2012 Mazda3 SkyActiv

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For a good time, don’t call Jenny – call Mazda.

Its cars – even its family cars – are almost always more fun to take for a spin than competitors’ cars,  good-looking things and affordably priced, too. Now, if only they gave you best-in-class gas mileage… .

Hey, wait – they just did!

The 2012 Mazda3 with equipped with its new “SkyActiv” 2.0 engine hits the 40 MPG highway mark – which is about the best you can get in a new car that doesn’t burn diesel or run on batteries half the time.

And a few months from now, a “Sky-D” diesel will be available in the in the 3, too. Reportedly, it’ll be good for as much as 45 MPG.

That’s two pieces of good news. So, is there any bad news?

WHAT IT IS

The 3 is Mazda’s compact hatchback wagon/sedan, one notch up from the subcompact 2 and just below the mid-sized 6. Like all Mazda vehicles, the 3 emphasizes driving fun as much as driving practicality.

The base i SV sedan version with 2.0 engine (non-SkyActive) and five-speed manual starts at $15,200. An i Touring hatchback wagon with the new SkyActive 2.0 engine starts at $19,300. A top-of-the-line Gran Touring sedan with 2.5 liter engine and automatic transmission starts at $21,300. The same package in a wagon lists for $23,150.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012

A 7 MPG increase in highway fuel economy (40 vs 33 previously) as well as a 4 MPG bump in city mileage (28 vs. 24 previously) if you buy a 3 equipped with the new SkyActiv engine.

There are also a few minor styling tweaks to the exterior, such as a slightly revised grille.

On deck for summer/fall is an all-new diesel engine – the first diesel engine Mazda (or any Japanese car company) has ever offered for sale in a U.S.-spec passenger car. This Sky-D engine will reportedly produce more than 300 lbs.-ft or torque and possibly deliver as much as 45 MPG on the highway.

WHAT’S GOOD

New SkyActiv engine is standard equipment in the hatchback wagon.

SkyActive engine meets or beats the pack leaders on economy without sacrificing power or performance. In fact, performance with 2.0 liter SkyActiv engine is better than with the old (less efficient) 2.0 engine without the SkyActiv enhancements.

The 3 is still one of the most fun to drive cars in this segment, no matter which engine it’s equipped with – or how much gas it burns.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

New SkyActiv 2.0 engine not standard in the $15,200 sedan; to get it you must move up to the $18,100 Touring version – or the $19,300 (to start) hatchback wagon.

Significantly higher up-front cost of SkyActiv engine will take awhile to work off in down-the-road mileage improvements.

Optional 2.5 liter engine not offered with six-speed automatic that’s available with SkyActiv 2.0 engine.

AC not standard in base sedan.

Confusing trim nomenclature.

The 2012 Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus are putting up the first serious competition the Three’s ever had to face.

UNDER THE HOOD

There are now three engine choices in the 3 – soon to be four.

The first – standard in base trims – is last year’s 2.0 liter engine, still making 148 hp and still teamed up with either the standard five-speed stick or an optional five-speed automatic. Zero to 60 takes about 9.7 seconds with either combo.

It’s class-competitive in all respects except fuel efficiency (25 city, 33 highway).

This isn’t terrible by any means (as an example, the uber-boring Toyota Corolla sedan just barely does better: 27 city, 34 highway).

On the other hand, some of the newest competition like the outstanding 2012 Hyundai Elantra sedan and ’12 Ford Focus (when equipped with the optional Super Fuel Economy package) now rate 40 on the highway.

Hence the new SkyActiv version of the 2 liter engine – which matches that 40 MPG highway and almost matches the Elantra’s best-in-class 29 city with a 28 city posting. It also cuts the Three’s zero to 60 time down significantly, to about 8.5 seconds.

So, what is SkyActiv?

It amounts to numerous small changes internally – such as differently shaped pistons, revised fuel injector spray patterns and sequential valve timing that makes it possible for the little 2.0 engine to run a very high 12.0:1 compression ratio for high efficiency (and power output) without engine knock or the need to run on premium fuel only. In addition to the 7 MPG improvement in highway fuel economy, the SkyActiv version of the 2.0 liter engine is also more powerful than the regular 2.0 liter engine: 155 hp vs. 148 hp. There is also a 10 percent uptick in torque output to 148 lbs.-ft. at 4,100 RPM.

