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Motoring: Mazda3 GS a real pleasure to drive

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | October 31st, 2011

The Mazda3 is a popular model for its maker, and there is a good reason why: it is easily one of the best new cars you can buy for under $20,000.

For this reason, Mazda sells these by the bucket load. It makes up one-third of all Mazdas sold in North America and Mexico. Since this model's birth, over three million units have been sold globally, of which 367,000 of these found a home in Canada.

Due to this model's popularity, Mazda has just opened a new production facility in Mexico to produce the Mazda3 for North American consumption.

The model being built will be the new Mazda3. From the outside, it doesn't look much different. The keen eye will spot the new front bumper; otherwise all is pretty much exactly the same, which is not a bad thing.

Inside is pretty much the same story as well. It is the same interior that has been with us for some time, and it continues to stay that way.

What has changed, specifically on the mid-range GS-model, is the stuff you cannot easily see. I'm talking about the internals of the engine and transmission.

The Mazda3 GS will become the first model in the company's portfolio to receive their new SkyActiv engines and transmissions.

What is SkyActiv all about?

This is Mazda's new technology, and the innovation they have come up with is a first in the industry. While nearly all combustion engines have pistons (except the rotary engine), the piston in any car from a Fiat to a Ferrari is almost the same. The pistons in the SkyActiv engines are different. They have radically reshaped the piston head to make more use out of a combustion — in other words, it requires less effort to make more power. So while the old 2.0- litre, four-cylinder engine (which is still offered on the base Mazda3 GX) produced 148 hp, the new engine with the same displacement produces 155 hp. Not a huge gain, but when you take into consideration that it has also improved fuel economy by 15 per cent (average of 7.2-litres/100 km on a combined cycle), the improvements are a step in the right direction.

The engine, however, is only part of the new technology — the transmission has received just as much attention. While the new sixspeed manual benefits from shorter throws and lighter weight, it is not the big story here. The big changes have been reserved for the new six-speed automatic.

This new automatic not only improves fuel economy by seven per cent, but also gives a much more connected feel when being used in a sporty manner. This new transmission has a torque converter for low speeds and a multi-plate clutch for higher speed shifts. What this all means is when you use this transmission in its StepTronic mode, the gear changes are lightning fast when you gear up, and even blips the throttle on down shifts. This is very clever and exciting stuff.

Trust me, if you bought this automatic for convenience, you won't feel short-changed for times when you just wanna have some fun.

However, all is not glowing regarding the new powertrain. While the new engine is more powerful and more efficient, it has very little torque at low speeds. When accelerating away from a traffic light, my co-driver and I both found the acceleration to be a bit sluggish. Talking to other people at this cars launch in sunny California, and they all agreed it could make do with some extra get up and go.

Once on the move, the engine is fine and the transmission really does make up for any deficiency in power.

One area the Mazda3 was always very good at was in the ride and handling department. That remains unchanged and I'm glad about that. No other compact car is as much fun to drive through the twisties as much as the Mazda3, and that still remains true with the new model. No wonder Mazda had chosen a twisty route through the hills and canyons of Pasadena, California for this launch. The roads we drove on were easily the best I have ever seen, and hope to one day again visit the area and drive on those roads again.

The base Mazda3 GX, which does not get the new engine and transmission, starts at $15,595. The Mazda3 GS SkyActiv (the new model) starts at $18,995. The top-of-the-line GT model also doesn't get the new hardware, and it is priced at $23,695. Quick note: both the sedan and hatchback body styles are available on all the models.

So the SkyActiv engine is good, the transmission is even better and the pricing is very competitive. Should you go out and buy one? Yes.
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