Preston Lerner, Contributor
The factory-tuned version of the Mazdaspeed 3 is a preposterous pocket rocket that straps nearly 300 horsepower to a chassis riding on a racetrack-type coil-over suspension kit. All the good stuff comes from Mazdaspeed Accessories, so this is the Mazdaspeed Mazdaspeed 3 (Mazdaspeed2?).
The car guy tradition suggests that we ought to begin with a heroic scene-setter for a track-ready car like this. For example: "With the edge of the cliff approaching at an alarming clip, we slapped on an armful of opposite lock, and the car instantly hooked up and laid down a pair of rubber tracks on its way down the road."
Within the realm of possibility, but beside the point. For us, the appeal of the Mazdaspeed came into focus while we were slogging through stop-and-go traffic. What struck us, as we toggled back and forth between 1st and 2nd gear, was how, well, normal this car feels.
Another Tuner Special? Granted, that's what you'd expect when you spend roughly $30,000 — $24,650 for a Mazdaspeed 3 Grand Touring five-door hatchback and nearly $5,000 in aftermarket goodies. But you'd be surprised by how many tuner specials should be consigned to one of the lower circles of automotive hell.
It's an old story. A huge team of highly skilled engineers devotes hundreds of thousands of man-hours to optimizing the design of a production car. Then, some yahoo picks a bunch of parts out of a catalog while he's sitting on the can, and slaps them on his car with the help of two buds and a case of Coors. Can you say "prescription for disaster"?
The Mazdaspeed 3 we're driving is Exhibit A for the right way to do a tuner special. The aftermarket parts are branded as Mazdaspeed Performance Accessories, which are sold only by roughly half of all Mazda dealers. Aside from the coil-overs, all of the components are warranteed. Better still, they don't void the standard new-car warranty, and the cost can be rolled into new-car financing.
Mazda didn't get into this business until 2004, and since then, its sales have increased at about 50 percent per year. Jack Stavana, director of accessory operations for Mazda North American Operations, claims that the reason lies in Mazdaspeed's interest in performance, not appearance.
"It's all real stuff, and it's all track-proven," he says. "We don't just put stickers on the cars, and you'll never see Mazdaspeed sticking a badge on an air freshener. We're not about overblown aero kits and huge spoilers and airdams that drag on the ground. We're going after high-performance addicts. So the question we ask ourselves is, 'What can we do to make the car better?'"
Making the Car Better Dramatically improving the Mazdaspeed 3 is a challenge. Thanks to a turbocharger, intercooler and direct injection, the 2.3-liter twincam four-cylinder engine cranks out 263 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque. Once you factor in some hardware from the Mazdaspeed accessory catalog, the Mazdaspeed 3 gets an aggressive new personality.
The coil-over kit ($1,775, plus $250 for recommended camber links) sits the car right down on the ground. The Mazdaspeed 3 itself is an inch lower than a conventional Mazda 3, and the coil-overs can reduce the ride height another 0.5 to 1.5 inches. The dampers are adjustable in both compression and rebound, and low- and mid-speed damping are affected, so body control is enhanced while ride quality remains much the same.
Once you get the car's weight where you want it by adjusting ride height and corner weights, R-compound 225/40ZR18 Toyo Proxes RA1 tires ($212 each) ride on forged alloy wheels ($550 each).
Pop the hood and feast your eyes on the shiny, sinuous curves of the mandrel-bent aluminum cold-air intake ($399). Peeking out from the rear bumper skirt is the polished tip of the stainless-steel cat-back exhaust ($729). Stavana is coy about how much power these bolt-on Mazdaspeed Accessory pieces produce, but our test numbers suggest at least 25 hp, which would put the Mazdaspeed in the same territory as the Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru WRX STI.
Making the Numbers Crank the ignition and you're rewarded with the satisfyingly crisp crackle of the exhaust. Feed in some throttle and the turbo spools up with a wicked hiss and the engine note changes to a growl. The clutch bites early and hard. Now, follow these directions: Engage 1st gear, nix the traction control, lean on the throttle, drop the clutch and launch in a haze of squealing, smoking tires.
This car is unexpectedly easy to launch despite the fairly aggressive punch of the turbo. Perhaps because these R-compound tires are so sticky, throttle-modulated wheelspin is a piece of cake. The engine runs out of steam before redline, so short-shifting at about 6,000 rpm produces better results. If you're on the gas, 60 mph comes up in 5.7 seconds, 0.2 second quicker than the stock Mazdaspeed 3. The tuned car runs through the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 100.7 mph, compared to the unmodified car's 14.2 seconds at 100.1 mph.
You can find that the coil-over suspension and wide, sticky tires make a difference in test numbers, although it's not as big as you'd think. There's a huge amount of grip on the skid pad, although the 0.91g that results compares to the stock Mazdaspeed 3's equally good 0.88g. There's understeer at the limit, but it's very mild. The car's flat cornering attitude tells you there's more rear roll stiffness, which is good for the skid pad but makes the car threaten to oversteer through the slalom. The result is 69.0 mph, compared to the stock Mazdaspeed 3's 68.2 mph.
Every Mile Is a Rally Stage Although you'd expect the suspension to make for a brutal driving experience, the ride is perfectly satisfactory around town. But on the freeway, the Mazdaspeed doesn't so much soak up bumps as it careers over them, and your daily commute turns into a rally stage in Corsica. The adjustable shocks will be a godsend for owners who plan to track their cars. But for street applications, they're close to overkill.
When you're hustling this car through sweepers and switchbacks, you feel like you're driving in one of those heroic scene-setters car guys are always talking about. On the high-speed stuff, the poised chassis accommodates surprises even in the midst of serious cornering. On the slower sections, the car pushes only a bit, and the standard helical-type limited-slip differential helps the front tires carve through the exit.
Meanwhile, the brakes are spectacular. These are stock pads, yet they have plenty of bite, don't fade and don't coat your wheels with dust. The brakes bleed off speed so rapidly that it's hard to believe this car weighs 3,128 pounds. The minimal dive, thanks to the coil-over suspension, also makes braking more impressive. Once you factor in the wide, sticky tires, it's no wonder the Mazdaspeed stops in only 104 feet, a dozen feet sooner than before.
Flipping Through the Toy Catalog Of course, Mazdaspeed Accessories can't change the nature of the Mazdaspeed 3 itself. For example, the turn into a corner is decisive and the steering effort loads up progressively as the tires grip. But torque steer is a constant irritant. Not only does the steering wheel jerk every time you stand on the gas, you're never sure whether what you're feeling through the steering column is feedback from the tires or torque from the engine.
Of course, this comes with the territory with front-wheel drive. And if the only solution is to subtract horsepower, then the cure might be worse than the disease — especially since this Mazdaspeed 3 isn't going to be sold on showroom floors. It's a what-if exercise designed to push the envelope, and it's an excellent example of what sort of fun you can have by playing mix-and-match with the toys in the Mazdaspeed catalog.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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