That plus the extra gear in the transmission that comes with the SkyActiv engine (your choice, six speed manual or six speed automatic) accounts for the difference in MPGs – and performance.

But wait, there’s more.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a few MPGs in return for a few more HPs – both sedan and hatchback wagon offer a larger, 2.5 liter engine that produces 167 hp. That’ll get you to 60 in just over 8 seconds flat.

The 2.5 liter engine is paired with either a six-speed manual (like the SkyActiv 2.0) or (unlike the SkyActive 2.0) a five-speed automatic like the base model 2.0 engine. I have no idea why Mazda chose not to offer the more efficient (and performance-minded) six-speed automatic with the 2.5 liter engine, which only comes in the more expensive versions of the 3. Gas mileage with this engine is a pretty dismal 20 city, 28 with the six-speed manual and 22 city, 29 highway with the automatic. If the six-speed automatic could be paired with the 2.5 liter engine, highway mileage would probably be in the low 30s rather than the high 20s.

Maybe next year.

A few months from now, Mazda will debut the new  Sky-D diesel engine – when the changeover to the 2013 model year happens. This engine will out-MPG the SkyActiv 2.0 and pretty much everything else, too – Mazda or otherwise. It’s a direct shot at VW’s TDI Jetta – and also hybrids, which aren’t much more efficient in real-world driving but tend to cost a lot more than a current-year diesel-powered car and accelerate like old (’70s-era) diesel cars. With more than 300 lbs.-ft. of torque reportedly on tap, the Sky-D diesel 3 ought to be as quick – if not quicker – than the SkyActiv 2.0 while delivering better fuel efficiency.

It will also give the 3 something neither the Elantra nor the Focus have – or even offer.

ON THE ROAD

Like the MX5 Miata, the Mazda3 is not an especially quick car – but it is an exceptionally well-balanced and fun car. Given that the 3 has the heart of the 5 (the same basic MZR Series 2.0 liter engine powers both cars) this is not unexpected – even if it’s not well-known.

Of course, in the 3, the 2.0 engine is mounted sideways (transversely) and powers the front wheels rather than being mounted longitudinally and powering the rear wheels, as in the Miata. But the personality of an engine doesn’t change just because it’s turned sideways – or sends the power to a different pair of wheels.

The SkyActiv version with six-speed manual is the best version, of course – for all the obvious reasons. On the other hand, my guess is that many of the aftermarket hop-up parts for the Miata’s 2.0 fit the Three’s 2.0 – and you could probably tickle a lot more than 155 hp out of it for a lot less than the cost of buying a Three with the SkyActiv engine.

Of course, you still won’t have the six-speed – and you definitely won’t be getting 40 MPG.

The SkyActiv equipped 3 isn’t massively quicker, objectively (by the stopwatch) than the standard 2.0 equipped 3, but it feels much quicker because of the tighter gear spacing of its six-speed transmission. And you’ll definitely notice the difference in gas mileage.

The available 2.5 engine will also give you a noticeable boost in acceleration (about half a second’s improvement, 0-60) but the price you pay for that relatively small gain is the loss of more than 10 MPG on the highway and nearly as much around town.

Given that – and given the $3,200 jump from a SkyActive-equipped Touring sedan ($18,100) to a Touring sedan equipped with the 2.5 engine ($21,300) I personally would be inclined to stick with the SkyActive 3 and put that $3k toward either a few well-chosen hop-up parts – which would make the SkyActive 3 quicker than the 2.5 equipped version while still killing it on gas mileage.

Or just put the $3k toward gas instead.

But as I started to get into above, the main reason to buy a 3 is neither acceleration nor gas mileage. It is for the fun of it. The 3 can be looked at as a more practical incarnation of the Miata. Very similar driving feel, even if the 3 is FWD. You will only notice the differences as you approach the extreme limits of grip, at which point, of course, you won’t be able to adopt the tail-out, drive-it-with-the throttle attitude you could in the RWD MX5. Still, it’s close enough 90 percent of the time – and unlike the two-seater Miata, it is easier to drive a Three 100 percent of the time. It takes people; it takes stuff – and it can take snow, too. Or at least, being FWD, it can take snow better than the RWD Miata can.

