2012 Mazda 3 Review and Prices

Last Updated: May 9, 2011

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2012 Mazda 3 Buying Advice

The 2012 Mazda 3 is the best compact car for you if you want a sportier-than-usual four-door sedan or hatchback, yearn for 40 mpg on the highway, and appreciate a “smiley face” that’s suddenly less smiley.

The 2012 Mazda 3 gets styling revisions that tone down its oft-criticized clown-grin grille. And behind the revised grille is an advanced new four-cylinder engine that’s among the best in the class for combined power and fuel economy. Mazda calls the new engine the Skyactiv-G and accompanies it with updates to this compact car’s cabin and chassis. In all, the 2012 Mazda 3 changes constitute a timely freshening for a basic design launched in model-year 2010. They keep the Mazda 3 relevant against an onslaught of tough new rivals, including the all-new 2012 Ford Focus and the fully redesigned 2012 Honda Civic. The new engine is an option, but even the base-model 2012 Mazda 3 promises a more youthful demeanor than most small cars, and the top-of-the-line turbocharged MazdaSpeed 3 version is a reasonably priced pocket rocket.

Should you buy a 2011 Mazda 3 or wait for the 2012 Mazda 3? Buy a 2011 Mazda 3 if you need a sporty compact sedan or hatch to fill a transportation need or scratch a driving-fun itch. Even without the Skyavtiv engine, these are solid and entertaining compact cars. Wait for the 2012 Mazda 3 if you simply can’t stomach the super-smiley-face grille and hanker for the latest in four-cylinder technology.

2012 Mazda 3 Changes back to top

Styling: The 2012 Mazda 3 removes some laugh lines from the goofy-grin grille that’s been losing good-taste debates since its debut on the 2010 Mazda 3. The basic crescent shape remains but the shape is calmer and more integrated with the car’s remolded and more aerodynamic front fascia. In addition, 2012 Mazda 3s equipped with the Skyactiv engine get blue inserts in their headlamps, rounded instead of rectangular fog lamps, and a “Skyactiv” exterior badge. Underhood they sport a blue engine cover. Some wheel designs change, and Mazda says the every 2012 3’s body is more rigid thanks to reinforced welds and stronger materials. Skyactiv versions also get new structural bracing.

Inside, every 2012 Mazda 3 wears more black on its dashboard and console surfaces and gets contrasting silver-colored control details. The dashboard’s multi-information display now uses white instead of red text and graphics, and fabric seat patterns are revised. Interior accents in the 2012 MazdaSpeed3 are silver instead of red. And various instrument backlight colors now differ depending on model: blue for Skyactive cars, red for the MazdaSpeed3, gray for some others.

Unchanged is the 2012 Mazda3’s choice of roomy four-door sedan and four-door hatchback body styles. It’s a credit to the Mazda 3’s 2010 redesign that both still look fresh and aggressive, with sheetmetal waves and fender bulges that don’t get shy in the face of flashy new competitors such as the Focus and the redesigned-for-2011Hyundai Elantra.

Expect the 2012 Mazda 3 sedan to continue to outsell the more expressively styled hatchback. Both retain a tastefully trimmed instrument panel with easy-to-read round gauges. Most controls are logically positioned, and a small screen atop the dashboard in the driver’s line of sight displays the radio-station and climate-control status.

The 2012 Mazda 3s again count interior roominess among their drawing cards. There’s space enough to seat four adults in comfort; a fifth can squeeze in the back seat for shorter trips. Seat travel up front is sufficient for taller passengers, with decent legroom in the back, provided the fronts aren’t in their rearmost position. Rear seatbacks fold flat on a 60/40-split basis to expand cargo possibilities. The 2012 Mazda 3 sedan has a 12-cubic-foot trunk, about average for the compact class. The Mazda 3 hatchback has a useful 17 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seat and an impressive 43 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded.

The performance-tuned 2012 MazdaSpeed 3 is again offered only as a hatchback and features its own front-end-appearance touches, accentuated front fenders, a functional hood scoop, and specific interior trim items like aluminum foot pedals and a black leather transmission shift knob.

