From the November 2006 issue of Car and Driver.
It’s been a contender for our cover ever since we spotted a prototype circling the Nürburgring in August 2005. It was all black, sucking air into a huge hood scoop and blatting it out the back through an oversize stinger. It was a wagon, and it looked bad.
Mazda is a company with a rep for taking care of asphalt jockeys. Low-carb curb weights, spry handling, and approachable sticker prices are the norm under its tent. We’ve been fired up by new Mazdas before, only to be disappointed. Two recent Mazdaspeeds only rated “medium fun” on our scale. Deficient in horsepower and refinement, a Mazdaspeed Protegé finished third of four in our May 2003 comparo “Serial Thrillers.” And a Mazdaspeed 6 dove for fourth of five in a February 2006 comparo [“Everyday Heroes”]. There was plenty of punch, we judged, but not enough polish. (The public appears to agree, as Mazda has incentives on the car as of this writing.)
On sale as you read this, the Mazdaspeed 3 starts at $22,800. That’s about $2300 cheaper than a base 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX wagon, which lists for $25,120 (2007 prices were unavailable at press time). Even fully loaded with the $1715 GT package (leather seat trim, xenon headlamps, LED taillamps, six-CD changer, rain-sensing wipers, trip computer, and aluminum pedals), the $1750 nav system, and a short list of inexpensive extras such as floor mats, the car tops out at $27,185.
The Mazdaspeed 3 shows that the company has been listening. The midget Mazda 3 wagon—26,896 sold in 2005, or 28 percent of total Mazda 3 volume, which includes the brisker-selling sedan—gets walloped with the turbocharged (to 15.6 psi) DOHC 16-valve 2.3-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine from the Mazdaspeed 6 and Mazda CX-7. Mazda figures its wagon buyers are younger, more often male, more impetuous therefore, and more likely to have use for a 3180-pound car bristling with 263 horsepower and returning just 18 mpg when flogged.
Squatting on its 18-inch wheels and wearing extra wind-cheating plastic, the Mazdaspeed 3 is suited up for action. Fat-bolstered buckets with red stitching and “Mazdaspeed” embroidery face the white-trimmed gauges on a dash that proves Mazda has truly pulled its act together on interior trim and finish. Unlike the Mazdaspeed 6 and CX-7, both all-wheel drivers, the Mazdaspeed 3 puts its horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels only, making torque steer more probable than tomorrow’s sunrise.
HIGHS: Ready to murder WRXs by third gear, taut and toned chassis, civilized ride.
Mazda’s engineers twisted the suspension strings tighter with the goal of reducing wallow in corners and during fast transitions without ruining the base 3’s relatively supple ride. So the front and rear anti-roll bars are thicker by 0.2 inch each. Heavier spring rates (43 percent front, 30 percent rear) and monotube shocks with stiffer compression and rebound tuning cut down the body motions. For all 2007 3s, Mazda has also relocated the front tie-rod links and rear toe-control mounts on the knuckles to wake up the steering even more in corners.
The Mazdaspeed 3’s brakes get turned up with a new tandem-bore booster to increase booster volume and, hence, braking force while keeping the package narrow. In the front, where it matters, rides a pair of calipers off the Volvo S40 that grip 12.6-inch vented discs. ABS, traction control, and stability control are standard.
As for the torque steer, Mazda knew it would be Oscar winning. So it wrote the engine-control software with a nuance that links the engine’s output with steering-wheel angle. Boot it with the front wheels centered, and you get the whole can of Spam. If the helm is turned a few degrees left or right, the computer backs off the throttle a couple of percentage points to relax the sideways tug on the nose. This car also comes with Super LSD, which we were dismayed to learn is perfectly legal. It’s the GKN-supplied mechanical limited-slip differential borrowed from the RX-8.
The Mazdaspeed 3 is only a bit less tricky to launch than a space shuttle. Most of the runs up the drag strip vanished in excessive tire smoke. Or they deflated when the driver, trying to stanch the wheelspin, inadvertently cued the waste gate. Or grabbed the wrong gear with the spongy shifter. Calls to Mazda yielded tips: Pop the clutch at 2900 rpm, upshift at 6000—redline is 6700—and flat-shift through second and third (which means don’t lift at all—the mechanical equivalent of dropping a Steinway on the clutch and half-shafts and violating our test procedure).
“Don’t worry,” the engineers said, “it won’t break.”
It didn’t—even after painting the pavement Bridgestone black with more than 30 hole shots. Working the shifter feverishly—the low ratios in first and second mean two shifts happen before 60 mph—we finally scorched a 5.8-second zero-to-60-mph time and a 14.4-second quarter-mile at 99 mph. The 156-hp Mazda 3 s wagon hits 60 in 7.4 seconds. The last WRX sedan we tested ran six flat to 60 with a 14.6-second quarter-mile and all four wheels digging [“Cheap Speed, Round 23,” C/D, September 2005]. That’s a difference worth knowing. We also did more than the usual stops from 70 mph, getting 167 feet, and circled a dusty, less-than-perfect skidpad to produce a brag-worthy 0.87 g.
