The Mazdaspeed 3 is the hottest sport compact to roll this year. Check the facts: 263 hp, a fortified chassis, and a racy cabin for a base price of $22,835. Radar guns see a demure econobox. The reality is that affordability, practicality, and stealthy velocity can share the same three-legged stool.
Born two years ago, Mazda’s 3 elbowed aside Honda Civics and Volkswagen Golfs to become the budget-bound enthusiast’s new sweetheart. Now that Mazda’s speed geeks have recalibrated the hatchback version of the 3, it’s off and running toward the wild, blue, 150-mph yonder.
The transformation from wee one to wild thing involved no shock therapy or rack torture. The noble goal was an affordable front-driver capable of muscling into Mitsubishi’s and Subaru’s all-wheel-drive party. To begin the process, U.S.-based Mazda engineers built two project cars and mailed them to Japan for colleagues to drive and scrutinize. A few weeks in the dyno room followed by track tuning has transformed a capable compact into the quickest yearling in the stable. It may not have been Mazda’s intention, but neither the RX-8 nor the Mazdaspeed 6 can keep pace with this young sprinter.
The core engine for both Mazdaspeed cars is the same long-stroke, 2.3-liter MZR four-cylinder available in most of the cars and trucks in the Mazda lineup, not to mention several Ford Motor Company vehicles. The key ingredients here are an aluminum block and head with forged-steel internals (crank and rods), direct fuel injection, and dual balance shafts. Two overhead camshafts operate four valves per cylinder. To hike output, a Hitachi Warner turbocharger hung on the aft side of the engine passes air pressurized to 16 psi forward through an air-to-air intercooler.
Pumping any engine beyond 100 hp per liter requires a robust foundation and careful tuning of intake, exhaust, and fuel-delivery systems. Squirting the fuel directly into the cylinders at 1600 psi (versus the less than 100 psi used by port-injection systems) is not only more precise, the higher pressure also yields smaller fuel droplets that vaporize almost instantly. This change of state–from an atomized liquid to a combustible vapor–absorbs heat from the cylinders. The resulting cooler environment is less susceptible to detonation and more capable of swallowing denser charges of air. Because there’s less chance of detonation, Mazda engineers didn’t have to reduce the compression ration very much compared with the normally aspirated MZR engine’s ratio (9.5:1 turbo, 9.7:1 nonturbo). A higher compression equals more expansion during the power stroke, extra power with or without boost, and higher fuel mileage.
Plopping the intercooler atop the engine is similar to but cagier than Subaru’s approach. Unlike the hairy Impreza WRX, there’s no hood-mounted air grabber that screams boy racer. Instead, Mazda uses two discreet scoops straddling the winged grille badge to feed ductwork attached to the hood’s underside. When the hood is closed, the duct seals firmly against the twelve-by-fourteen-inch intercooler. Ram airflow may be less efficient than the low-mounted, forward-facing intercooler used on Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evo, but that arrangement requires more complex plumbing than the Mazdaspeed 3’s tidy, over-the-top layout.
Keyed to life, this turbo engine waffles and wheezes like most four-cylinders and exhibits the half-awake response that results from having a computer relay right-foot requests to the throttle plate. Mashing the accelerator changes the engine’s soft snoring into hard snorting. The six-speed shifter is heavily weighted toward the center gate to help you find the quick way through the gears. First is geared so short that it’s an excellent idea to keep your right hand on the shifter to avoid bumbling past the 6800-rpm redline into the rev limiter. The initial surge is as wickedly intoxicating as a shot of Jgermeister.
By 2500 rpm, boost rises to produce more pure yank than any four-cylinder machine deserves. At 3000 rpm, the 280 lb-ft of peak torque rolls in like a night train. While most of that twist makes life a living hell for the front tires, a portion also kicks back to your hands via the steering wheel. This definitely is not a car meant to be guided by dainty fingertips. Whenever your right hand is free from shifting duties, it needs to be on deck to help you hang on for dear life. A double death grip on the wheel is your best chance to keep the nose of the car from darting off when adverse combinations of power and potholes play havoc with the front end.
