2010 Mazdaspeed 3: The Secret Handshake
November 16, 2009
When you tell someone that you're driving a Mazdaspeed 3, you get a certain look of respect. It's the same look that you might have got if you'd driven a BMW 2002 tii in the 1970s, a VW GTI in the 1980s, or a Nissan Sentra SE-R in the 1990s, as if you were a member of the True Brotherhood. Probably there ought to be a secret handshake or something.
When you feel the Mazdaspeed 3's turbocharged, direct-injection 2.3-liter inline-4 whistle toward the redline, it's easy to understand why, as this car begins with a great engine, just as all great cars do. Sure, there's 263 hp at the crest of the curve, yet what makes this motor special is its character. It has a mechanical soul that you can feel, though balance shafts help keep the sting out of it. It responds in the sharp, precise way that a great normally aspirated engine does, and yet it surges effortlessly towards its power peak in the energetic way that a turbocharged engine does.
The Mazda MZR 2.3L DISI is one of the world's great engines. Designed by Mazda, it powers everything from everyday Ford sedans to racing cars, notably the whole gamut of cars in Mazda North America's motorsports ladder, including MX-5 Cup, Formula Atlantic, and the Lola-Mazda coupes that compete in the American Le Mans Series. There were even a number of Mazda-powered Lola coupes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year. There used to be a lot of Japanese-built 2.0-liter engines as stout as this, but the new-generation engines in this category from most of Mazda's rivals have been designed with cost-effectiveness and low-friction fuel efficiency in mind.
It helps that you've got one of the great gearboxes with which to put this power to good use. Form the moment it appeared in the Mazdaspeed 6 and the first-generation Mazdaspeed 3, this gearbox seemed pretty special when it came to shift action, combining short throws with precise gate engagement like no other transmission in a front-wheel-drive car. Now the action requires less effort, and heel-and-toe downshifts (I'm a double-clutch guy myself; too late to unlearn it after all this time) are rewarded with shifts so slick that you can't even feel a hint of binding from the synchros. The clutch is still an issue, though, as it tries to overpower your leg as it springs into place, although it is slightly more manageable than before.
As chassis go, this is a great one. It's descended from the Ford Focus, which seems kind of mundane to us now because of Ford's marketing program for it in the U.S., yet is the handiwork of the widely respected Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's leading development engineer from the 1980s until his retirement 2007, who gave Ford's cars in Europe a world-class combination of ride and handling. If there's a better small-car platform (never mind the soggy U.S. calibration in the Focus), I have yet to drive it, and I'm counting the Honda Civic, Opel Astra and Volkswagen Golf among the competition. Of course, when you're trying to use full power, the Mazdaspeed 3 behaves as if you've got the tail of a very large and very agitated alligator, but the same might be said of any car with more power than the chassis can contain, especially a front-wheel-drive one. Personally I like it. After all, that's why they call it driving.
For all the chest-beating that we all do about driving the Mazdaspeed 3, though, the real secret to the car's goodness is that it's a Mazda 3 underneath. When you need your hot rod to be just a car, the Mazdaspeed 3 is there for you with a uniquely practical package with a compliant ride on the highway. In fact the real key to the respect you get from the True Brotherhood when you acknowledged the Mazdaspeed 3 as your preferred ride is that you have identified yourself as someone smart enough to have chosen a performance car without letting not only all his money stolen away but also the very utility that an automobile is meant to provide in the first place. This combination of speed and everyday usefulness is what made cars like the BMW 2002 tii, Volkswagen GTI and Nissan Sentra SE-R so special in the first place, and a car like the BMW M3 simply follows in their example (though not always successfully).
Maybe Mazdaspeed 3 drivers should get going on that secret handshake thing.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor @ 2,832 miles