Don't be deceived.
The redesigned 2010 MazdaSpeed3 will chew up and spit out any road it crosses. It doesn't leave tracks, it leaves scorched earth.
Seriously: This little racer may have the looks of a bloated "Dungeons & Dragons" 20-sided die, but its little turbo is to die for. It's a combination of engineer love, a 2.3-liter direct-injection, spark ignition, and turbo-charged four-cylinder engine spinning at 111.6 revolutions per second to create 263 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of fun-loving, premium-fuel burning, awe-inspiring fun.
Yes, I like it.
Really, I'm surprised by anyone who doesn't. There are some chinks in this car's armor, but in a world of Euro racers and high-tech imports, the MazdaSpeed3 stands above the competition. It has the overall gumption to offer more fun per cylinder than Volkswagen's GTI and Honda's Civic Si. There's a playful quality about the new Speed3 that lets you flog this car on the road like my dog shakes rag dolls. It jumps and bounces and whips around corners. I'm sure the brakes work great, but I hardly used them, instead letting the body rip through corners, its big 18-inch wheels sticking to the pavement, its body remaining flat. Only the steering felt loose to me, with a little too much play for my liking.
But the engine and suspension make up for any short coming in the rack-and-pinion steering.
Oh, that engine is sweet. A 2.3-liter beast that shows what a four-cylinder can do. Just hit the accelerator and watch the red bar grow on the dash, signifying how much pressure is building. Go higher, PSI, go higher!
There's a slight lag between hitting the gas and that turbo launch, but really, that makes it all the more fun. Mazda also changed out the gear ratio in the six-speed manual transmission -- making second and third gears two of the most exhilarating cogs on the face of the planet.
There are also some design changes to the intercooler, including a more aesthetically pleasing hood scoop that helps the car's intercooler become more efficient and allows the car to breathe better. During this new decade, that's something you're going to hear a lot from powertrain engineers -- how they opened this up or made more room in one place so the engine could breathe like a thoroughbred. It's only taken 100 years to realize that engines and runners need better breathing to perform better.
Then there's the magically tight suspension that somehow manages to give the Speed3 race car performance but still provide a comfortable ride around town. (You don't have to abuse this car every day.)
The trick to this (and I don't mean trick as in global warming e-mail "trick") is using better steel throughout the car's body. This makes the body able to handle a stiffer suspension without causing you to lose your fillings. Detroit is a great and horrible place to test stiff suspensions -- concrete highways and streets with more pockmarks than Miami Vice's Lt. Castillo.
So with a stronger body, Mazda was able to add stiffer springs, higher dampening rates and other engineering changes that perfected the suspension. Adding 18-inch performance tires helps, too, and looks great.
More than performance
But these cars are not strictly performance-oriented machines that people trailer to tracks and then home. The Speed3 offers room to live.
It needs all of those tech-friendly features because the Speed3 appeals to two types of consumers: young tech-savvy drivers who dream of tuning the car beyond recognition, and successful middle-class men who want a toy-like car but need to convince their wife that "it's a pretty practical second car honey, really, it is."
So the Speed3 feigns practicality by providing everything a daily driver would want, quietly hiding its ferocious heart.
The "semi-bucket seats" can hold you in place through a tight corner but not squeeze too tightly to make a daily commute uncomfortable. The red glow of the instruments give the Speed3 a sophisticated look. At night, a thin blue line cuts across the car's stereo and pulses now and again. Unnecessary but cool.
The entire layout of the dash is simple and clean. There may be a bit too much plastic in spots but nothing seems too cheap or poorly put together. The little red LED turbo gauge between the speedometer and tachometer climbs as the pressure increases and all of sudden ... WHAAMMMM, you're off.
The black interior with red stitching also adds a speedy feel to the cabin. 'Fifth door' adds versatility
While the Speed3 may look a touch overweight, it has adopted many of the characteristics Mazda has created with some of its recent new cars -- such as the Mazda 6 and RX-8. An aggresive front end with bubbly fenders -- the Speed3's are exclusive -- and there are lots of angles on the new Speed3. There are a few other features that aficionados might notice that are different than the regular Mazda3 hatchback. The front grille, above and below the bumper, are black instead of chrome and there is a large spoiler incorporated on the hatchback.
Often referred to as the "fifth door" because carmakers remain too timid to call hatchbacks "hatchbacks," it's the fifth door that makes this car such an exceptional vehicle. When you compare it to something like the GTI, which is a two-door hatchback, the Speed3 just has more utility. You can pile in four friends and enjoy the day. You can drop the second row and load in a sports bar's worth of flat-screen televisions and still pick up your kid at school.
Function will always outweigh form, especially for someone who wants to have a turbo-charged car in a family of four. Coupes just don't fit into a modern family as well as four-doors. Hatchbacks, however, complement everyone -- and you never know, you just might get a dog one day and have a need for someone to ride in the back seat.
And the Speed3 will gladly sit quietly in the driveway and serve its owner on a daily basis. It can handle the load. It can cruise contently to work and back, and through those weekday runs for the forgotten gallon of milk or loaf of bread. But every now and then, it will remind you why you bought it. It will pass that unsuspecting Mustang or Camaro without batting an eye and then idle back down to slip into the tiny parking space in front of the Piggly Wiggly.
Fun cars surprise us and the MazdaSpeed3 is full of surprises. It's deceptive like that.
Exterior: Good. Bloated but muscular looking body hides this car's performance talents.
Interior: Good. Dash is basic but with plenty of functions. Wanted more luxury but quickly forgot about all of those things as I drove. Hatch on the back adds utility and makes it sporty.
Performance: Excellent. Very little torque steer, powerful engine and great handling on the road. In the snow, winter tires make a huge difference and keep the car fun and exciting.
Pros: Great performance car for under $25,000 with the utility of a five-door and the space to carry lots of stuff.
Cons: Exterior may not fit everyone's style and purists think five doors don't perform as well as coupes.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor
Type: Five-passenger, front-wheel drive four-door hatchback.
Engine: 2.3-liter direct injection, turbocharged four-cylinder engine
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Power: 263 horsepower, 280 pound-feet torque.
EPA gas mileage: 18 mpg city / 25 mpg highway