No other car in its class matches its moves – and now that the Three matches the mileage of the others in this class, it’s hard to come up with an objective reason not to buy it over the others in this class.

AT THE CURB

Unlike some others in this segment, both the sedan and hatchback wagon version of the 3 are zippy looking. Sometimes, in competitor models (like the Nissan Versa) the sedan version is plain Jane and you have to move up to the usually more expensive wagon to get some stylistic sizzle. And also, you have the choice of sedan or hatchback wagon – a choice that some competitors (like the sedan-only Chevy Cruze) don’t offer at all. (The Hyundai Elantra is available as both sedan and wagon, but the Elantra wagon’s got some liabilities underhood, which I will get into shortly.)

The main functional differences between the sedan and wagon version of the 3 are cargo capacity and standard equipment.

In the sedan, you’ve got an 11.8 cubic foot trunk. In the wagon, you’ve got a 17 cubic foot cargo area behind the rear seats that can be expanded to 42.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.

Some competitors – like the Hyundai Elantra wagon – have significantly more cargo capacity (24.3 cubes with the second row up; 65.3 cubes with the second row down). But the Elantra wagon is 10 MPG behind the SkyActiv-equipped 3 and its standard (and only) 2.0 liter makes a puny-in-comparison 138 hp.The Elantra wagon is also a snoozer – both to look at and to drive – something you’d never accuse the Three (either version) of being.

The 2012 Elantra sedan is much more of a sweat for the 3. It comes standard with smaller (but more powerful than the wagon’s 2.0 liter)  1.8 liter, 148 hp engine that’s capable of 40 MPG on the highway – just like the SkyActive3. The Elantra sedan also has a larger 14.8 cubic foot trunk. And its $15,345 price point undercuts the 3 sedan’s base price, too. But if you prefer the wagon bodystyle… and later, if you want a diesel… well, Hyundai’s hands are empty.

You’ll also notice differences in standard equipment.

The base $15,200 SV sedan is pretty stripped. You have to buy the more expensive Sport version ($16,845) to get AC and power windows/locks. The 3 wagon, meanwhile, starts out with much more standard equipment, including AC, power windows and locks, leather trim, a six-speaker stereo rig and, of course, the high-effiency SkyActiv engine.

Like most car companies, Mazda “bundles” a lot of equipment together – or makes you go up a trim to get the one thing you want (like AC, for example).

Given the economy, I think it’d be nice – and maybe help sell more cars, too – if Mazda made AC standard in the sedan. Or at least, made it a stand-alone, a la carte option for $800 or so – instead of nudging people into the more expensive Sport trim.

On the other hand, AC is extra cost in comparably priced competitors like the Elantra sedan, too.

THE REST

I have only one other small complaint about the 3 – the very small LCD display for the upgrade stereo and the equally small display for the optional GPS. You get two cigarette box-sized screens housed to the right of the main gauge cluster under the sweeping arc of dashtop. It looks cool, but it’s hard to read – and there’s only so much info you can put on a screen that size.

I’m also itching to try the Sky-D diesel. Kudos to Mazda for being the first Japanese car company to offer (soon) a diesel engine in a mass-market compact passenger car. For years, the only option buyers had – if they wanted such a car with a diesel engine – was a German car (VW). Now the Germans will have some competition – and consumers will have more choices – most notably the prospect of closing-in-on-50-MPG fuel economy without having to resort to elaborate, expensive (and usually, slow) hybrids.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The new SkyActiv engine fixes the 3’s only real weakness relative to its major competition – and the soon-to-be-here Sky-D engine will make it a clear class leader.

Throw it in the Woods?

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41 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately, I would never buy even a 50 mpg diesel as diesel is higher than premium gas and will likely stay that way indefinitely. The clean air regulations have ruined things for diesel engines. Simply by requiring that diesel be different than home heating oil, it has caused disruptions and misallocations in the fuel market, driving up price. It is these, even more than the difference in refining cost that has caused this price difference. I would love to own a car that gets 45 mpg as I hate trips to the gas pump no matter what the cost.

