If the Mazda3 goes to prep-school, then Mazdaspeed3 is the berserk brother trying to knock up the cheerleaders. It's a Mazda3 on MDMA-laced protein shakes. A mad-science experiment to tame 263 horsepower through the front wheels. And I'll be damned if it isn't fun.
(Full Disclosure: Mazda wanted me to drive the Mazdaspeed3 so bad that they let me have it for a week. I drove it over to surprise my Dad for Father's Day. Happy Father's Day Dad! I should also note that I own a Mazda Miata. That's not for this review, I just like to tell people.)
Mazda does a lot of things right. In a world of boring, dreary econoboxes, the Mazda3 is actually fun to drive. But it isn't the funnest Mazda3. That goes to the superman Mazdaspeed3, a car that has 263 horsepower and actively tries to kill the person driving it through that weapon known as torquesteer.
People think of the Miata as the fastest car in the Mazda portfolio, but under most conditions you're going to be faster in the hatchback with the crazy smile. The 'Speed3 crams more power and premium features within than any of its competitors, and even has some very premium tech like blind spot monitoring and auto wipers.
It it basically the anti-Miata: An overpowered front drive hot hatch with five seats and tech up the ying yang. The opposite of Jinba Ittai. The Miata is the religion by which I live, so it's hard for me to believe that Mazda could build something so far out of its comfort zone and be good at it.
I've never driven a Mazda that I didn't like, so the Mazdaspeed3 has a lot to live up to.
Nobody can accuse the Mazdaspeed3 of not having character. It's one of the happiest cars on the road with its big stupid grin. Some people like it, some people hate it. I tend to fall in the former group. I like it, it makes me smile.
Speaking of the smile, you haters (I know you're out there) should rejoice, because it'll be gone for 2014.
I also think it's very handsome from a lot of angles, definitely one of the most muscular hot hatches on the road today even if the cartoonish hood scoop appears to be trying too hard, kind of shouting "I really am fast you know!"
I also really like the wheels, which aren't too big, the rear wing, which isn't too big, and the other subtle body mods that differentiate it from the base 3. It is definitely one of the more polarizing designs out there. We need more polarizing designs, though, so I consider the 3 a success.
A little hot hatch isn't necessarily about the interior. It's about driving. So it's no surprise that the things you will touch a lot, like the wheel and the shifter, feel great. I also liked the seats. I spent a couple long stretches in the car and my hip/back didn't feel like I just got off a bucking bronco.
Here's another thing I liked that doesn't get enough attention: With the windows down, there wasn't an awful amount of annoying buffeting or noise at highway speeds like in a number of other cars. I guess Mazda knows how to do this properly thanks to the Miata.
Here's the rub. Other than those points, this interior isn't all that, how do you say... good. Materials feel cheap, the door is covered in this strange red and black cloth, and it doesn't feel all that special. Sitting in the 2014 Mazda3 hasn't helped this one at all either. It feels out of date and out of touch, like me at a Kanye concert.
I won't miss it.
The 'speed3 has 263 horsepower and 280 pound feet of torque from its turbocharged 2.3 liter inline four. And yes, all of that power is routed to the front wheels. If you like you some torquesteer, you'll like the Mazdaspeed3. It's adept at turning right, even when you want to go left. Mazda has limited the torque to the wheels in first and second, so that turn is a little more gradual than the past, but the torquesteer remains.
I've heard people say that they like the torquesteer in their 3 because it makes the car feel alive while it's accelerating. Ok. Sure. But will you be alive when it veers right into a brick wall?
Get over that quibble and the Speed3 is surprisingly quick. Get on the power, knock off a few great gearshifts, and you'll be breaking the law in pretty much all 48 contiguous United States in no time. That's if you stay right in the meat of the powerband. The 3 has a big punch to the gut in the mid-range which is where it makes its power. Work with that, don't string it out to redline every single time, and you'll have a bit of a rocket on your hands.
A lot of hatches have a bit of a soft, mushy pedal with very little feel. The 'speed3 doesn't have that. Instead, you get a solid pedal that is easy to modulate. A real pleasure, actually.
I didn't do a lot of heavy, hard stopping to see if they fade or overheat easily, but from what I experienced I'd be really surprised if they couldn't take some abuse.
