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.