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Even top-selling vehicles need something new to keep the appeal level from falling. With that in mind, the braintrust at Mazda decided it was time to give its already popular Mazda 3 some added appeal.

What’s most engaging about the 2012 Mazda 3 is the new engine that’s available in certain models. Forget about giving the Mazda more power; that wasn’t an issue. The Japanese auto manufacturer wanted to provide better gas mileage and did just that with its “Skyactiv” powertrain. This new engine is equipped in the 3i Touring and Grand Touring trims and pushes the gas mileage up considerably higher at 28-40 mpg.

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Head elsewhere for a detailed explanation of the Skyactiv’s unique technology. Suffice to say that Mazda engineers weeded out some inefficiency in the previous engine and have cleverly devised a power plant that can reach the coveted 40 mpg plateau. Gas mileage for other Mazda 3 models range from 20 to 33 mpg.

Give those creative engineers a nice fat raise because the prediction here is that the new high-mileage quality will make the Mazda 3 even more appealing. The Skyactiv-equipped 3s come with a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine that produces 155 horsepower. For a more high-powered option, the Mazdaspeed 3 is still available.

Additional changes for all Mazda 3s include a slightly different front bumper and grille that remains the same size. The interior receives a few modest upgrades as well.

What hasn’t changed regarding the Mazda 3 is it continues to be a good choice as either a sedan or hatchback that delivers performance, handling, styling and a sizeable list of standard features.

Not everything is perfect with the Mazda 3. Both the sedan and hatchback can be a bit cramped and lack the spaciousness of some competitors. Some taller backseat occupants will be pleading for more leg room. The hatchback provides solid storage capacity with 17 cubic feet. However, the sedan offers quite a bit less space (11.8 feet).

The Mazda 3 has always received high marks for its ability to deliver a smooth ride that really absorbs the bumps. Its steering, handling and braking are among the best in its class, and the quiet ride is another enviable quality.

In conclusion, the Mazda 3 has historically been admired as a fun, efficient vehicle. Add this year’s enviable gas mileage and one can see how 2012 could be a banner year for sales.

Mazda 3

Performance: 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder, 155 horsepower
Mileage estimate: 28-40 mpg
Price: $18,950 to $22,800

Standard features include: tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel; a 60/40 split-folding rear seat; six-speaker sound system, CD player, auxiliary audio jack, Bluetooth, steering wheel controls; outside temperature display; new Skyactiv engine; leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter; stability and traction control; brake assist

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