I remember the day my Dad brought home a brand new ’66 Barracuda. While such an auspicious automotive occasion would make any Sting Ray-riding nine-year-old pop a wheelie, the ‘Cuda arrived on the same day The Green Hornet made its TV debut. Both productions proved equally fantastic. Plymouth’s fastback was an effort to sex-up their Valiant sedan with the equivalent of a low-cut party dress. Trouble was, the girl underneath was someone you could only really appreciate for her personality. How times have changed. To wit: the Mazdaspeed 3, an example of what today’s boffins can do with a basic economy car.
It's immediately apparent that Mazdaspeed's go-faster bits have been added with minimum effect on the donor car’s exterior. The subtlety of the makeover is either a testament to changing priorities or an indication that the project team blew their budget on Gold’s Gym. Not that the regular five-door Mazda3 is bad looking. A two-box wagonette in the modern fashion, the 3 projects a chunky, confident persona. Its rear fender sculpting is one of the finest mass-market details on any car extant. The speed racer version offers not much more than a lowered stance, slightly reshaped hood and bumpers, 10-spoke alloys and a prominent rear wing.
Open the door, hatch or engine cover and there’s evidence of cost-saving (at least with the True Red option): a strange, dull hue to the non-exterior body paint. Inside, the song remains the same. The Mazdaspeed3’s seats and door panels receive a mesh-like treatment, along with some red stitching hither and yon. The front perches are more substantial than stock, although thighs get short shrift. The headliner is still made out of dryer lint and although the plastics aren’t despicable, they’re closer to the 40-year-old Plymouth’s polymers than the soft touch materials found inside the Volkswagen GTI (the Mazdaspeed 3’s logical competitor).
Mazdaspeed logos adorn the rear hatch, front sill plates and seats, reminding you of your mount’s extra Zoom each time you clock the tacho. And clock it you will. The Japanese hot hatch is powered by a 2.3 liter, direct-injection turbo four, good for 263hp @ 5500 rpm. The torque is equally impressive: 280 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm. You don’t have to pilot a wrong wheel-drive Chevrolet Impala SS to know that’s a heck of a lot of muscle to transfer through the front wheels. Mazda attacked the inherent challenges with a combination of software and mechanical interplay; motive force is doled-out depending on gear selection and steering angle.
There’s a nice, purposeful wuffle at idle. Pull away and the sound intensifies in pitch rather than volume (from flugelhorn to trumpet). And then, well, the acceleration is on the Subaru WRX STI side of brisk. Providing you can find a way to avoid the smell of 45-series tires in the morning, the Mazdaspeed 3 completes the zero to 60mph sprint in a little less than six seconds. That's a phenomenal achievement for a family car that clocks in at around $22k. Even better, the 3’s turbo lag has been tamed to the point where you’d swear there was a normally aspirated hunk underneath its blunted hood.
The short throw six-speed manual gearbox is direct enough for a front driver, though changes into first can be vague and reluctant. The 3's third cog is a genuine giggle-inducer, but the car will Kung-Fu hustle regardless of selection. And while a touch of torque steer arrives at around 3000rpm, the clever limited slip differential and wall o’ torque soon straighten things out for you.
In fact, the badge may read Mazdaspeed, but it might as well say Mazdahandling. With its stiffened chassis, tightened springs and more aggressive front and rear stabilizer bars, the Speed 3 suckers to the pavement with genuine poise and hoon-inducing panache. The wee beastie stays composed and flat through the bends, even when you push it into the inevitable understeer slide and nanny intervention. The upgraded 12.6” vented front discs help give Mazdaspeed3 drivers the confidence they need to make this discovery without undue alarm. Best of all, you don't pay for all that control with a deal-breaking back breaker of a ride. The Mazdaspeed 3 is a daily driver.
When I was a kid, my friends and I used to peer into cars to check out the highest number on the speedometer, anxious to ascertain its maximum velocity. Of course, the numbers were a hopelessly optimistic fiction, [perfectly] designed to capture our hearts and minds. Well check this: were it not for the Mazdaspeed3’s dials only being visible when the key is twisted, someone pressing their nose against its door glass would see a top mark of 160– only five mph above the car’s actual, honest-to-God top speed. In other words, the Mazdaspeed3 is ready for a nine-year-old’s inspection, ready to create a memorable inaugural day– and ownership experience– for adult and child alike.