The Mazda 3i: Didn’t We Almost Have it All?

By Corey Conley

A few months ago I became the proud co-owner of a 2012 Mazda 3i 5-door, affording me the rare opportunity to write an unusually intimate gear review of an expensive piece of hardware. From time to time I hope to provide updates on our dark gray hatch, giving readers an unflinching chronicle of our trials and tribulations with the newest family member.

My purchase of the Mazda 3i was helped along by Mazda’s new SkyActiv engine and transmission, which in 5-door, automatic transmission spec garnered a 39 highway mpg rating from the EPA’s testing cycle. For those who like round numbers, the sedan gains 1 mpg, but rowing your own gears with a manual transmission will dock you a mpg for the privilege. This efficiency combined with the car’s oft-praised driving dynamics and improved reliability scores finally sold me. Well, that and a round of “let me go talk with my manager” from the sales guy.

white silver Mazda 3i 4 door hatchback

I wasn’t the only convert. The folks at Consumer Reports rated Mazda as the second best automaker in the U.S., a gain of four places that put them ahead of every company save Subaru. CR cited improvements to the Mazda 3 as one of the primary reasons for the gain. (Other gains came from dropping several dogs from the lineup, including the lackluster Tribute SUV)

I’ll admit it, for all my high-tech talk I’m a bit shallow when it comes to cars, so one of my sticking points on the current generation Mazda 3 is the gaping, manic grin which adorns the car’s front fascia. This was tempered by the selection of the dark gray color and, for reasons I lack the art degree to explain, the 5-door body style. The curvy wagon rump provides a nice visual counterweight to the Cheshire Cat grin. In the words of the eternal bard, this baby got back.

Mazda 3 Interior

I have no complaints about the interior, which is tasteful, functional, and mostly black. The dash is a handsome and cohesive assortment of varying textures and well placed buttons. All of this is punctuated here and there with a matte, faux-metallic plastic, which is much more attractive than it sounds. At night the speed- and tach-ometers light up their silver-rimmed housing in a pleasant blue and white. Save for information screens at the top and a blue stripe that bisects the dash, all other switches and knobs glow red. The effect is fun, but won’t offend more mature sensibilities like the silly lighting effects of small cars targeted at the Justin Bieber set.

Mazda 3i black and tan interior

What It’s Like Driving The Mazda 3?

Driving the Mazda 3 is almost blissful; every accolade received by the car’s nimble chassis (shared with the highly praised, last generation European Ford Focus and Volvo S40) has been well-earned. The 3 is all about balance. The ride is confident and composed on freeways, but begs you play when things get twisty.

Which I would love to do, if only the overprotective 6-speed automatic transmission would let me. Alas, all is not perfect in Zoom-Zoom paradise. The transmission is part of the whole SkyActiv fuel-efficiency package, and in normal driving it performs with aplomb, snapping through the gears quickly and with barely a bobble. However, attempt to wring out some speed and it does its best to keep you below 2,000 RPM as long as possible. Once you finally convince it that, yes, you really do want to quickly accelerate, it obliges with a downshift that turns the engine into a 5,000 RPM screamer. It is strategically designed to boost fuel efficiency, but at a cost of some zoom.

Will I Miss My Manual Transmission?

Don’t get me wrong, this is still one of the best automatic transmissions I’ve driven, but to someone used to driving a manual, that’s a bit like complementing a root canal.

Luckily a manual mode allows you to pick your own gear and hold it ’til redline. This produces the kind of smiles you come to expect from Mazda, and lets you feel every bit of the 155 horses under the hood. Still, I’m wistful for the SkyActiv’s manual transmission, an all-new unit that wins high praise from enthusiasts. So why not go with the manual? While my personal ride will forever have a clutch pedal, this car was to replace my wife’s daily driver, and so we had to geld this fine steed with a slushbox.

It’s a reasonable strategy for Mazda. After all, the people who typically care about shift points, RPMs, and feeling a direct mechanical connection to their cars don’t typically buy automatics. Still, I shake my head for the missed opportunity.

There’s still plenty of fun to be had in manual mode, at least until you notice your information screen and its continuous read-out of fuel efficiency. Steering wheel mounted buttons let you cycle through a screen that tracks your current fuel efficiency, average fuel efficiency, and average speed. Drive like grandma and the numbers spike into the 50s; hot dog it and watch your $4.00 gas combust at 9 mpg.

Using the very unscientific method of dividing total miles driven on a tank by the “gallons” readout at the pump, the car consistently gives you an optimistic figure 1-2 mpgs higher than pen-and-paper. Still, we’ve been achieving 31-33 mpg during mostly city mileage, which is a notable gain over the EPA’s 28 for city driving. A tour to and through the hills and vales of east Tennessee left us with a respectable 35, including a good amount of u-turns, hill climbs, and switchbacks.

While the car’s handling and build quality evinces a vault-like solidity, the view out the back window is similarly bunker-ish. Whether this is an inevitable result of the wagon body style or particular to the Mazda 3, my first weeks with the car left me constantly adjusting my rear-view mirror, which seemed just barely large enough to view the entire rear window (including the full-sized rear headrests). During that same trip to East Tennessee I discovered the side-view mirrors cover quite a wide swathe of the roadway, sufficient to cover any blind spots left by the perfunctory center mirror. The downside to the broad viewing angle on the mirrors is best summed by the phrase “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

Maybe my height is to blame for some of the difficulties. At 6’4″ your humble test-driver is a bit on the tall side, and this may be why I cannot see the sky from my rearview mirror unless I sit very low in the seat. As a passenger, my height causes another problem. Where the far left side of the glovebox angles downward as it connects with the center console. This also happens to be where I rest my knee when I’m slouching in the passenger seat. Mazda, it seems, does not abide poor posture. I can respect that.

Fortunately, that space is not wasted. After nearly two months of ownership I discovered that the glovebox’s small pocket where the owner’s manual rests is actually just the tip of a much larger space that extends a couple feet into the dash. Hypothetically one could smuggle three or four bottles of their favorite wine vintage in the space. Hypothetically.

So far we have just over 2000 miles on our 2012 Mazda 3, and aside from some hail damage there are no problems to report. We decided on the Mazda because of its balance of safety, fuel efficiency, size, styling, performance, and price, and we have not been disappointed with our purchase. So far, I highly recommend this car.

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