Full 2008 Mazda Mazdaspeed Mazda3 Review
What's New for 2008
The Mazdaspeed 3 hatchback is unchanged for 2008.
Few vehicle classes ebb and flow as sharply as the hot hatch/sport compact segment. So to see what's going on this year, we checked our horoscopes. We looked at the orbits of Mars and Venus and made some childish jokes about Uranus; 2008, it seems, is going to be another good year.
If your horoscope reads "a hot hatch will enter your life and bring you happiness," it probably refers to the Mazdaspeed 3. A high-performance version of the standard Mazda 3 hatchback, the "MS3" arrived last year as a limited-edition model. It's back for '08 unchanged. Perhaps more so than any other car in this class, the Mazdaspeed 3 embodies the econosport principle of performance on the cheap.
This clarity of purpose is readily apparent when you see the 2008 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3's domed hood. It's taller than the one on regular Mazda 3s to allow extra clearance for a turbocharged, direct-injection version of the regular Mazda 3's 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. With the turbo at full boost, the Mazdaspeed hatch is rated for 263 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque; this compares to 156 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque in a regular Mazda 3 s. A six-speed manual gearbox sends all of it to the front wheels. Normally, that would result in colossal torque steer, but thanks to a limited-slip differential and precise torque management in 1st and 2nd gears (via the engine's computer), it's mostly under control. Carefully launched, the MS3 is capable of sub-6-second runs to 60 mph.
Although the engine is the main headline, it's not the only story: The standard Mazda 3 chassis underwent a significant transformation as well. In addition to expected changes like a lowered ride height and firmer springs and shock absorbers, Mazda added various braces to minimize flex during aggressive cornering. Eighteen-inch performance tires were fitted at each corner, and the front brake rotors are almost an inch larger in diameter. Such upgrades prove highly effective. On a smooth road with sweeping turns, the Mazdaspeed 3 can keep pace with almost anything in this price range, including some rear-drive and all-wheel-drive cars. It's not as composed as we'd like through tight turns and over rough pavement, but we expect its exceptional high-speed stability will offset that disadvantage for many buyers.
This ability to deliver both brutal acceleration and the manners of a European touring sedan is what makes the 2008 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3 so desirable. The fact that it also has a base price under $25,000 makes it one of the best values out there for budget-minded enthusiasts. Rivals like the Honda Civic Si sedan, Mini Cooper S, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Subaru WRX and Volkswagen GTI all have their own specialized advantages, of course, and the arrival of the redesigned Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and the new Dodge Caliber SRT4 will make the field even more competitive. Still, if your horoscope predicts serious speed in an affordable sport compact, it's hard to go wrong with Mazda's hot hatch.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3 is available only as a four-door hatchback in two trim levels: Sport and Grand Touring. The Sport comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, 215/45R18 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A performance tires, a limited-slip differential, a roof spoiler, sport seats, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, automatic climate control, a CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack and full power accessories. The Grand Touring adds xenon HID headlights, LED taillights, rain-sensing wipers, leather seat bolsters, an upgraded Bose audio system with an in-dash CD changer, a trip computer and an anti-theft system.
The short options list includes satellite radio, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and, on the Grand Touring only, a navigation system. A sunroof is not offered.
Powertrains and Performance
The Mazdaspeed 3's 2.3-liter turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder engine pumps out 263 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. All that power is sent to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox, the only transmission available. A limited-slip differential and an electronic torque limiter (which regulates the torque based on gear selection and steering position) are used to enhance traction and minimize torque steer.
The transmission's shifter, which doesn't like to be rushed, has effort appropriate for the job, but feels a bit disconnected compared to the units in some competitors. Acceleration is exhilarating, with the 0-60-mph sprint taking just 5.9 seconds and a blast through the quarter-mile taking only 14.2 seconds. That turbocharged power takes a toll on fuel economy, however; mileage estimates for '08 are 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway and if you drive the car aggressively, averages in the high teens are common.
Antilock disc brakes, traction control, stability control, front seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are all standard. In frontal-impact crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the standard Mazda 3 scored four stars out of five. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the standard Mazda 3 received a "Good" rating (the highest on a scale of four) in frontal-offset impact tests. Both agencies conducted side-impact crash tests, but those involved a standard Mazda 3 without side airbags.
Interior Design and Special Features
Like the rest of the Mazda 3 line, the Mazdaspeed 3 boasts a cabin with a distinctive and upscale design. It also shares the same large, clear gauge layout, precise controls, high-grade materials and tight build quality. Unique touches for the Mazdaspeed edition include more aggressively bolstered front sport seats, aluminum pedals, a red and black color scheme and "Mazdaspeed"-embossed floor mats. Accommodations up front are first-class, and even taller drivers should be able to get comfortable. The well-shaped and supportive backseat is fine for those under 6 feet tall, but taller passengers will feel pinched for legroom. Cargo capacity stands at 17 cubic feet behind the rear seats and expands to 31 cubes when it's folded.
Launching the 2008 Mazdaspeed 3 is always exciting, as the turbocharged engine offers tremendous low-end thrust. Turbo lag is virtually nonexistent and this is an easy car to get in and drive fast. One potential caveat for enthusiast buyers is that this engine doesn't deliver a high-rpm rush in the vein of the Civic Si's motor: Peak horsepower arrives at 5,500 rpm, and by 6,000 rpm the party's over, even though the redline is marked at 6,750.
Fling the Mazdaspeed 3 down a smooth ribbon of road, though, and you can carry as much speed through sweeping turns as you could in more elite rear-drive and all-wheel-drive cars. Credit goes to the sport-tuned hatchback's prodigious midrange torque, stiff suspension and considerable grip. The steering is exceptionally responsive just off-center, which makes flicking through transitions as easy as it is quick. Suspension damping feels adequate on smooth pavement, but rougher roads with tighter turns expose the limitations imposed by the car's near 3,200-pound curb weight and front-drive layout. Braking performance is outstanding for a car in this price range, with a stop from 60 mph taking only 116 feet.