LOWS: Joyless shifter, inevitable torque steer, unleaded premium can vanish quickly.
Yes, sir, get it right, and the Mazdaspeed 3 has speed in double-E size. It’ll run off a GTI and slap a Civic Si silly. It’s got more beans than all of its pocket-mongoose competitors save the old Dodge Neon-based SRT4 (and, likely, the new 300-horse Caliber-based SRT4, when we eventually test it).
Departing the track, we drove the Mazdaspeed 3 over 600 miles through California hill country and down lumpy expressways. Mazda’s commitment to preserving ride quality shows. Even with 45-series tires on 18-inch wheels, hopping is muted over L.A.’s notoriously stubbled freeways. Big thwacks get eaten by the stiff skeleton and excreted as much smaller vibrations. In the Mazdaspeed, the wagon’s cavelike body is stiffened with gussets and brackets at the shock towers and a full-length panel reinforcing the center tunnel. It all helps make a sporty ride you can live with.
A guttural, saber-toothed snarl from the tailpipe means the 2.3-liter is idling. It sounds good there, better than the less-interesting, more-frazzled zoom-zooming closer to redline. Getting the Mazdaspeed 3 to speed requires frequent visits to the shifter. It’s a cable-operated selector with rubbery detents and a counterweight that sends back shivers through the timbers with each lick. It’s stilted, an arcade joystick.
Steering assist is by an electrohydraulic rack. Anything “electro” usually puts a pox on steering feel. As in all Mazda 3s, however, the electric motor simply makes the hydraulic pressure instead of providing steering assist. The Mazdaspeed 3 steers smoothly, reminiscent of a BMW. The wheel’s desire to stay at center is distinct. The effort builds just so, heightening as you turn it and sweep through the corner. Jitters and pulses make their way to your hands, the feel of the front tires at work. The Mazdaspeed 3 will eventually understeer, like all cars with 63.5 percent of their weight on the nose, but at sane velocities the Mazda hides its imbalance with grace.
The Mazdaspeed 3 charges hard in third, the go-to gear for any street race. In fourth it becomes a GT. Just leave it there for an entire mountain road, and let the turbo chew on the heavy gas flow. Mazda calls the engine the MZR DISI. The MZR means Mazda’s four-cylinder engine family, with DISI standing for “direct-injection spark ignition,” a flashdance of chemistry that produces power in all the right places. The midrange torque is impressive, pushing the tach needle inexorably higher as you climb hills and scamper out of corners. Hit a pavement seam under acceleration and the car will snick sideways with a torque-induced tug. Otherwise, Mazda’s software wrinkle tames the front-end wander and lets you relax and pick your line with certainty.
THE VERDICT: Mazda’s minute wagon gets drunk on boost without losing its balance.
Compared with the Mazdaspeed 6, the 3 feels buoyant, scrappier, like the 6 but after its stomach has been stapled. And the Mazdaspeed 3 looks every bit a swashbuckler. On our scale, this one rates maximum fun.
“Thank you, Officer, may I please have another?” That’s a statement you may be repeating quite often, what with torque available when you want it and catlike reflexes. The Mazdaspeed 3 is a true “hooligan-mobile”; it just begs you to put your foot down or try that corner just a little harder. Unfortunately, some of its prowess is let down by its vague shifter and mild torque steer, but I’m willing to look the other way. Mazda has produced a complete package of usable performance and utility with nice interior appointments—a good overall value. I think it has a winner on its hands. The line forms behind me! —Morgan Segal
Since even standard versions of the Mazda 3 have fairly aggressive styling, the turbocharged Mazdaspeed 3 version makes a perfect Q-car—a stealth vehicle that few people will recognize until it blows their doors off. And the conversion has been engineered with great care, embodying the car with considerable refinement despite its expanded performance envelope. There are only two things I don’t like about it. One is the rather notchy, vague shifter. I tried pulling off in third gear a couple of times. The other is the fact that you have to press a button to extract the ignition key. Apart from that, it’s a brilliant little car. —Barry Winfield
When the specs were revealed, my skeptical gland went into overdrive. These guys are gonna put 263 horsepower in a small front-drive car? Without having the thing snatch the steering wheel out of your hands every time you tramp on the gas? Uh-huh. Saab tried to make a manly virtue out of demonic torque steer with the Viggen. Yeah, it’s a little unruly, but keeping it pointed straight is half the fun. Hey, who needs it? But in this case it turns out my skepticism was unwarranted. Mazda seems to have shackled the torque-steer demon, pretty much, in a car that looks cool, drives hot, and is priced to go. Wow. How do you say GTI in Japanese? —Tony Swan
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