There's one thing missing in love-it-or-hate-it cars like the Mazdaspeed 3: apathy. Whether you adore its tire-shredding, blistering acceleration or loathe its torque steer and turbo lag, you'll never get out of this hatchback feeling nothing. Redesigned for 2010, the Mazdaspeed 3 remains the muscle car of the hot-hatch world, and just like the last Speed, it remains the ultimate polarizer of the Mazda family.
For example, one could easily criticize the new Speed for offering no more power than last year's car. We won't. Word behind the scenes is that engineers experimented with more power (the engine will reportedly handle 300 hp with no problem) and even all-wheel drive, but the lessons of the late RX-7 stopped that thinking dead in its tracks. The RX-7 became too complex and too expensive, resulting in its demise. Demise is bad, so the Mazdaspeed 3 stays simple, cheap, and fast.
And that means it remains a hot hatch with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine furiously spinning the front wheels. The unibody is similar to the one in last year's car, with only slight structural enhancements made possible by the selective use of high-strength steel. The new Speed is roughly the same size as its predecessor, and weight has increased by only about 100 pounds. Even its electronically limited 155-mph top speed remains the same. So what's different?
Well, perhaps you've noticed the styling. And by "styling," we could only be referring to the Speed's freakishly happy yet uncomfortably sinister mug. Love it or hate it, the grille opening is roughly the same shape as the one on the standard version of the happiest car on the planet, but with a slightly perverse, almost Joker-esque, insert. Circular lenses replace the rounded-trapezoid foglights from the regular 3, and the front fenders are flared to house tires that have grown in width by one size. A hood scoop tells other would-be racers that this Mazda means business.
The functional scoop routes cold air directly to the top-mounted intercooler. The previous Speed 3 used ducting in the hood to feed the intercooler, which left no room for cold-air plumbing for the engine. The new configuration not only provides for better airflow to the intercooler but feeds the engine with chillier intake air as well. The better cooling results in higher engine output in hot conditions and at low speeds, such as when sitting in midsummer traffic.
The engine itself - a 2.3-liter four-cylinder with direct injection, a turbocharger that produces 15.5 psi of boost, and peak output ratings of 263 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque - is unchanged. As before, we're tickled pink by its enormous thrust, but we're still irked by its copious turbo lag and relatively small operating range. Unlike other modern turbocharged engines with direct injection, the Speed 3's turbo takes its sweet old time spooling up, with practically no boost generated below 3000 rpm, no matter how long you wait. Lag is present in the midrange, too, even after redline shifts, and the turbo runs out of steam well before the engine's 6700-rpm redline.
Second through fifth gears in the six-speed manual transmission have been lengthened slightly in an effort to help this 3 put all its power to the ground. Also assisting is a limited-slip differential and engine programming that restricts output in the first three gears, depending on steering angle. You have to love a car that has so much power that its engine can't come off leash until fourth gear. We don't love the torque steer, though, which attempts to rip the steering wheel out of your hands under hard acceleration - even at highway speeds.
The Speed 3's body control over rough roads is flawless, although the lift-off oversteer we enjoyed in last year's car has been tamed. Both spring and damper rates have been increased considerably, and the ride remains commendably compliant - at least up front. Rear passengers are bounced a bit and are treated to lots of exhaust noise, but the back seats are otherwise very livable. Mazda has done an exceptional job of giving the 3 a deep exhaust note that sounds great at idle without filling the cabin with a boomy drone. That job is for the optional ten-speaker Bose sound system, which will accurately reproduce any sound track you ask it to.
Changing the hydraulic power-steering pump from belt to electrically driven allowed Mazda to give more steering assistance at parking-lot speeds and higher effort once moving. All of the controls in the Speed 3 are well-weighted, from the easy-to-modulate clutch to the positive brake pedal to the light, if a bit vague, shifter. In normal driving, the Speed proudly demonstrates everything that's made us praise lesser 3s - from the fantastic hatchback usability to the commendable interior quality, Mazda's little hatch is always one of our top compact-car picks.
With that said, the Speed 3's front seats feel less laterally supportive than last year's big-bolster affairs, and they lack thigh support, even compared with the power seats in the regular 3. And the optional navigation system, which Mazda appropriately names "compact navi," has a screen no bigger than that of an iPhone. Infuriatingly, its controls are placed on the steering wheel, meaning that only the driver can operate them, and destination addresses can be entered only while the car is stopped. How annoying.
We're also disappointed that many features available on less powerful 3s aren't offered on the Speed: you can beg, plead, or even hug your dealer, but he won't be able to get you a Mazdaspeed 3 with a sunroof, seat heaters, rain-sensing wipers, LED taillights, or swiveling HID headlights.
Then again, we think the Speed 3 ranks high on the bang-for-the-buck scale: at a base price of $23,945, it comes standard with dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth, and that monster engine under the hood. Even fully loaded, your Speed 3 will barely break the $26,000 mark. You can love or hate its silly face and its distinctly turbocharged personality, but there's not much to discuss when it comes to price - if you like a whole lot of horsepower for your pennies, the Mazdaspeed 3 offers much to love.
BASE PRICE $23,945
ENGINE Turbocharged DOHC I-4
DISPLACEMENT 2.3 liters (138 cu in)
HORSEPOWER 263 hp @ 5500 rpm
TORQUE 280 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
TRANSMISSION TYPE 6-speed manual
STEERING Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
SUSPENSION, FRONT Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES F/R Vented discs/discs, ABS
TIRES Dunlop SP Sport 2050
TIRE SIZE 225/40YR-18
L x W x H 177.6 x 69.7 x 57.5 in
WHEELBASE 103.9 in
TRACK F/R 60.4/60.0 in
WEIGHT 3245 lb (per manufacturer)
EPA MILEAGE 18/25 mpg