Most cars today avoid doing anything terribly well so as to avoid doing anything terribly badly. Then there are Mazdas. I love my Protege5. The agile chassis is a joy around town, BUT refinement and rust prevention were clearly not on the engineers’ to-do list. I love the RX-8 even more. Outstanding handling, surprising utility for a sports car, BUT the rotary is torque free and can drink a Corvette under the table. And then we have the MazdaSpeed3. You already know what I’m going to say about the MazdaSpeed3. But I’m going to say it anyway.
In addition to how it handles, I also love how my Protege5 looks. Though clearly not a 2010 design, the car’s clean, well-proportioned lines will never grow old for me. It’s not a design that grabs the eye, but it delights when studied. The first-generation Mazda3 that replaced it struck me as overly trendy. I liked some aspects of its exterior design, but not others, and the whole lacked coherence. When the time came to redesign the Mazda3, Mazda (gotta love the unavoidable redundancy) carried over the basic shape… but turned it up to 11. Every surface from the big smiley grille rearward aims to grab the eye. While initially off-putting, some of the exaggerated surfaces grew on me over the course of a week. Even the grille has to be admired for the sheer audacity it must have taken to put into production. At least it’s not boring or pointless.
The first-generation Mazda3’s interior was a big step up from the Protege5’s in both style and materials. Though generally clean and purposeful, red details and varied textures added just enough visual interest. The 2010 model’s banzai design philosophy continues inside the car. This is more of a problem than the exterior, because you must look at the interior the entire time you’re driving the car.
A hooded display pod arches across the top of the IP behind the instrument cluster. Though this pod usefully locates the displays near the driver’s line of sight, in other ways continually challenged my sense of logic. The entire left half is blank; the instrument nacelles would obscure anything located there, after all. A compartment for the nav’s memory card occupies the center—they couldn’t locate it somewhere less visible? And the displays for the nav and HVAC/audio are two unequally sized rectangular pegs squeezed into the ride side of the rounded hole. If you’re going to overstyle something, you should at least have someone with some design sense do the dirty deed.
Some materials are good, others are iffy. Upholstered armrests on the doors? Quite good. The red-dotted black fabric and plastic trim specific to the MazdaSpeed3? Iffy.
The interior works better functionally than it does aesthetically. The controls on the center stack are so easy to reach and operate that those for the audio on the steering wheel are truly redundant. Operating the nav exclusively via a cluster of controls on the overpopulated (18 buttons!) steering wheel could have been a usability nightmare, but isn’t. The nav screen is much smaller than most, but in the end I had little problem with it.
Not that all is perfect on the functionality front. The main instruments are so large that I could not position the wheel where I would have liked to without partly obscuring them. With instruments larger is generally better, but only up to a point. They don’t need to be legible from ten feet away. And why does the speedometer read to 180 MPH?
The swoopy exterior styling forces a distant driving position that’s become common in today’s cars. Locating a deeper instrument panel farther away does enhance an interior’s perceived roominess, but also visually distances the driver from both the car, which consequently feels larger, and the road.
The 2010 MazdaSpeed3’s front seats’ bolsters perform well considering their modest size, but in this instance larger would be better. The lumbar support is non-adjustable, and there is a single height adjustment, so cushion tilt cannot be adjusted independently of seat height. That said, front seat comfort is pretty good.
Like the rear bench found in the first-generation Mazda3, the 2010’s back seat is tighter than that in the Protege5. Adults will fit back there, but just barely. The MazdaSpeed3 continues to be offered only in hatchback form, so it’s considerably more practical than a conventional sports car.
With a name like MazdaSpeed3 and a big hood scoop (the better to feed the intercooler with?), enthusiasts are going to expect substantial horsepower. They won’t be disappointed. The turbocharged direct-injected 2.3-liter four is good for 263 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at 3,000. Just not always. In the first three gears and especially when the wheel is turned Mazda restricts the engine’s output to reduce the likelihood of throttle-steering the car into a ditch. It’s strong in those gears regardless, once the tach spins past 2,500, and there’s a thick sweet spot from 3,000 to 5,500. Unlike some turbos these days, this one feels boosted. Not because there’s much lag—there isn’t—but because of the rush as boost kicks in. One puzzle I’d like Mazda to solve: the clutch must be feathered a tad to avoid a momentary stumble right after starting off.
The engine’s sound is dominated by a deep, poppy exhaust that is nice to have when pushing the car hard on an empty road, but is too likely to attract attention otherwise. (No, I wasn’t speeding through the subdivision, it just sounded that way.) In Mazda’s defense, they’ve exercised more restraint with the exhaust than some others, and while always audible, the drone won’t drive you batty on the highway. In other ways, the engine might be too refined for its own good—I prefer a little more intake and valvetrain whir with my exhaust roar.
The shifter’s throws are light and moderate in length, but are a bit notchy and engaging third can be tricky. The oversized brakes feel strong, are easy to modulate, and readily handle any off-track challenges. Fuel economy ranges from mid-teens to mid-twenties, depending quite heavily on how the car is driven. Figure low twenties with a moderate right foot in suburban driving.
Handling has traditionally been a Mazda strength, and the MazdaSpeed3 easily lives up to the brand’s reputation. The electro-hydraulic (not fully electronic) steering provides good feedback through the small, thinly padded wheel. Though not as agile as the Protege5, the MazaSpeed3 has a delicate, lively feel and can be precisely placed in turns. Accelerate through the curve and the car hunkers down, only beginning to lapse into understeer as its high limits are approached. Lift off the throttle and the car quickly rotates into oversteer. While the loose tail end is easy to catch, and can be put to good use at times, a steady foot through turns is generally best. The stability control is effective, unobtrusive, and knows its proper place—you must be driving the car quite fast and hard—or quite stupidly—to trigger it on dry pavement. It’s much easier to trigger the traction control.
The biggest surprise with the MazdaSpeed3: a thoroughly livable ride. Some premium sedans with performance pretensions ride considerably worse than the Speed3. The Mazda’s spring rates are moderate, with good body control achieved through well-tuned damping. Some drivers will mind the slight amount of float and roll in the hardest driving, and will no doubt mod the suspension accordingly. For most enthusiasts though, the ride-handling compromise is nearly ideal.
But all is not perfect with the MS3, and I’ve saved the worst for last. Putting a torquey engine in a conventionally-suspended, front-wheel-drive compact is a recipe for torque steer. While Mazda has selectively reduced engine output to reduce torque steer, this does not eliminate it. I’ve experienced worse, even much worse. But I’ve also experienced none at all, and none at all is much better than some. One mitigating factor: getting on the gas while turning has the effect of steering the car deeper into the turn rather than towards the curb. The torque-sensing limited-slip differential might deserve credit.
Like the Protege5 and RX-8, the MazdaSpeed3 possesses a healthy number of strengths and weaknesses. It’s fairly practical, totally livable, and very fun to drive. But the styling is questionable and the torque steer regrettable. All-wheel-drive is the road not taken. But the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart with all-wheel-drive are more expensive and less fun. The Mitsubishi Evo is as fun, and then some, but it’s far more expensive, less economical, and not as practical. Among front-wheel-drive competitors, the Volkswagen GTI is more tastefully styled and furnished, but doesn’t accelerate or handle as well. So, while the MazdaSpeed3 is clearly not a perfect car, for an enthusiast with a family and modest budget it could well be the best available car. Just look past the silly grin and keep a firm hand on the wheel—there’s serious fun to be had here.
Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data