The 2012 Mazda 3 will again ride a rigid structure shared with the 2012 Ford Focus. After years of making do with an antiquated homegrown chassis, the 2012 Focus finally adopted the Mazda 3’s basic engineering, which dates to when Mazda and Ford were corporately intertwined. More rigid underpinnings help minimize a car’s vibration and harshness and contribute to cornering prowess.

The 2012 Mazda 3 is again offered in multiple trim levels, each version adding more features at progressively higher prices. Mazda hadn’t nailed down specifics of the 2012-model content in time for this review. The central issue was what trim levels would be available with the Skyactiv engine.

Traditionally, the Mazda 3 sedan has offered five levels of trim, each with an “i” or an “s” prefix indicating the model’s engine (see below). The models have been the i SV, i Sport, i Touring, s Sport, and s Grand Touring. Similarly, the Mazda 3 hatchback was available in s Sport and s Grand Touring models, plus the MazdaSpeed 3.

Mechanical: Mazda intends the term Skyactiv to suggest environmental consciousness blended with sporty motion. It’s actually Mazda’s branding for its encompassing new approach to high-efficiency engines, transmissions, even body design and chassis tuning. It launches on the 2012 Mazda 3, and in more complete form on the CX-5, the upcoming replacement for the Mazda Tribute compact crossover SUV.

Addition of the Skyactiv-G to the 2012 Mazda 3 expands the car’s engine lineup to four cylinder engines. The 2012 Mazda 3’s base engine continues as a 2.0-liter with 146 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. (Think of torque as the force behind acceleration, horsepower as the energy that sustains momentum.) This base engine is available only on the 2012 Mazda 3 sedan and comes only with a five-speed manual in the base i SV model but with a choice of the manual or a five-speed automatic in the other i sedans. The automatic’s floor shifter includes an alternative shift mode that allows manual-type control of gears.

The Skyactiv-G also is a 2.0-liter but of a more sophisticated design, highlighted by direct fuel injection, a state-of-the-art system in which fuel is introduced directly to the cylinders to optimize power and fuel efficiency and minimize exhaust emissions. The 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine is rated at 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. It will be available in both the sedan and hatchback body styles and with a choice of a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. Mazda, by the way, is extending the Skyactiv brand to identify even these transmissions, labeling the manual the Skyactive-MT and the automatic the Skyactiv-Drive AT. I says the Skyactiv-MT is engineered for a sporty shift feel and notes that the Skyactiv-Drive AT marks the Mazda 3 debut of an automatic transmission with six speeds.  

For power, sophistication and fuel efficiency, introduction of this Skyactiv-G puts the 2012 Mazda 3’s engine in league with the non-turbocharged 2.0-liter fours in other leading compacts. These top rivals include the Focus at 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque, and the Kia Forte 156 and 144, respectively.

The 2012 Mazda 3 sedans and hatchbacks wearing the s prefix will again employ a 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated at 167 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque and available with a six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic. The sporty 2012 MazdaSpeed 3 hatchback again packs a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 263 horsepower and a spine-tickling 280 pound-feet of torque. The 2012 MazdaSpeed 3 remains available only with a six-speed manual transmission.

The 2012 Mazda 3 retains its front-wheel-drive architecture. Front-drive places the engine and transmission over the tires that propel the car. This is an advantage over rear wheel-drive in terms of wet-road traction, though can also introduce an unwanted trait called torque steer. That describes the steering-wheel tug and font-end wander that occurs during fast take-offs and in quick sharp turns; here it’s most pronounced in the powerful MazdaSpeed3 model.

Overall, a sportier-than-average suspension should again give the 2012 Mazda 3 more precise cornering abilities than usually found in the compact class. Thankfully, the car should also maintain its reasonably smooth ride quality over all but the most pockmarked asphalt.

