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.