    • I think you’re right. Until a diesel delivers 60 MPG, the economics are iffy, given the higher cost of diesel fuel as well as the (usually) considerably higher cost of buying the diesel powertrain itself.

      It really sucks because there’s no technological reason we could not have 70 MPG diesel compacts. But of course, there are political reasons why we can’t.

  2. As my car has been sucking maintenance dollars and more importantly time, this car is on my list. I will have to see how it behaves on the highway as high speed highway driving is extremely important. How does this car compare with the Focus?

    • You’d like both, I think. The Focus seemed to me to have tighter gearing, or felt that way. The Mazda liked to be worked more to get maximum performance, but both are easy cruisers at 80-plus, with ample reserve left. It comes down to which feels better to you. I’d try both and then pick the one that feels best to you and which you can get for the best price.

  3. The best-handling FWD car I’ve ever driven was a Mazda Protege I had as a rental once. I was on an out-of-town consulting gig, and every morning I had to negotiate one of those under-freeway u-turns.

    That little Protege would stand on its nose under hard breaking, and I’d trail-brake a little to the apex; it would smartly pivot its tail out and get around that corner like a damn go-cart!

    What a blast. My twenty-year-old Miata with a 1.6 makes me smile every time I drive it. It’s dog-slow by modern standards–but as Eric says, it’s the balance of those cars that makes their dynamics so satisfying.

    • Dear methylamine,

      You have a Miata?

      Terrific!

      Never driven one, but a woman friend of mine had one, and I could tell even by riding in it that it would have been a blast to drive.

      Had an Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce 2000 for many years. Will never forget the pleasure that car gave me, even just tooling around LA and SoCal.

      It’s the open air roadster experience. You feel like you’re going fast even when you’re merely loping.

      That’s why when I finally get around to getting a car again, the Miata will be on my short list.

      Haven’t driven in years because there’s no real need for a car in Taipei.

      • The Miata is the closest thing (short of a kit Lotus 7) to “the experience” so many of us recall from back in the proverbial day. But the Miata one-ups this by being nearly indestructible and incredibly reliable. I can’t say too many positive things about this car. You can pick up a nice used one for less than $10,000 and drive the snot of out it for years

        • Dear Eric,

          I’m definitely on the same page!

          Amazingly enough, some people have a real issue with the Miata.

          In a documentary about the Greatest Ever Sports Cars, Chad McQueen, son of Steve McQueen dissed the Miata:

          “It’s a chick car. It’s a girl car, you know, I see a guy driving that down the highway and I just feel bad for him.”

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHsCCTs70fY

          Needless to say, I left some choice comments at that YouTube channel about McQueen’s idiotic remarks.

          And I’ve never even owned one!

          • Wow – if Chad said that’s he’s either someone who’s never driven the car or just an idiot. Maybe both.

            I’ve driven literally almost everything – from UAZ soviet Jeeps to a Jaguar XJ220 – and the Miata is among my top five favorites. Few cars in the history of cars can match its combination of driving fun, rock-solid reliability and affordability. Much as I also like classic British (and Italian) sports cars, most of them were not reliable and could be both frustrating and expensive to keep on the road. Forget about racing one on Sunday then driving it to work the next week – which as Miata fans will tell you is a routine thing to do with that car. And handling? Forget about it! The Miata will run rings around any classic British or Italian sports car, unless the car is heavily modified.

            Chad may be living off his famous dad’s fumes. I don’t know much about him. But I’d be surprised if he’s a driver given what he has to say about the Miata!

          • Dear Eric,

            Re: reliability of British and Italian roadsters

            I may have been lucky. But my Alfa was as reliable as a hammer. It was my drive to work car, my drive to the grocery car, my only car.

            But I would have been equally happy with a Miata.

            Here’s one of the comments I left:

            I really don’t understand these people.

            They’re worried to death of looking “unmanly.”

            Don’t they realize that admitting they are so terrified of looking unmanly, already makes them look unmanly? They may as well stop worrying.

            PS: There are all kinds of fun cars out there. I like the new Miatas as every bit as much as I like the 68 Plymouth Road Runner.

            It ought to be about what’s fun to drive, not what looks “manly” while you’re driving it.

            thechinadesk in reply to djhivesdotcom (Show the comment) 1 month ago

            • “Don’t they realize that admitting they are so terrified of looking unmanly, already makes them look unmanly? They may as well stop worrying.”

