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2013 MAZDA3 SKYACTIV: Plenty to zoom about

Mazda3 SkyActiv a lot of fun for not much dough

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2013 Mazda3 SkyActiv

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Few cars live up to their automakers' slogans. BMW may be the Ultimate Driving Machine, and Audi may be the embodiment of advancement through technology, but very few sub-$25,000 cars provide as much Zoom Zoom as the Mazda3.

For a second year in a row, it is offered with the fuel-sipping high-compression SkyActiv engine. The 2.0-litre mill produces 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque and sends power to the front wheels via a choice of two SkyActiv transmissions developed exclusively for the car -- a six-speed manual and a six-speed automatic.

The bright red tester was equipped with the latter. Lighter than the automatic transmission in the base GX and GT, its six gears make it smooth, it is quick to downshift even in drive, and it delivers power on a dime. An interesting feature of the automatic is it's equipped with something Mazda calls a full-range lock-up clutch, meaning power delivery isn't interrupted during gear changes.

This translates to quick downshifts and relatively seamless power delivery, especially on the highway. As with many other automatics, you can slide the shifter into the manumatic slot to row your own gears. However, this unit differs, as tapping the shifter forward results in a downshift, while pulling it back upshifts. Once the brain accustoms itself to that quirk, shifts become even quicker and more responsive.

But if that's not enough engagement and, like myself, you still want a third pedal, tick the six-speed manual option box to save yourself $1,200 off the $20,895 purchase price as the icing on the cake.

Being part of Mazda's lineup of efficient engine and transmission options, the SkyActiv 3 boasts rather impressive, albeit optimistic, fuel economy ratings. Natural Resources Canada rates it at 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 4.9 on the highway. The SkyActiv 3 averaged close to 8.8 L/100 km combined over the week, which isn't too bad. On the other hand, the six-speed manual variant is a bit thirstier at 7.7/5.0 city/highway.

The Mazda3, in general, is one of the best-handling compact cars available. It's no Porsche 911 or BMW M3, or Miata for that matter, but it's very planted while tackling on-ramps and body roll is minimal thanks to its independent suspension and multi-link setup in the back. Steering is electronically assisted, making it light and effortless when moving around in tight areas, yet a tad jerky on the highway.

In traffic, though, the Mazda3's heavy brake pedal takes a bit to get used to. It may feel sporty otherwise, but is also touchy-feely when battling wits on Toronto's busy freeways during the evening rush.

Outside, the Mazda3 remains largely identical to last year's refreshed model. It still wears the smiley-face front end Mazda is thankfully phasing out. The standard 16-inch wheels are wrapped in 205/55 all-season rubber, although the tester wore a set of Michelin X-Ice winter tires all around. Heated mirrors, cruise control, automatic headlights and rain-sensing windshield wipers are all standard bits and pieces on the SkyActiv 3.

It can also be outfitted with two packages -- the leather package and Touring Edition -- which add various goodies inside and out. Opt for the Touring Edition and that adds a lip spoiler, snazzy LED tail lights, push-button start and a 10-speaker Bose sound system, among other extras.

The leather package nets the SkyActiv 3 a set of fog lights, a gloss black grille, an eight-way power adjustable driver seat and, of course, leather seats in addition to leather-like trim on the doors and armrest.

The Mazda3's cabin has always been one of the best of the compacts, boasting a healthy array of top-notch materials. It's not a sea of black plastic -- the dash is soft-touch and gunmetal trim pieces add some contrast. A leather-wrapped, multifunction steering wheel is standard. At night, a blue ring illuminates around the central radio tuner that pulses whenever the volume is cranked up. Quite cool.

Bluetooth and USB/iPod input are both part of the standard six-speaker sound system. The voice recognition feature on the Bluetooth system is prone to misunderstanding commands.

On multiple occasions, the soothing, robotic voice followed my command with a "Pardon?" on her end, followed by various expletives on mine. Curiously, the system also does not automatically import contacts and phone records previous to pairing, unlike in other cars.

Needless to say, the SkyActiv 3 boasts an impressive overall package. A smooth transmission, incredible handing, impressive fuel economy, top-notch materials inside and a perpetually smiling front bumper -- what's not to love?

-- Postmedia News

THE SPECS

-- ENGINE: 2.0-litre SkyActiv in-line four-cylinder

-- POWER: 155 hp at 6,000 r.p.m., 148 lb-ft of torque, six-speed automatic

-- BRAKES: Four-wheel disc with ABS

-- TIRES: P205/55/R16

-- TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY (L/100 KM): 7.1 city, 4.8 highway

-- BASE PRICE/AS TESTED: $19,695/$20,895

-- DESTINATION CHARGE: $1,695

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