2012 Mazda Mazda3 (© Rick Wait)

2012 Mazda Mazda3

Mazda is one of the few automakers that has avoided grandstanding on hybrid, electric or other alternative-fuel solutions that will take years to reach the mainstream.

Instead, it has focused mostly on incremental improvements to existing combustion engines and transmissions. Those and other efforts, such as weight reduction, fall under a new technology umbrella called Skyactiv.

In New York, the first fruits of those efforts were revealed in the form of a new 2.0-liter engine and transmissions that will first be available on the revamped Mazda3.

Bing Images: 2012 Mazda3

The new Skyactiv engine has 15 percent more torque yet is 15 percent more efficient than the current 2.0-liter four cylinder. A new Skyactiv 6-speed automatic transmission blends the best attributes of conventional automatics, continuously variable transmissions and dual-clutch transmissions to improve fuel economy up to 7 percent over the company's existing 5-speed automatic. A Skyactive 6-speed manual is small and lighter than the current 6-speed stick-shift, and it has a 10 percent shorter shift-lever throw, which driving enthusiasts will appreciate.

Mazda is using the Minagi Concept — which debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in March and previews the coming CX-5 crossover — to showcase additional Skyactiv technology. This includes a new turbo diesel engine, a lighter body structure that's 30 percent more rigid and an all-new chassis that weighs 14 percent less.

All of this technology is part of Mazda's larger effort announced in 2008 to reduce average fuel economy of all its vehicles by 30 percent by 2015.

More coverage from the New York Auto Show

2012 Mazda3

Click to enlarge picture2012 Mazda Mazda3 (© Rick Wait)

2012 Mazda Mazda3

Click to enlarge picture2012 Mazda Mazda3 (© Rick Wait)

2012 Mazda Mazda3

Click to enlarge picture2012 Mazda Mazda3 (© Rick Wait)

2012 Mazda Mazda3

What is it? Mazda's sporty entry in the compact-car market.

What makes it hot? The Mazda3 is the company's best-seller and accounts for nearly half of all Mazda sales in the United States. Its styling has been updated to reflect the company's new Kodo ("soul of motion") design motif — although it represents an intermediate step, rather than the full expression of new form language. The exterior is also more aerodynamic, which helps reduce fuel consumption. Last year's engines — 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter 4-cylinders — carry over unchanged, as do the automatic and manual transmissions they can be paired with. The difference is the addition of the new Skyactiv engine and transmissions, which will be available on both the sedan and 5-door hatchback. The sedan equipped with the Skyactiv engine and automatic transmission will get 28 mpg city/40 mpg highway. The Mazda3 interior gets very minor updates in trim. The suspension and steering have been improved with an emphasis on creating smooth, linear response and feedback. The body has also been stiffened to improve ride quality.

What concerns us? The current Mazda3 is based on a platform that dates back to the 2004 model year. This is the second update it has received, so it's getting a bit long in the tooth.

How much and when? Comes out this fall; pricing to be announced.

Our verdict? Mazda is extending the life of its most important model a bit longer while it perfects the new suite of Skyactiv technology. We expect the freshened Mazda3 will remain one of the most enjoyable cars to drive in its class, because Mazda puts a lot of effort into engineering good driving dynamics.

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Matthew de Paula wanted to be an automotive journalist ever since reading his first car magazine in grade school. After a brief stint writing about finance, he helped launch ForbesAutos.com and became the site's editor in 2006. Matthew now freelances for various outlets.