The 2012 Mazda3 is good on gas, the eyes, and the heart. It just goes to show you don’t have to buy a spineless wimp to save money at the pump.

What’s in a name? Skyactiv is an odd one, I guess. Apparently there’s an active sky in the motor? I don’t know. Regardless of the name, the Mazda3 is actually one of the best cars you’ll drive this year; dare I say it’ll be the best? It’s possible. The previous Mazda3, with its Cars inspired front smile, was always a good car to drive, and not too bad on gas, either.

Now, though, Mazda want to prove that their 3 is just as good, if not better, than the others. With a new 6-speed automatic transmission you can expect 28 mpg city, and 40 mpg on the highway. I had a slick shifting 6-speed manual in my test car, which is estimated at 27 city and 39 highway. What did I get? Ah, not so fast, person of low patience. Read on…

The Skyactiv-G, as it’s called (the G is for gasoline, while in Europe, and soon to be in American racing, there’s the Skyactic-D, a diesel motor with similar technology), is a 2.0-liter inline-4 making 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. While that may not sound like a lot, it’s, well, not, actually. I’m not going to sugar coat it for you: the Mazda3 isn’t a ‘bahn burner. It’s a cruiser, that is, until you hit some back roads. The Skyactiv-G benefits from a, high 12:1 compression ratio, 10% less motor weight, reduced engine friction, and a host of other things that you don’t really care about if you’re not a technically minded person.

Personally, I think one of the main factors in the success of the Skyactiv’s fuel management enhancements has been the lowering of the coefficient of drag from .29 to .27. At .29 you’re looking at a pretty slick body, but to be able to lower it .02, that’s something super cars stress when trying to achieve better performance. For instance, the current Toyota Prius has a drag coefficient of .25, and the new Prius C, their minivan looking thing, sits at .28. To the random driver this means nothing, but to a car guy who’s obsessed with technical details, like myself, it means that the engineers and designers at Mazda are actually working hand-in-hand to make something pretty great happen.

None of that will matter if the car drives like a Prius, however. Luckily, the Mazda3 is styled like a champion. I mean, just look at that aerodynamically sexy, winglet-like front fascia, very similar to what you’d see on an Audi S4. So once you hop behind the steering wheel you’re already expecting goodness. Unfortunately, you don’t get that. You get greatness. Cheesy setup, I know. But once you start the Mazda3 you’re not 100% sure you turned it on, because it’s decently quiet. Although the motor from the outside still sounds a little lawn mower-ish. Clutch pedal and gear shift feel is quite good, knife through butter-like,  even though the throws can seem a bit long and lazy.

The moment I got the Mazda3 I had to make a trip to the beach in it. I packed it up with all of my stuff, along with a friend who was going down to visit her friends for the week. Unfortunately it wasn’t until about 5 in the afternoon when we were able to leave, so we were stuck in slow moving highway traffic heading east for the first 45 minutes or so. This was actually a wonderful time to see how good the Mazda3 is in heavy traffic since it had a manual transmission. The clutch never wore me out and was very comfortable in stop-and-go traffic like I was in. Power in first gear at those low speeds was nice, and the throttle allowed for smooth roll-on of the power, and it was never jumpy, unlike some manual cars out there.

Once we finally got through the gridlocked highway, it was time to open the Mazda3 i Touring up a bit and see what she had in her. At as much as 80-85 mph the Mazda3 chugs along nicely riding over bumpy surfaces with a nice cushy ride. I’m not going to say it was a Rolls-Royce inside, but it was definitely up to par with what a small luxury car should ride like; which makes the 3 seem like a bargain. Unfortunately, for as good as the ride and rest of the car is, the stereo is a bit blah. The Mazda3 i Touring Skyactiv that I had was able to play music via the Bluetooth connection off my iPhone4, which I loved. Yet I still had a rely on an auxiliary cable to play music from my iPod. Plus, the sound quality wasn’t always that great. So I was constantly fiddling with the sound controls. Bummer.

Gas mileage at highway speeds is right around the 38-40 mpg area, provided you keep it under 80 mph. Anything above that and you’re looking at mid-30s. So not too bad for a higher cruising speed, I’d say.

Now when I said that the Mazda3 was cushy over bumpy roads, I meant that it allows a compromise between sportiness and luxury. This also bodes well when you load the car up with a lot of equipment, gear, or whatever you’d put in it. Just look how much crap I was able to stuff in the back with the rear seats folded down. I had two backpacks filled with laptops, an Xbox 360, all my games, controllers, my Ferrari roller suitcase, a shoulder bag with my mixing board and assorted radio gear, two of my most prized guitars (a 1957 reproduction custom shop White Blond Fender Stratocaster & a 1956 reproduction custom shop Gibson Les Paul Goldtop customized with my grandmother’s name engraved in the body, and in mother of pearl inlay on the frets), as well as my 1957 reproduction custom shop Fender tweed twin amplifier, and my camera gear, and a really ugly bag that Mini gave away at the 2012 NY Auto Show. Oh, and all my dirty laundry that I was too lazy to wash. I still had a bit of space for a few other miscellaneous things, if I had thought to bring them.

While having the lil’ cruiser for the week I kept trying to find more challenging roads near my parents’ beach house that I could give the Mazda3 a proper thrashing on. I kept coming up with dull, flat areas where the hardest corner was to dodge a trashcan that was too far out into the road… Then I suddenly remembered this obscure place where I used to play around with my Mazdaspeed6 back in the day.

Hoping for a jackpot I turned onto the road and, voilà, it was even better than I had remembered it to be. The road leads to some various neighborhoods. But stay on them and you’ve found yourself some really good twisties that’ll challenge a slower car like the Mazda3 to see how fast it can go, as well as how well it’ll hold up in the corners. And, just as you’d expect, it performed beautifully. I could have gone for a little more feedback in the somewhat dead steering wheel. Regardless of that, there weren’t many issues with traction, even holding 40 mph speeds through a 15 mph corner; not even a rear-end wiggle. All this and I was still averaging 32 mpg after close to an hour of thrashing. What’s more, through it all the ride was nice, the driver’s seat was comfortable, and decently bolstered, too.

So in the end the 2012 Mazda3 i Touring Skyactiv proved itself to be willing, gutsy, and just the right car for any kind of driver. I’d like to see Xenon headlights in this car to help its sight at night, but for the price of just $20,425, and with my personal average fuel mileage of 35.6 mpg the whole week I had the Mazda3, I have no doubts you’d be making the right move for yourself and/or a family vehicle. So when people ask me why I love the Mazda3 overall, it’s because it allows me to drive it the way I like to, feels right, and always knows how to make both my left and right legs happy.

[Photos by Corey Privette]

2012 Mazda3 i Touring Skyactiv MSRP: $18,950

Price with options: $20,425

Destination fee: $795

Options list:

Interior lighting kit ($200)

Rear bumper step plate ($50)

Satellite radio ($430)

The Good: Gearbox is very good; Clutch is sublime; I averaged 35.6 mpg the whole week through very mixed driving; Space, styling and comfort is just perfect; Bluetooth audio at 20 grand.
The Bad: Sound system is just a let down for a car you’ll enjoy driving; I could’ve used a bit more passion in the steering wheel and chassis.
The Ugly: Uh…
The Truth: The best car at the price, and one of the best you’ll ever drive and enjoy driving.