Not that Mazda hasn’t taken measures to cope. A cone-type limited-slip differential makes sure that both front tires share what’s dumped on them by an aggressive driver. The half-shafts are heat-treated to increase their stamina. The final fail-safe is an electronic torque-management program. The engine controller studies what gear you’ve selected and which way the front wheels are aimed before issuing throttle-angle commands.
In first, you’re allowed 72 to 79 percent of the maximum torque (depending on steering angle). In second, you’re granted between 77 and 92 percent. The full load comes through in third through sixth gears. But don’t think for an instant that the Mazdaspeed 3 is neutered; that fidgeting you feel in a 100-mph bend is the steering wheel trying to slip your grasp. To add an additional challenge to the piloting task, the clutch is an all-or-nothing proposition. An inch or so off the floormat, the pedal goes from slip to grip with light-switch zeal.
The brakes feel great around town and are able to shed 70 mph worth of speed in only 155 feet. But the modest increase in front rotor size–to 12.6 inches from the standard Mazda 3’s 11.8 inches–means that fade is inevitable when the stoppers are applied forcefully and repeatedly from high velocities. A complete package of stiffer and shorter springs, fatter antiroll bars, and substantially firmer dampers keeps the body’s rock and roll under control without totally wrecking the ride. The electrohydraulic steering is firm and slack-free.
To leap from rest to 60 mph requires an eagle eye on the tach and fancy hand- and footwork. Turn off the stability system to enable wheel spin, step off the clutch at 2800 rpm, click the shifter smartly twice, and you’ll just barely penetrate the six-second barrier. A quick shift to fourth will carry you through the quarter mile in 14.3 seconds with a 100-mph head of steam. If you’ve got a free pass from the police, a banked oval in your backyard, or an autobahn within reach, locking down the throttle (for what seems like ages) will eventually trip the Mazdaspeed 3’s 155-mph governor.
These big numbers are fine bragging fodder, but the real pleasure is simply exercising the Mazdaspeed 3’s musculature in traffic or up a canyon. Steering and suspension systems are calibrated for immediate reaction, with little body roll to hinder the maneuver. The eighteen-inch Bridgestone Potenza rubber loves being hammered to the understeer limit, at which point the front tires shriek in protest. A momentary lift releases the tail so it can slide smoothly wide to tighten the line. Work the throttle like a rally pro and this partner faithfully follows your lead.
The coolest thing about the Mazdaspeed 3, after its lust for felonious velocities, is that it goes about its business without drawing every doughnut-eater’s eye. The requisite Mazda-speed ID badge is in a typeface that emphasizes artistry over legibility. Aero add-ons are prominently sized but camouflaged body color, so they’re mainly visible only to those keyed into the sport-compact world. The four-inch exhaust outlet tucks under the tail skirt. Most of the working parts–a steel tunnel reinforcement, front strut-tower gussets, a belly pan, and a few small air dams–live underneath to do their jobs without raising the visual profile. The interior focuses on the driver’s needs without forgetting that this is an affordable four-door wagon, not some frivolous two-seater. The ideally shaped driver’s seat is substantially bolstered, and the three-spoke steering wheel is wrapped in leather with red stitching. While the metal-trimmed pedals are a thoughtful touch, their rubber insert buttons lack the grip to keep a leather sole from slipping now and then in the heat of a heel-and-toe battle. The back seats also are amply bolstered to hold two riders in place when the driver feels frisky. Of course, they also split and fold to accommodate booty from Ikea, and even the glove box is nearly large enough to sequester a small child.
Two trim levels are offered. The $22,835 Sport edition packages all the go-fast gear with cloth seats and a six-speaker stereo. The $24,550 Grand Touring kicks in partial leather seat trim, a seven-speaker Bose stereo, fancier head- and taillamps, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a security system. Stability control and A/C are standard. A $1750 navigation system can be added to the GT.
The Mazdaspeed 3 is one of those rare have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too packages capable of entertaining its driver, hauling family or friends, and minding a budget. What it lacks in refinement, it makes up in charisma. The EPA even blesses it with ratings of 20 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. But actually achieving that efficiency poses the biggest challenge: driving the Mazdaspeed 3 without guzzling from its deep well of power and torque.