For the sake of full disclosure, I was once lured into Mazda showrooms by the Speed 3's predecessor, the Mazdaspeed Protegé. I ended up with a fatter, less powerful, and (most importantly) more affordable Protegé5 instead, but the Mazdaspeed products have always had a special spot in my heart.
It's no secret that the original Mazdaspeed was absolutely gutless with a 170-hp, low-boost turbocharged four-cylinder. It seems with the 3, that Mazdaspeed engineers wanted to banish all memories of that past car's shortcomings. The power here is prodigious. If you have a serious racing habit, the Mazdaspeed 3 sure makes a lot of sense. This is the car for someone who wants to race on a budget while owning only one car. Arrive at the track with a jack and four grippy rollers inside the hatch, and you can be ready to race in a half hour. All those niggling Speed 3 habits of torque steer and wheel spin melt away when you're focused on using every bit of performance.
Now, as with back then, I'm won over by the more modest Mazda. As crazy as it sounds, I feel like the regular 3 hatch is more unique than the Speed when each car is taken in its context. Compared with other compact offerings, the Mazda offers an unparalleled chassis that delivers ride comfort without compromising handling. The 3 even drives better than more expensive cars.
The Mazdaspeed 3 sits in its own performance/price niche, but that still wouldn't keep me from seriously thinking hard about cars on both sides of the Mazda, from Subaru and Volkswagen. The Speed 3 definitely has a special air about it, but the power delivery feels more like the car came from a small, local tuning shop rather than a factory. I know Mazdaspeed engineers have broadcast their reasons for not using all-wheel drive, but a quick Google search for "all-wheel-drive Mazdaspeed 3" yielded some YouTube footage that made me more excited than the last time I drove the car.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor