The current Mazda3 is a very good car by all means, but while Americans can't have it with less than 155 horsepower, the European situation is slightly more depressing.
[Full disclosure: Mazda Hungary were super nice because I asked for some Mazdas and they gave me three. No pun intended. Two were diesels! I know...]
When I told Travis that I'm about to drive a Mazda3 with the 2.0, he said something about the lack of speed. When I got the keys to a brand new Mazda3 with the 2.0 in Budapest, Mazda told me to go ahead and rev the hell out of it, because it likes that. Oh boy.
I guess they also realized soon enough that you better give it all the revs with only 120 horsepower on tap moving 2,821 pounds (including the driver who isn't fatter than 165 lbs). And this is not even the least powerful version you can get in Europe! While we don't have the 2.5, there's also a 1.5 four banger with just 100 horsepower. We shall see if something like that will be enough to move the lightweight MX-5 around Japan and the old continent at an acceptable manner, but I can certainly live without knowing how it performs in this compact family car.
Also, am I the only one who thinks that you can only get 120 hp out of a 2 liter n/a petrol nowadays if you purposely detune it to leave space for the 165 hp version that's only available with the higher trim level? I guess that's the SkyPassiv part of the engineering process.
Of course I'm being unfair here. You have to remember that this part of Europe has a very price sensitive market, fuel prices are high, taxes are determined by performance, so of course Mazda will offer underpowered cars for those who are willing to sacrifice speed in order to get the rest of the goodies for a reasonable price.
In fact all manufacturers do that, and that's fine, except when it comes to the Mazda3. The Mazda3 is wasted without the sufficient number of horses under the hood simply because it handles so well.
Its steering is sharp and responsive, the six-speed manual is accurate and a joy to use and the brakes will take care of you even when you step on it a bit harder. The Mazda3 likes to go fast.
It's very agile and feels well-balanced on a curvy road, but it's only in for the play once you manage to get it up to speed. With 120 horsepower, that's the main challenge, but at least when you keep it in the sweet spot, it will reward you with an engaging drive that doesn't come as standard in this segment.
Clearly, all other Japanese manufacturers could take a look at what fun means in Mazda's book.
Okay, so let's say you end up with one of the slower Mazda3s, secretly dreaming about Mazdaspeed3s on random nights. What then?
Well, for one, you buy a sporty looking car that's also pretty practical. The Mazda3 hatchback is not small be any standard, and visibility is far from being ideal, but you get four doors, a big boot, and no matter which engine you went for, a speedo indicating a top speed of 160 mph (haha!), two exhausts at the rear and for a bit of extra cash, even the same red metallic paint Mazda uses for all its show cars for a very good reason.
Inside, the seats are brilliant, the leather steering wheel with the contrasting stitching not only look nice, but feels good too, and the infotainment system is as easy to use as it gets.
So since the detuned 2.0 won't make any interesting noises, just connect your phone via Bluetooth and turn up the volume while hitting corners faster than most (Toyota) drivers would expect from you.
I didn't mind jumping into this the next morning, and that's a high five right there.