              Chad’s dad knew all about that!

          • Driving wise a Miata is fine. The only other vehicle I can change direction in like that is probably my canondale. However, I don’t fit in the thing. And the styling does scream ‘chick car’.

            With regards to its fit for 6’+ tall drivers and styling I find it to be valid comment. With regards to how it drives no. And without the context of the statement I will assume it was referring to the appearance and ergonomics rather than the driving experience.

          • The Miata is too rounded, too clean, too cute. It’s missing the rough edges that made those earlier cars have.

            The Elan doesn’t have the cute looking front bumper arrangement. It looks basic and no frills. Frills like say heat in the winter because either doesn’t have a heater or every seam leaks cold air. The kind of car women generally won’t put up with.

            A cute reliable little car is what the miata is and that’s where the girlish notions come from. Sure it’s other things too but they are talking image.

            Watching the video I am now convinced that the context of the quote is with regards to raw hp and styling.

          • Dear Brent,

            You’re probably familiar with Ayn Rand’s concept of “social metaphysics.” I probably don’t need to elaborate.

            Chad McQueen appears to be allergic to the Miata out of social metaphysical concerns.

            Mazda specifically conceived the Miata as an updated version of the classic British two seater roadster. It was a direct response to the disappearance of the MG, Triumph, Austin Healey and other roadsters from the marketplace.

            Mazda was not targeting women per se when the Miata was on the drawing board. Women buyers flocked to the car after the fact. To me, this is not a problem.

            I like the Miata for my reasons. I like it because it’s a bargain priced classic two seater roadster.

            Many women buyers like it because “It’s so cute!” Their likes and mine happen to overlap. They help ensure the product’s commercial viability, making it available to me based on my own considerations. How is this a problem? It’s not.

            But apparently it is for Chad McQueen. Chad McQueen allows the fact that so many women flock to the Miata “Because it’s so cute!” to intimidate him.

            He allows the fact that so many women own the Miata influence his own reaction to it. He admits this, right there on the video.

            Chad McQueen unwittingly, indirectly, admits his lack of “manly resolve.”

            A textbook illustration of Ayn Rand’s social metaphysics in action.

      • (Disclaimer: I work for Mazda at a low level, and speak only for myself.)

        The Skyactiv-D diesel will NOT require urea injection or any of the afterburner gizmos that other US–spec diesels require. Mazda’s info online has been very clear about this. The compression ratio is rather lower than that of other diesels, which minimizes the soot/pollution problem and makes the add-ons completely unnecessary. This is a real feather in Mazda’s cap, I believe, and this could help diesels to make a comeback here.

        A lot of us who work for Mazda are looking forward to seeing the Skyactiv-D. Rumor is that the new CX-5 crossover will probably get it first.

        Maybe we could then work on persuading the bosses to bring the BT-50 pickup here with one of these diesels… 🙂

        • This is indeed happy news – for us and for Mazda. Not having to deal with urea injection will give the car a big leg up on other diesels, as well as make the car more appealing to potential buyers who would otherwise be turned off once they discovered the additional hassle (and expense) involved with urea injection.

          I’m very much looking forward to my first test drive.

          PS: I would also have liked to see the new CX-5 before it gets into production, but the TSA Thugs have made it impossible for me to fly commercial anymore.

          • Are you on the notorious no-fly list? Haven’t flown in over 20 years but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if I happened to be on it too (explanation another day).

            The CX-5 must be about to hit the dealers. We just received copies of dealer brochures this past week at work, printed just this month. Right now the only engine is the 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G (gasoline) but the -D (diesel) is supposedly coming late in the year.

            Months before I started, full-time employees got to see and drive a Euro–spec Mazda 6 diesel sedan that was brought to the facility briefly. Those who got to drive it are STILL talking about it. Apparently it was a mouth-watering vehicle… 😀

            The first-generation 6 had that lovely wagon, and it was available in Europe with a turbodiesel and all-wheel drive (and of course a stickshift). One of the UK car magazines tested such a wagon. Boy, would I have sold my, well, whatever to be able to get one like that.

            • I probably am. My writings have surely done enough to annoy TPTB.