The 2012 Mazda 3’s standard equipment again includes four-wheel disc brakes with antilock control designed to furnish skid-free stopping power. Traction control for added low-speed grip on wet roads and antiskid stability control to mitigate sideways slides also remains standard. Sixteen-inch wheels and tires are again be standard on i models, with 17s included with the s versions. The 16-inch alloys on Skyactiv models are of a “twisted-surface spoke design new to the Mazda 3, while the 17s on the s models are visually revised with enlarged openings between the spokes for a lighter, more dynamic appearance.

The 2012 MazdaSpeed 3 again comes with a performance-based suspension, steering, and brakes. Its 18-inch wheel/tire upgrade also contributes to crisper handling, albeit at the expense of a rougher ride. It also includes a limited-slip differential and Mazda’s Torque Management System; both features are designed to help counteract torque steer.

Features: Introduction of a blind-spot-monitoring system keynotes feature additions to the 2012 Mazda 3. Blind-spot monitoring is designed to alert drivers of traffic in adjacent lanes that might not be visible through the car’s mirrors. Mazda’s system uses radar sensors to detect traffic entering blind spots and illuminates indicator lamps housed in the door mirrors. It the Mazda 3 driver activates a turn signal with the intention of changing lanes while the indicators are lit, the lamps flash and a buzzer sounds.

Blind-spot monitoring is relatively rare in the compact category and so are adaptive headlamps; both are more typically the province of cars in higher price classes. Adaptive headlamps turn elements of the headlight a few degrees in harness with steering angle in order to increase lighting through corners.

Mazda at the time of this review had not finalized which 2012 3’s would be available with blind-spot monitoring, but it’s almost certain to be confined to upper trim levels. Adaptive headlamps previously were an exclusive option for the MazdaSpeed3 model, but could see wider availability in the 2012 lineup. Mazda pairs the adaptive headlamps with automatic-leveling headlamps with xenon high- and low-beams, another rarity in this class.

The 2012 Mazda 3 will continue standard with chest-protecting side-impact airbags for the front seats and head-protection side-curtain airbags for all outboard passengers. Tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power locks and windows, and a CD audio system also are standard.

Faced with renewed competition, Mazda may decide to include air conditioning among the standard equipment on the entry-level i SV sedan for model-year 2012, but such amenities as cruise control, keyless entry, a Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone interface, trip computer, power driver’s seat, and heated front seats will again be distributed throughout the range as standard or optional features. Mazda has thus far confined USB iPod interface to a dealer-installed accessory for the 3; it’s been available on all trim levels.

A Tech Package offered on s and MazdaSpeed 3 models should again include premium add-ons like a navigation system, keyless entry/pushbutton ignition, automatic headlamps and windshield wipers, Sirius satellite radio, LED taillights, a perimeter alarm.

2012 Mazda 3 Prices back to top

Prices for the 2012 Mazda 3 weren’t available in time for this review but they’re not expected to rise more than nominally over their model-year 2011 levels – though addition of the Skyactiv powertrains will create a new price tier within the lineup.

Expect a 2012 Mazda 3 base-price range of roughly $16,750-$25,000.That would again allow the 2012 Mazda 3 to boast one of the most affordable entry prices in its class, with the base i SV model starting below $17,000. (Estimated base prices in this review include the manufacturer’s destination fee; Mazda’s fee for the 2011 Mazda 3 was $795.)

Expect the 2012 Mazda 3 i Sport sedan to start around $17,750, with the i Touring sedan priced from about $19,000. Expect to pay around $850 for the five-speed automatic transmission on all versions but the base i SV sedan, where it remains unavailable.

Mazda says presence of the Skyactiv powertrain will create models priced above the i sedans but below the s cars with their 2.5-liter engine. That would suggest a starting price of around $19,500 for a Skyactiv sedan and around $20,500 for a Skyactiv hatchback. The Skyactiv-Drive AT six-speed automatic should add about $1,000 to the new 2.0-liter models.

