The all-new, 2014 Mazda3 has been on sale for just a couple of months now. Still, it’s never too early to start thinking about the faster Mazdaspeed version—assuming the company will actually build one. The combination of a gorgeous exterior and lightweight chassis on the new Mazda—67 pounds lighter than the old 3—make the daydreams all that more exciting. Having spent extensive time in the Ford Focus ST as well as the new Mark VII Volkswagen GTI—due to arrive in the USA by the middle of 2014—I have some strong opinions on Mazda’s next hot hatch.
The last Mazdaspeed 3 had a very powerful, turbocharged 2.3-liter engine but it felt like an aftermarket tuner setup. The 263 hp four didn’t love to rev and it felt as if Mazda worked hard to get maximum power but forgot about drivability. Mazda’s new high-tech Skyactiv engines offer a perfect starting point for the more focused version of the Japanese hatchback. Rumors are that Mazda is looking at either turbocharging or supercharging for the Speed3. Logic tells you they will go with a turbo, but Audi has proved that supercharging can work – consider the 3.0T engine. Supercharging would also differentiate Mazda from the competition. We’ll see. I’m hoping for an engine that has good midrange power and yet loves to rocket towards the redline. You know, like a Miata.
A six-speed manual is the only logical choice, due to cost considerations. Isn’t it great when financial constraints keep an automaker from handicapping a minimalist, focused driver’s car with a gearbox better suited for a video game? A hot hatch should always have a row-it-yourself setup. Mazda is known for slick transmissions, but the outgoing Mazdaspeed 3’s was clunky and vague. Mazda needs to sort it out on this version.
It’s also essential that Mazda fix the old car’s torque steer. The Ford Focus ST also is cursed with this problem, while the Volkswagen GTI is perfect in this regard, whether equipped with the open differential or the limited-slip. It’s likely not in the budget, but a trick electronic limited slip similar to the unit fitted to the Performance Package-equipped GTI would be the Mazda’s ideal setup. We’ll see.
Compare and contrast the Focus ST with the GTI, and you can see where Mazda ought to aim for handling and chassis dynamics. The Ford is fun but gets tiring when you live with it day to day. The quick steering is great but it lacks feel. Still, I love the ST’s outright grip and the ability for the driver to rotate the Ford with the throttle. The GTI is far more polished but not as playful. I’d love it if Mazda were able to keep the fun of the Ford while injecting the polish of the VW. The outgoing Mazdaspeed 3 was far more Focus ST than GTI in regards to refinement. I hope the pendulum swings back towards the VW, but not too far. I still want the Mazda to have a slight edge.
The new Mazda3 is a great looking car, especially with the larger 18-inch wheels. The VW GTI is very conservative, like every generation before it. The Ford Focus ST looks great and it’s much more aggressive than the GTI. This is one area where I think the Mazda should follow Ford’s path. Have some fun. I’m not talking over-the-top wings and ducts, and I hope the boy racer hood scoop doesn’t return. Stick with 18-inch wheels but make them aggressive and fit sticky summer tires—like the Focus ST. Oh, and let’s sure hope they use the four-door hatchback body. Did I even need to mention that?
The GTI clearly gets the nod inside. It’s sporty but extremely well built and functional. Conversely, the Focus ST is busy and complicated. MyFord Touch is, quite frankly, a very poor, frustrating system to operate. The Focus ST’s optional Recaro seats are too heavily bolstered and uncomfortable for various body types. Really, it’s pretty simple for Mazda sort out the innards of the Mazdaspeed 3. Fit aggressive seats, but don’t overdo it. Add a sporty steering wheel and shifter. Throw in some aluminum or other industrial-style interior trim. That’s it. Well, and make sure to offer the car with manual cloth seats, no navigation, no sunroof, no keyless start, etc. Make those features optional but maintain a focused, inexpensive version for hardcore buyers.
With the next MazdaSpeed3, its maker has the opportunity to slot its car between the GTI and the ST. I love the Mark VII VW GTI but there is room for more verve. The Focus ST is a very fun car to thrash but less so to live with. I want a Mazdaspeed 3 that makes a statement, like the Focus ST, but it should also be a car that you are happy to drive every day. I want the Mazdaspeed 3 to also handle the occasional track day but still put a smile on your face in all driving environments. I can’t wait to see what Mazda delivers.