Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In need of a “fun” button, The New Mazda 3 Skyactiv

Skyactiv is an interesting concept. It's a response to world governments who are putting pressure on Auto Manufacturers to bring their fuel consumption averages down by huge margins. Now for a thrifty person like me I'm all for better fuel economy because I can save my money so one day I can afford a home... One day.

Of course government's motives aren't just to save me money, they are also to get those carbon emission numbers down so they can brag at the next summit.

There's an issue for car lovers though. See while fuel savings helps to save money, a lot of the time the technologies employed also sacrifice fun. Hybrids are most definitely not fun because most of the time is spent waiting for a computer to decide what powertrain it wants to use. And electric Power Steering eats up any sort of tactility. Basically if you want to be frugal you'll have to suffer.

But Mazda is arguing this doesn't have to be so. And so with their clever Skyactiv technologies they claim that you can get much of the fuel savings without any of the drawbacks. A car that's more efficient and more fun? Well, their first Skyactiv car is out and I thought I should see if their claims actually stood for something.

Let me introduce you to the Mazda 3 Skyactiv. Basically it's a Mazda 3 with a new transmission and engine. The company says this is only a partial application of the technologies because the chassis is still same old same old.

Their new Skyactiv 2.0 Litre 4 Cylinder has good figures; 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. That's 7 more hp and 13 more lb-ft of torque than the standard 2.0 litre. But here's the kicker you get those increased figures sooner. Which means it'll be much more responsive and much more fun.

There's also a new automatic transmission in the car. It’s Mazda's 6-speed SKYACTIV-Drive. The folks from Mazda said that they wanted the automatic not to feel like an auto, instead keep the responsive characteristics of a manual - which doesn't get torque converter lag - and quick shifts of a double clutch. Which means it'll be much more responsive and much more fun.

Except it isn't.

I spent an entire week searching for the fun in the Skyactiv 3 and I couldn't find it. I wasn't expecting it to be fast since the 0-60 mph time is around 9 seconds. But I was expecting to feel some grunt. Grunt I have felt in older, less powerful cars.

I don't want to direct all the blame on the engine because I believe its abilities were being wasted. I think the problem here is the transmission. It flat out refused to downshift. I'd push the pedal down and expect a kick down of some sort only to be disappointed.

I know that this is an annoying characteristic of most autos, but in this case the transmission was always in the highest gear to save fuel. And the highest gear is miles from the lowered torque and power peaks. Conversely, it was super easy to drive slow and efficiently. It's entirely possible to make a journey without ever exceeding 2000rpm. 

All this is too bad, because the Mazda 3 has a really nippy and responsive chassis. But the powertrain just doesn't respond. All I want is a kick down.

“Now you could have solved this by using the sport steptronic mode,” you might be thinking. The issue here is that I was always moving the stick in the wrong direction. Pushing up is to downshift, and pulling down is to upshift.  I guess this makes more sense ergonomically; but logically it got my brain all twist tied. I'm sure you could get used to it.

My advice to you, get the manual. You're in control, and the new Skyactiv-MT is supposed to have nice, sweet and light short throws, which should make it very fun. My advice to Mazda, put a “Fun” or “Zoom” button on the dash that tells the car to be on edge. Sport buttons are in most all cars now, and I think it could be a creative solution to the reluctant transmission problem.

Now what about Fuel consumption. Well... er... after a week of desperately trying to have fun I achieved to my calculations 7 Litres per 100km, the car's city rating. On the Highway the government predicts about 4.9 L/100k which is quite amazing. But I'd never know for sure if there ever was a time I was close to that because oddly the Skyactiv 3 does not have a fuel consumption gauge. It seems like an odd omission from a car that is touted to be concentrating on better fuel economy.

I'm sad to report that I am disappointed with the Skyactiv 3. It had so much promise, and I had so much hope in a car that's both more efficient and more fun. Unfortunately neither is the case and what's left is just an average compact sedan with a small rear leg room, silly smile, amazing glove box and comfortable seats.

Mazda 3 GS-Skyactiv

Base price (SKYACTIV inc. Freight and PDI): $20,890
Options: Moonroof $895, GS-L Package (Leather, Fog Lights, Power driver seat) $1,300
As-tested: $24,285

1 comment:

  1. When it comes to manually shifting in the auto, think about it. You crack the throttle, you're pushed back into the seat, you pull back to upshift. You apply the brakes for a corner, g-forces throw your weight forward, you push forward to downshift. Watch video clips of race cars with sequential gearboxes and you'll find the same simple principles applied. Another go at it with proper user instructions may yield you better driving experience. Another thing I didn't understand is why you were disappointed about the economy-minded car not dropping gears easily when not in manual mode. Logic would say, "Well, duh, man.". If you're in D, likely driving normally, and going for fuel mileage, why would you be mashing the throttle and needing that auto downshift anyway? If you ask me, that's like getting mad at your freezer for freezing things too quickly. Given, the car isn't going to be for everyone, and I respect your opinions, but I just wanted to note those two points. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it very much. I find it to be an excellent car, for what it is, that avoids compromise with all it's got. Cheers.