It should be on your shopping list if you're considering something sporty with a bit of practicality. If you're thinking of a Volkswagen GTI or Subaru Impreza WRX, you owe it to yourself to take this car for a test drive.
It has some issues that might keep it from the top of the heap, but if I had one, I'd use it to carry my bike and show it off to my speed-freak friends, confident that they'd have to admit I got something truly fast.
Showing Up, Getting Noticed
My friends would also know when I arrived. The 'Speed3 was redesigned for 2010, and the new design has been criticized by some for its huge, grinning grille. I think it looks great. I'd rather have my car smile than frown, but others may see it differently.
(To see how much different the new version looks, check out this comparison with the 2009 Mazda3 here.)
Even I have to admit that the best reason to buy a Mazdaspeed3, however, is not its styling. It's the car's performance, and it does not disappoint. It has a 263-horsepower, turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission. I found the engine and transmission to be well-matched. It never lurched on a downshift because a gear was too short, and it drove smoothly at slow speeds. Having a sixth gear for highway cruising was great; that's something Mazda's competitors need to bear in mind.
The clutch was also very easy to get used to. Sometimes a performance car has a very heavy clutch, and while the Mazdaspeed3's clutch wasn't as light as the standard model's clutch, it wasn't tiring on long stop-and-go commutes. It was also easy to feel when the clutch was picking up, making for smooth driving.
The final bit of goodness was the engine's response — it was progressive and easy to live with. Some turbocharged four-cylinder engines dump all their power on you at once, but the Mazdaspeed 3 was better than that. You feel the turbo kick in, but it was a steady, satisfying rush of power, not an onslaught as it all poured out at once, as if you'd hit a panic switch.
Now, there was torque steer — meaning you almost feel the steering wheel fight you when you accelerate quickly. It's pretty much a given that a powerful front-wheel-drive car will do this, and they all do it to varying degrees, but I'd put the Mazdaspeed3 on the "more torque-steer" end of the spectrum. For comparison's sake, the Subaru WRX had very little torque steer. In any case, it's something to pay attention to during your test drive. You might not like it at all.
Fast Car in the Real World
Of course, cornering and accelerating for fun is just part of the story. Most of us need a car that can also take us to work every day, run us to the grocery store and pick up friends. Here, the 'Speed3 is a bit more hit-and-miss.
If you're used to the silent ride of most other cars on the road, you've been warned: The Mazda3 constantly makes its presence known. Pay attention during your test drive to make sure the noise isn't too much for you. I didn't think it was intrusive, but you might.
Also, visibility is about 90 percent good, but the 10 percent that isn't is worth a mention. Out the front and rear, you're fine — it's easy to judge the location of other cars on the road and in parking lots. However, there is a noticeable blind spot over your right shoulder, where the C-pillars are. There's a cutout window around those pillars, and that's desperately needed in this car. Without it, the blind spot would be unacceptable. As it is, you still can't see out perfectly, but you can see well enough to tell if you're about to merge on top of someone. Still, it's another thing to check out on a test drive.
The fact that the Mazdaspeed3 is only available as a hatchback is a huge mark in its favor when it comes to real-world living. The hatchback makes the grocery run, the odd trip to a bike race and any other errands that much easier. I can honestly say that the added practicality meant so much to me that I don't think I'd like the Mazdaspeed3 if it were a sedan.
Finally, a word about the Mazdaspeed3's ride quality: It's good. Now, remember, we're talking about a performance car, so it's much more firm than the regular Mazda3. You really feel big bumps in the road, but I didn't find it to be uncomfortable. The Volkswagen GTI has the best ride quality in this group, and the Mazdaspeed3 isn't as refined, but after a two-hour drive following a bike race, I wasn't in a bad way when I got out. That's a sign the ride is good. Make sure you hit some rough-ish roads on your test drive to see what you think.
In 2009, the Mazdaspeed3 was available in two trim levels. This year, Mazda did away with that and made the 'Speed3 one very well-equipped model. Standard equipment includes combination cloth and leather seats, Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone automatic climate control, active front head restraints, unique front and rear bumpers, and an electronic stability system.
Mazda also got rid of almost all the options on this car, so you can't get full-leather upholstery, heated seats or a moonroof. All you can add is the Tech Package, which includes an upgraded, 10-speaker audio system, a six-disc CD changer and a navigation system.
The navigation system deserves a call-out, as it's one of the newer Mazda units; it sits in a small screen in the instrument panel, just to the right of the speedometer and tachometer. At first glance, I was skeptical that I'd be able to read it, but it was surprisingly legible.
Also, unlike other systems that use a touch-screen or a knob, the Mazdaspeed3's navigation system is controlled by buttons on the steering wheel. Again, I was skeptical, but after using it, I was hooked. Of course, one could suggest that perhaps Mazda should get rid of some of the many buttons there to control the audio system and put in navigation controls instead, but that might be churlish. (Seriously, who needs a million buttons to control a CD player? Who even listens to CDs anymore?)
Safety & Reliability
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't crash-tested the Mazdaspeed3 or the Mazda3 hatchback. You can examine its full list of safety equipment here.
Mazdaspeed3 in the Market
Like I said, the Mazdaspeed3 has to be on your shopping list if you're interested in a fast hatchback. It's fast and fun.
Where I think the 'Speed3 suffers most is in the subjective categories. It doesn't have the all-wheel drive of the Subaru WRX, but is that a big deal to you? The Volkswagen GTI is more luxurious, but do you want that? And the 'Speed3 has that torque steer and cabin noise. Is that going to drive you nuts?
If I were shopping for one of these cars, the Mazdaspeed3 would keep me up at night as I tried to make up my mind. I can't say it's the out-and-out hot-hatchback winner, but it would definitely be a finalist.
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