              That Euro-spec 6 diesel would be huge here. The only reason I can conceive for Mazda limiting it to the European market is US emissions regs. which are just different enough from the Euro standards to make it too much of a PITAS for Mazda to want to deal with. Too bad for them – and us.

          • Shouldn’t really comment here, but a new CX-5 arrived at work for the training department last week. The managers keep having to clean our drool off it…

            You’ll like it, Eric. 😀

            • Guys – everyone:

              We had a server issue today and were down almost 24 hours. Lost a lot of stuff; trying to recover as much as we can. Thanks for your patience.

          • Dear Eric,

            They probably have your name and face on a “Most Wanted” style deck of cards.

            The next time you try to board a commercial airliner, you’ll be subjected to a full body cavity search, then tasered for good measure.

            • I don’t doubt it! Seriously. It’s part of the reason why I won’t go near an airport anymore. I am smart enough to know I’d likely end up saying something (at the very least) and then I’d be in the Hotel Graybar instead of here!

              PS: True story –

              About five years ago, I was invited to attend a press event (track day) by Ducati. So, I packed up my leathers and helmet and headed to the airport. I got “detained” and subjected to an interrogation. They were very concerned about my helmet, apparently. I think they imagined I was planning to don it and assume control or some such. It was really irritating but I kept my mouth shut (this is pre TSA gate rape) and after a few minutes of BS and after I showed them my Ducati press invite and all my media credentials, they relented.

              Still, I was furious for hours.

              I’ll never put myself in that position again.

          • Dear Mithrandir,

            A little misunderstanding.

            I was LOL at Eric’s ingenious pun

            “TSA gate rape”

            Not at the phenomenon itself. Obviously it is no laughing matter.

            It’s essential that we summon up all the eloquence we can in our fight against these outrages.

    • he-heh…he-heh…cue helpless giggling fit at the words “urea injection”. Is there a funnier technology? I don’t think so.

  4. Nice review, Eric. My beef with the 3 has always been the unbearable road noise coming out of the front end. Our ’82 B210 wagon was more quiet than the MZ3 (alas, the wagon ended up in the ditch). The noise is so bad that it would keep me from ever buying one. But I agree about the fun factor. For kicking around town the 3 could be a great car (forget about taking it on a road trip).

    Do you think you’ll ever get a new Impreza to test? I’m thinking that ride could be the best in class but I haven’t had a chance to take one for a spin yet.

  5. Nice review. The Mazda 3 looks interesting and worth a test drive. The base 25/33 mpg is lower than I would like, but it is a little better than the 07 Sentra 24/31.

    Regarding the diesel:
    How much of a premium will you pay to get a diesel?
    Is the diesel an interference engine?
    A diesel engine was great for my daily driving since I am not big on drag racing, but I enjoy the torque of a diesel.

    • On a trip to LA I rented a Mazda 3 skyactiv 2.0 automatic sedan for the three days of my stay in LA.

      I drove through much of the LA metro area and a trip on the PCH up to Oxnard cut across CA126 to Santa Clarita back down I-5 to LA.

      The car drove very well. On a trip of about 400 miles over three days travel I averaged about 40 mpg. I would estimate about a 65/35 hwy/cty split. I estimate on the open freeway at about 65 mph I could get about 45 mpg from the car.
      The gearing of the car meant 2000 rpm was about 65 mph. If I needed to move quickly the car did not disappoint me. Although to be fair, I did not travel much above 65 mph (with some short times at 75-80mph)since I was not completely familiar with the roads and the traffic was a bit nutty. I think I found members of clover’s family.

      The car was comfortable and I had plenty of leg and head room. I am about 6 foot tall. My only real quibble was lack of visibility when i look over my left shoulder. The center column and rear column work together to block my view. I need to make sure I my mirrors are set properly to minimize blind spots and double check my left shoulder.

      The engine noise was quiet and the A/C was good for my needs.
      I agree with you about the information screens being on the small side. I would need to read the manual to get the most use from the display screens. I was able to set the display to average MPG.

      Trunk room was fine for my needs. I did not need to use the spare tire so I do not know if it has a genuine or temporary spare. I did not look at the engine so I do not know how easy it will be to perform basic maintenance (oil/air/etc).

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