These sport compacts weigh a fraction of what today's muscle cars do; they're front-wheel drive, cost a lot less and are equally fun to drive. The Honda Civic Si, Volkswagen GTI and Dodge Caliber SRT4 are all back on the market — or will be soon — with 200-plus horsepower or, in the Caliber's case, 300 hp when it arrives later this year. Sandwiched in between these entries is Mazda's best foray into the space to date, the Mazdaspeed3.
After a week in the Mazdaspeed3, I was more than impressed with the vehicle's speed and affordability. Costing under $23,000 and registering a zero-to-60 time in the 5-second range, its cost-to-fun ratio is hard to beat.
Going & Stopping
When you look at the Mazdaspeed3 you see a sporty hatchback; you wouldn't think this cute little thing has a 263-hp turbocharged four-cylinder that can get to 60 mph in under 6 seconds (some estimates have it as low as 5.3 seconds, others at 5.9 seconds). Whatever the final number is, it's fast, folks. The Honda Civic Si's 7.3 seconds and the GTI's 6.9 seconds seem almost quaint in comparison.
The turbo engine provides a ton of turbo lag — dirty words in performance circles. The lag is the amount of time it takes the turbocharger to kick in under acceleration and provide a boost to the engine. You would recognize it as the sudden thrust you feel after you've already hammered the gas pedal. This lag, though, is what gives the Mazdaspeed3 its personality. It turns this little number into a miniature roller coaster ride all unto itself, with the lag hitting you in the same part of the gut as that first drop on the coaster.
There's a loud exhaust note out back that's great to hear on city streets with the windows down as you shift through the gears with gusto. It lets you know you're in a sports car, even if it looks like a commuter. On the highway, the effect is more akin to the loud drone of an idling lawnmower. It's omnipresent.
The Mazdaspeed3 is not just an around-town rocket. It hustles on the highway as well. Road and wind noise are minimal; that lawnmower exhaust intrudes instead.
The six-speed transmission also makes highway driving fun. With traditional five-speed transmissions, you're usually relegated to one gear for high-speed driving. The Mazdaspeed3 allows for some gutsy merges and lane changes in fifth, and even in sixth you can massage the gas pedal just right to get the turbo to kick in and forego shifting. Every move is fun. Of course, that fun becomes costly on the gas mileage front, bringing the 26/33 mpg city/highway estimate of the manual-transmission Mazda3 hatchback down to 20/28 mpg in the Mazdaspeed3. And the Mazdaspeed3's turbo engine requires premium fuel.
There are antilock disc brakes at all four wheels, and they provide plenty of stopping power. The only problem is you'll have to use some force to get them to kick in. The initial push on the brake pedal doesn't provide full stopping power, it just depresses enough to assure you that, yes, you have hit the brake pedal, but now you have to hit it harder. Pressing down through this hesitation allows the brakes to catch fully. The move is not as precise as either the Civic Si or the Volkswagen GTI, but once drivers learn where the threshold is, there shouldn't be any issues.
Ride & Handling
Gearheads of the world worry that the Mazdaspeed3 has too much power going to its front wheels. Tires can only do so much of one thing, whether it's accelerating, braking or turning. When the front wheels are asked to turn and accelerate with no support from the back wheels, performance suffers and you get a result called understeer. Understeer is another dirty word to enthusiasts, and Mazda did a lot to minimize the impact of all this power in a front-wheel-drive layout by implementing an advanced torque-management system and a limited-slip differential. Why didn't it go to all-wheel drive like more expensive compact sports cars like the Subaru WRX STi and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution? Cost and weight are the leading factors; those cars cost at least $5,000 more than the Mazdaspeed3.
So, is there still understeer in the Mazdaspeed3? Of course. It would be a feat equivalent to building the pyramids to get that neutralized in such a vehicle, but that doesn't mean the car doesn't perform well. Do you get the same sense of confidence as in one of those all-wheel-drive models? No, but if that's a deal-breaker, Mazda does have the all-wheel-drive Mazdaspeed6, which debuted last year.
The Mazdaspeed3 is just as confident as the superb GTI and probably a tad better than the Si in the handling department, and it's still faster than both.
Exterior & Interior
To most eyes the Mazdaspeed3 doesn't look much different from the regular Mazda3 hatchback. Inspect it a little more and you'll find a revised front end with different lights and bumper, and a lower stance over large 18-inch wheels. Around back there are new taillights, as well as a large spoiler at the top of the hatch. Because of its placement, there's no air of immaturity sometimes associated with large wings on sport sedans.
Inside, the Mazdaspeed3 gets new sport-inspired bucket seats and red trim, and that's about it. This is a no-frills machine, and the regular Mazda3 already sports an attractive interior for a compact car. Mazda did well not to change too much here. The gauges are the same glowing orange and hold up well in bright sunlight. Radio and environmental controls are easy to reach and intuitive in every respect.
Front seat-mounted side-impact airbags, as well as side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers, are standard, as is a tire pressure monitoring system.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Mazda3 its highest frontal crash rating of Good. Its side-impact tests were performed without the side airbags that are standard in the Mazdaspeed3, and without them the Mazda3 received the lowest score, Poor. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Mazda3 a three-star rating, which is its average rating and not particularly reassuring. A very fast car and average safety ratings isn't the best mix, but Mazdaspeed3 buyers may be less likely to have safety ratings high on their list of priorities.
My Grand Touring tester came with a navigation system and upgraded Bose stereo. The Mazda3 wasn't originally designed with navigation in mind (who would pay for the expensive upgrade in a compact?) and it shows. The screen pops up at the top of the dash just fine, but the interface is located to the right of the shifter. Not only is it inconvenient, but with a manual transmission, it seems a bit dangerous, especially because I found the shifter easy to pop in and out of gears. One distracted move while trying to find your destination could land you in neutral or the wrong gear. I didn't experience any problems in my week of testing, though.
The Bose sound system and in-dash six-disc CD changer were above average, but not as good as other applications, like the one in the new Mazda CX-7 crossover. The stereo system in all Mazda3s is so integrated into the center console that replacing it with an aftermarket unit would result in an unsightly dashboard, so pay at the dealer if you want better sound and a good-looking interior. Unfortunately, you can only get the Bose system in the more expensive Grand Touring model that's also saddled with the navigation system.
Strip away the thrilling turbo engine, and the Mazdaspeed3 is still a four-door hatchback. That means it's — gasp — almost practical. With the rear seats up, there was plenty of room to stow luggage on a weekend trip. Flip the seats down and the cargo area expands from 16.5 cubic feet to 43.4 cubic feet. No other sport compact on the market has this kind of usability, and that may sway drivers looking for responsible fun.
Mazdaspeed3 in the Market
Mazda has done it. It's reinvigorated its Mazdaspeed line with a fast compact that not only holds its own with the competition, but bests them in many departments. It joins the Mazdaspeed6 as an affordable performance car, and I hope it spurs the company to keep producing high-speed variants of other models. I wouldn't mind seeing a Mazdaspeed3 sedan myself, if Mazda kept the price where it is. This speed is supposed to be cheap, after all.
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