Estimated base prices for the 2012 Mazda 3 sedans with the 2.5-liter engine are $20,500 for the s Sport sedan and $23,500 for the s Grand Touring sedan. Among 2012 Mazda 3 hatchbacks, the s Sport hatchback will likely carry a base price around $21,000, with the s Grand Touring hatchback starting about $25,000. Look for the 2012 MazdaSpeed3 to start around $24,500.

A power moonroof and Bose surround-sound audio system will likely be bundled in a package for Touring, Grand Sport, and s Sport models and cost around $1,400. The Tech Package on s models should be priced around $1,900; this package should cost about $2,600 on the MazdaSpeed 3 hatchback and include the Bose audio system.

2012 Mazda 3 Fuel Economy back to top

EPA fuel economy estimates for the 2012 Mazda 3 weren’t available in time for this review but Mazda says addition of the Skyactiv powertrain means a gas-mileage improvement of as much as 21 percent over models with the base 2.0-liter, despite the new engine’s added power and torque.

Mazda pegs the 2012 Mazda 3 sedan with the Skyactiv engine and the six-speed automatic transmission at 28/40 mpg city/highway. That boosts the Mazda 3 into the 40-mpg club, considered the benchmark for top-flight new cars with conventional gas powertrains – in other words, not gas-electric hybrids or extended-range electric vehicles. The automaker estimates a rating of 27/39 mpg for a 2012 Mazda 3 sedan with the six-speed manual transmission.

The Mazda 3 hatchback weighs slightly more than the sedan and is a bit less aerodynamic, attributes the carmaker sites in estimating a fuel-economy rating of 27/38 mpg for a 2012 Skyactiv hatchback with the six-speed manual transmission and 28/38 for one with the six-speed automatic. Those are still laudable figures.  

Otherwise, 2012 Mazda 3s with the holdover engines ought to remain roughly mid pack for fuel economy among compact cars.

Expect the 2012 Mazda 3 2.0-liter four-cylinder i models to rate 25/33 mpg city/highway with the five-speed manual transmission and 24/33 with five-speed automatic. The 2.5-liter-powered s versions should again be rated 22/29 with the manual and 20/28 with automatic. The 2012 MazdaSpeed 3 version should again be rated at 18/25 mpg and remain the only Mazda 3 model to require premium-octane fuel.

2012 Mazda 3 Release Date back to top

The 2012 Mazda 3 i and s models are set to go on sale in autumn 2011. Mazda says the Skyactiv versions are likely to go on sale a short time thereafter.

What's next for the 2012 Mazda 3 back to top

Addition of the awkwardly named but promising Syactiv engine and transmissions, along with the minor styling facelift, constitutes a midcycle freshening for these appealing sedans and hatchbacks. The Mazda 3 is a steady seller but doesn’t post the high volumes of segment sales leaders that include the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, and Hyundai Elantra. The 2012 changes probably won’t have a huge effect on this car’s popularity but will keep the Mazda 3 a viable alternative for its core audience of younger, educated, style-conscious buyers.

The Mazda 3’s next full redesign probably won’t come until model-year 2016. The styling will evolve though the basic dimensions won’t likely change. By then its family of engines will almost certainly boast additional fuel saving measures like the stop-start technology found in hybrids, which shuts down the engine during deceleration and while at idle, starting up again immediately when necessary. Speaking of which, the next generation Mazda 3 could come in a hybrid-powered version of its own – perhaps even as a plug-in hybrid -- using gas-electric technology developed in conjunction with Toyota.

On the infotainment front, expect Internet connectivity via smartphones for streaming music from services like Pandora.com and even receiving Twitter, Facebook, and email messages.