It's the lower, stiffer brother to an economical, soft, compact. I'm used to driving a very uncomfortable Miata all the time, so I didn't find the 3 all that bad. My Mom, however, commented that it was very stiff.
That's when I started to think about it. You feel everything, all the time, no matter what. That's good and bad. It shows that Mazda tuned the car to pretty much be a demon around corners, but they didn't tune it to be a highway cruiser or a city car, which is where it'll probably spend a lot of time.
In NYC, it was a rather uncomfortable experience. On the highway, the seats were great, but certain spots of potholes were not as fun to drive through. Not that any car would make them fun. I don't mind the stiff tuning, but I also know a lot of people that wouldn't buy the car because of it.
If you're a moron, you'll get the 3 in trouble. And that's because when you have a front-drive car with this sort of power, you get people driving them that tend to want to be floored all the time, no matter what. When you overpower that front end, the 3 will go straight on in a corner and hit that tree or guardrail or grandmother that is right in front of you.
However, if you don't drive like an ass, the 3 is quite good. It has a ton of grip, is fine at hitting an apex, and powers out plenty fine too. I'd say the limits are slightly below the Focus ST, which has more stick than it knows what to do with. It has a lower cornering limit, but in some ways that also makes it more fun on the street than the 100 percent glued ST.
Mazda has proven two things to me about transmissions. 1. They know how to make a great shifter. 2. They don't know how to make a great clutch.
The throws are short and direct on the six-speed manual. I never missed a gate or cursed the box itself. It's a joy to use, like every Mazda gearshift I've ever had the pleasure of trying. What I did curse was the clutch. When you first get in the 3, you realize Mazda went to the digital school of clutch engineering.
Like a light switch, it's either on or off, with a minuscule area where the light will flicker briefly. You'll have some problems with it at the beginning, like jerky starts or not the smoothest of shifts. Give it some time though, and you'll start to find that small sweet spot easier and easier. It took a little getting used to, but after a couple hours in the car, it felt rather natural. It was like learning how to ride a slightly more awkward bike.
You like toys, right? Well, this has some. Cruise control, satellite radio, navigation, blind spot monitoring, rain sensing wipers, keyless start, and automatic HID lights are just some of them. In fact, it's a pretty good selection for this class of car.
The auto lights are some of the best I've ever used, turning off immediately when it gets bright instead of staying on for five minutes just in case. The iPod connection was one of the worst I'd used. It would occasionally not recognize my iPod and if it did and I switched sources, it would always restart from the first song on the playlist. It also took around an hour to load. That gets annoying fast.
The engine note is a little raspy, but not really all that evocative. The Bose stereo is decent, but nothing special. Combine that with me being forced to listen to Yeezus in the car, and it made me hate every single noise that came out of it.
It's something that I've found with Mazdas since forever. From my 1996 Miata to the newest Miata to the 2014 Mazda6 to the Mazdaspeed3, the engine note just doesn't ignite my soul. Some things sound amazing. This just doesn't.
The Mazdaspeed3 starts at $24,200 and my tester had a few options that pushed it up to $27,955. That's largely comparable to the Focus ST, GTI, and WRX, so this is a personal preference game. People have their allegiances, so there are hot hatch buyers that would never consider a 'speed3 over a GTI. Subaru fanboys would scoff at the idea of buying a Mazda.
They shouldn't. Yes, the interior is lackluster, but I wasn't too impressed by the ST (Other than those great seats). The GTI feels very premium, but it's slower than the Mazda. The WRX is faster than the Mazda and is old like the Mazda, but is ugly, which the Mazda isn't.
Still, to think that you can get a car for $27,955 with all this power and character is pretty excellent. And the features inside rival anything from its competitors, in fact, it beats them. I'm betting that the new Mazdaspeed3, whenever it arrives (probably fall 2014ish), will take this a step further, but if you are in the market for a hot hatch, the 'speed3 is a great buy. Especially used.
I said earlier that I've never driven a Mazda that I didn't like. The Mazdaspeed3 continues that tradition.
Engine: 2.3 liter turbocharged I4
Power: 263 HP at 5,500 RPM/280 LB-FT at 3,000 RPM
Transmission: Six-Speed Manual
0-60 Time: 6.4 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph (limited)
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,281 Pounds
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 18 City/25 Highway/21 Combined
MSRP: $24,200 ($27,955 As Tested)