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MAZDA3 SKYACTIV Top 40MPG Pick



Every once in a while, an advertising claim comes along that strikes a nerve. It makes you stop and glance up at the TV screen, or flip back to that previous newspaper page to contemplate its meaning. For me, it's usually a hair-loss treatment. However, for most people, it's probably something that impacts their pocket book, and a pretty good example of that in the car business recently has been the claim of "40 mpg!"

Never mind the footnote that the "40" referenced is the EPA's "highway" mpg, rather than the typically lower "city" or, more meaningful, combined mileage. That doesn't really matter. An advertisement bannering any variant of "40 mpg" gets your absolute attention if you've just witnessed $65 on the gas pump when the dispenser clicked.

It's a powerful number -- 40 mpg. Car engineers do sophisticated analysis to figure out how to reach it, and the numerical game often comes down to just getting to the threshold where the number rounds up to 40.

It just so happens that we're practiced at rounding up, too -- in this instance, rounding up six significant examples of this rarified 40-mpg breed to determine if any of them are also cars you'd be happy to own.

The select six we've summoned to our investigation are the Chevrolet Cruze Eco (28/42), Ford Focus SFE (28/40), Honda Civic HF (29/41), Hyundai Elantra (29/40), Mazda3 (28/40), and Volkswagen Jetta TDI (30/42). A diesel, but no hybrids? Unlike the public's uneasiness with battery-aided driving (hybrid sales have been stuck around the 2.5-percent range), diesels are hydrocarbon kissing-cousins to their gasoline brethren. We know them. We're comfortable with them. And we were also curious to see how the Jetta TDI stacks-up against its high-tech gasoline alternatives.

1st Place: Mazda3 SKYACTIV



Cars with day-glo "Eco" or "mpg'"badges slapped on their fenders are as often as not automotive empty suits: little more than a tall top gear ratio sitting on a set of skinny tires.
 
But in the case of the Mazda3's Skyactiv engine technology, this couldn't be farther from the truth. Its 2.0-liter inline-4 is a state-of-the-argument case for advanced-technology gasoline engines, a Bach fugue of interweaving smart ideas with its engineering keystone being an eyebrow-raising 12.0:1 compression ratio. High compression ratios like this are good for efficiency, but bad for knock.
 
To make it work, the Mazda3's compressed intake charge is cooled by 3000psi, six-hole, direct fuel injection. The next heat countermeasure is that the ensuing combustion is contained by a small cavity at its top to the piston, and finally, long exhaust headers help prevent exhaust heat back-washing into other cylinders. As a kicker, friction has been reduced by 30 percent. Mazda has done its homework, and it showed on the road as the '3 returned better mileage than the both the Elantra and Focus.
 
That said, it was also the car that most caused us to glance around the room during our deliberations and silently concur that it was the one we could most enjoy driving every day. Let's listen in on the conversation: Evans: "Great-handling car, very tossable with quick steering and very good feedback. The Mazda3 is easily the most fun vehicle to drive at the Proving Ground. Digging the big seat bolsters." Martinez: "A few hundred feet into the heart of downtown Tehachapi, I could already tell it was a solid car."
 
Naturally, there were a few dings, too: Evans: "The transmission is a bit stingy with downshifts, and that navigation screen is just too small to be so high up and far away on the dash." But Markus summed it up perfectly: "Bottom line, this car's a sacrifice that drives like a splurge."
 
The question we started with was "Is there actually a '40-mpg' car that you'd want to own?" Indeed, there is -- the Mazda3.

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