Though it’s been a tough time lately for the auto industry, any company that offers reasonably-priced compact vehicles has seen its sales charts maintain decent numbers, at least compared to the industry as a whole. People are watching their money more carefully these days, so auto purchases tend toward the more practical ones.
Mazda has enjoyed a loyal following in the past few years with its Madza3 compact sedan and hatchback. This is the car that replaced the Protégé in the company’s line-up, and became a favorite with those looking for a sportier alternative to cars like the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. It doesn’t sell as well as any of those other models but considering Mazda’s relatively small slice of the U.S. auto market, it’s done pretty well.
Earlier this year, an updated Mazda3 was introduced. The car is slightly larger than the one it replaced, and has that controversial grill that looks like a giant grin. But aside from the Cheshire cat appearance in the front, the car was improved in pretty much every way, with new upscale options like a driver-friendly navigation system.
Now that the regular car is off and running, Mazda has resurrected the performance-oriented Mazdaspeed3 that was initially missing from the line. Any car badged “Mazdaspeed” has been a little breathed upon in terms of power and handling, sort of like a Mercedes-Benz AMG or BMW M for the everyman. In addition to the previous Mazdaspeed3, there have been upgraded versions of the MX-5 Miata and the larger Mazda6 sedan over the years as well.
Under the hood, the 2010 Mazdaspeed3 hasn’t changed that much from the 2009 model. The same direct-injected, turbocharged 2.3 liter engine is the same one as before, making a staggering 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. If you’re not familiar with engines, just know that those are incredible numbers for a relatively small, emissions-compliant, four-cylinder engine. (That’s still docile enough for a commuter car.)
There are a few tweaks here and there. Mazda added an air intake to the hood, which not only draws the eyes away from the goofy smiley-face grill but also feeds cool air to the turbo’s intercooler and the engine’s air intake itself. Again, for those not familiar with engines, hot air is bad… cooler air is good.
Some changes were also made to the standard 6-speed manual transmission, where the gear ratios were fiddled with to make the engine’s strong power more useful at actually getting to the front wheels. The one big downside to a powerful engine in a front wheel drive car is that under certain conditions, the engine can overwhelm the available traction from the tires and make acceleration while steering a bit of a handful.
So if you try to stomp on the accelerator too hard during a turn while in the lower gears, the car’s computer will electronically reduce the engine’s output a bit to keep the car from wiggling around like a newly-caught fish. It works pretty well, though equipping the Mazdaspeed3 with all wheel drive would solve the problem but at the expense of affordability and lightness. The only other hiccup to the driving experience is a clutch with a sort of hair-trigger action but that was fairly easy to get used to.
On a good winding road, the car is an absolute delight. I had a chance to explore some of the best pavement Los Angeles County has to offer on the way to visit friends out in the northern reaches of Malibu, and this was certainly the car to have, with firm suspension that isn’t too harsh and a wonderful feeling of connectedness to the steering. The special seats also have additional bolstering to keep the driver and front passenger in place during spirited driving.
Visually, the Mazdaspeed3 is distinguished from the regular Mazda3 by the aforementioned hood scoop, as well as a deeper front spoiler. There is also a small wing on top of the rear hatch and a special lower valance with dual exhaust bringing up the rear. Flared wheel wells and subtle side skirts frame the distinct 18” wheels, and there are limited color choices available.
Only one choice for interior colors: a basic black with crimson red highlights. Little red flecks adorn the seat fabric and instrument panel trim, and there are dashes of red throughout the inside of the car. Most everything is standard, and there’s an available Tech Package that brings a navigation system, Bluetooth phone connection and keyless entry to the party.
A couple of things you can’t get on the Mazdaspeed3 are a moon roof and an automatic transmission, both of which are available on the regular Mazda3. The message here seems to be “poseurs stay home.” Mazda evidently wanted to make sure that this car is reserved for pure enthusiasts.
Those enthusiasts will probably be pleased with the Mazdaspeed3’s sticker price of $23,195. My test vehicle had the optional Tech Package which added $1895 to the total but, to me, it is well worth it for the extra convenience. Even if you don’t really have use for navigation system, the keyless entry and Bluetooth are things you’d use every day.
And while the Mazdaspeed3 is a true performance car, it is a vehicle that you can use every day if you need a relatively sensible commuter car. Its splendid power and road manners mean you’d also look forward to that occasional trip to Malibu on the twisty roads.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.