox weight. Internal shift travel has been shortened 15 percent; other changes include lower-viscosity oil, a new oil-distribution system and the use of more ball bearings in lieu of tapered roller bearings. There is more minutiae in the redesign, with the goal being a mechanically rewarding but light-shifting manual transmission. The result? Mazda has always has had some of the industrys better gearboxes, but this new one is one wildly satisfying to use. It combines short throws with a solid feel and positive engagements.
The Refreshed 3
Despite an all-new drivetrain in the mid-level Skyactiv trim, the 2012 Mazda3 does not feel remarkably changed from last year. This is not a bad thing, as the Mazda3 is a well-sorted compact car, lacking only in competitive fuel economy and a more-complete connectivity/technology package. The 2012 refresh does nothing to address Mazdas lack of tech (forget Sync, but how about a USB port?), but the Skyactiv upgrades now generate fuel-economy competitiveness for the 2012 Mazda3. Credit also should go to Mazda for recrafting its popular compact car to keep its fun-to-drive soul intact improving that aspect, even, with the more-satisfying 6-speed transmissions while simultaneously improving efficiency.
The new Skyactiv engine does not feel exceptionally strong, but its powerband is linear and its pulls sweetly and smoothly to redline. Particularly when mated to the truly excellent new manual transmission, the engine is a willing partner in a spirited drive, yet happy to lug in traffic. The 6-speed automatic is essentially transparent and only surprises when pulling off perfectly executed, rev-matched downshifts. The takeaway is that consumers who may have avoided the base engine in the Mazda3 can now have much of the thrill of the 2.5-liter upgrade engine but with markedly better economy than even the base 2.0-liter mill.
For those who find joy in driving, the Mazda3 maintains its position as one of the top choices in the compact-car segment, though it has begun to feel a little hard-edged compared to the refinement levels in some of the newer rides in the class (Fords rich-feeling Focus in particular). The Skyactiv upgrades put the revised Mazda3 on similar fuel-economy footing to other C-class entrants while assuring the volume-seller in its lineup still speaks the language of the enthusiast.