2012 Mazda 3 Competition back to top

Honda Civic: Redesigned for 2012, America’s perennial best-selling compact continues with a broad lineup of coupes and sedans, including a high-mileage hybrid and sporty Si variants. They’re all fully restyled, though the changes are far from revolutionary so Civic is no longer the most futuristic-looking car in the class. Without growing on the outside, however, the Civic sedan is larger on the inside than the 2006-2011 models and is among the most spacious compact cars. The coupe remains a tighter, specialty model. The base engine is again a 1.8-liter four-cylinder that’s still no fireball at 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. With the five-speed manual transmission, it rates 28/36 mpg. With the five-speed automatic it rates 28/39, or 29/41 in extra-cost HF high-fuel-economy trim. Si versions have a 201-horsepower 2.4-liter, a mandatory six-speed manual, and rate 22/31. The Civic Hybrid sedan returns with 110 net gas-electric horsepower but is retuned to achieve 44/44 mpg. Base-price range is $16,555-$24,205 for gas sedans and $17,355-$24,205 for coupes. Si models start at $22,955 and the Hybrid costs $24,800-$27,500, depending on trim.

Hyundai Elantra: The Elantra sedan from this popular South Korean carmaker was radically restyled for model-year 2011 with Hyundai’s “fluidic sculpture” design that’s an amalgam of curves and creases. Eye-catching from any angle, the latest Elantra bears a family resemblance to Hyundai’s successful Sonata midsize sedan and its redesigned 2012 Accent subcompact. Elantra’s 2012 lineup could expand to include a four-door hatchback model. Expect the only engine to remain a 148-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder good for 29/40 mpg city/highway with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Expect Elantra to continue to offer a generous array of features that’ll include a touch-screen navigation system with real-time traffic, weather, sports and stock-market information, a rearview camera, and heated front and rear seats. Estimated 2012 Elantra base-price range is $16,000-$23,000.

Ford Focus: All new for model-year 2012 and built on a global platform that shares DNA with the Mazda 3, these four-door sedans and four-door hatchbacks are as stimulating to drive as they are to look at. Among their draws: European-tuned suspensions and leading-edge infotainment technology. The base engine is a direct-injection 2.0-liter with 160 horsepower. Ford plans a MazdaSpeed3-rivaling high-performance Focus ST hatchback model with an EcoBoost turbo 2.0 of around 247 horsepower and 266-pound-feet of torque linked to a six-speed manual. Available as well will be the 2012 Focus Electric, a purely battery-powered model Ford says is capable of traveling 100 miles on a single plug-in charge. Base-engine gas models rate 26/36 mpg with a five-speed manual and 28/38 with Ford’s six-speed dual-clutch automatic; an extra-cost Super Fuel Efficient option with the automatic gets 28/40 mpg. Base price range is $16,995-$24,090 for the 2012 Focus sedan and $18,790-$24,215 for the cooler-looking and more versatile hatchback. EcoBoost- and EV-model prices were unavailable in time for this report.

Hyundai Elantra: The compact Elantra sedan was radically restyled for model-year 2011 with t Hyundai’s “fluidic sculpture” design that’s an amalgam of curves and creases. This compact now bears a passing resemblance to Hyundai’s successful Sonata midsize sedan. Elantra’s 2012 lineup will expand from a four-door sedan to include a four-door hatchback model. Expect the only engine to remain a 148-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder good for 29/40 mpg city/highway with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Expect the Sonata to continue to offer a generous array of features that’ll include a touch-screen navigation system with real-time traffic, weather, sports and stock-market information, a rearview camera, and heated front and rear seats. Prices should range from $15,000-$21,000.

Ford Focus: All new for model-year 2012 and built on a global platform that shares DNA with the Mazda 3, these four-door sedans and four-door hatchbacks promise to be as stimulating to drive as they are to look at. Among their draws will be European-tuned suspensions and leading-edge infotainment technology. Gas four-cylinder engines will range from a base unit of about 160 horsepower to an EcoBoost turbo of around 247. Available as well will be the 2012 Focus Electric, a purely battery-powered model Ford says is capable of traveling 100 miles on a single plug-in charge. Expect gas models to register fuel-economy in the high 20s in the city and high 30s on the highway, with an extra-cost Super Fuel Efficient option package boosting highway mileage to 40 mpg. Base prices start at $16,995 for the 2012 Focus sedan and $18,265 for the hatchback.

2012 Mazda 3 Next Steps