The Best Gets Better
We're the first to strap our testing gear to the heavily revised 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 and we'll get the bad news out of the way first. Here goes: It's slower than the old car.
Among the many bits of good news is that it's faster than the outgoing model.
Wipe That Grin off Your Face
In the hands of our in-house test driver, the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 accelerates to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds (6.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and runs down the 1320 in 14.4 seconds at 99.5 mph.
Compare this to the last previous-gen MS3 we tested, which hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds (5.8 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and ran the quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds at 97 mph.
Did Mazda build a dud of a follow-up to its segment-busting, comparison-test-dominating hot hatch? Its turbocharged direct-injection 2.3-liter inline-4 is largely unchanged from the previous car, and our scales say that the 3,243-pound 2010 MS3 has gained just 52 pounds more. That's not nearly enough mass to account for 0.3 second to 60 mph, so something's not adding up.
After scrutinizing the acceleration data for both cars, we see precisely where the differences lie. Both cars require two gearchanges to reach 60 mph, but where the old car's shifts are clean and quick, the new car exhibits a time-sapping wiggle after each gearchange. These wiggles are the result of some kind of built-in throttle manipulation intended to protect the drivetrain from shift shock or to smooth the gearchanges. Either way, they are responsible for making the new MS3 slower to 60 mph.
By the end of the quarter-mile, though, the new car has caught up to the old car and bettered its trap speed besides. Our data stream shows that 4th-gear acceleration is clearly stouter in the new car. Again, with the same power and similar weight, this result is something of a surprise.
The reason is because the faster you go, the stronger the car grows. Mazda's big brains tell us that the larger air intake and new hood scoop for the intercooler work better at speed. By breathing in cooler fresh air and then chilling that air more effectively, the new car makes a bigger bang at high velocities that isn't reflected in the carryover ratings of 263 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm.
Glad To Meet You Again
Our first clue about where Mazda has been spending the brunt of its engineering resources came to us when the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 threaded our slalom cones fully 4.6 mph faster than the outgoing car. This was an eye-opener by itself, but it wasn't until we cut it loose on our favorite mountain roads that we understood just how good the MS3 has become.
Bumpy pavement that would bring the old car to its knees is swallowed up by the new car with little drama. The suspenders are at once firmer yet more forgiving, and this combination whets the 2010 MS3's appetite for canyon bends like never before. It's a fairly grippy thing — recording 0.89g on our skid pad — and the progressive breakaway characteristics of its 225/40R18 Dunlop SP Sport 2050 tires really encourage you to probe the car's limits.
It rides better, too. Only the worst bumps reveal that this platform could still use a bit more suspension travel, but the MS3 makes excellent use of the travel it has. Go ahead and trail-brake into lumpy corners, because the slightly nose-heavy balance of the chassis means the car needs some encouragement to point toward an apex, yet the chassis has no bad manners. Pin sharp as ever, the steering that feels a shade light in effort around town builds substance at speed and faithfully transmits pockmarks and cambers. Never too much feel; just enough.
Brake pedal feel is firm with little idle stroke, as is typical of modern Mazdas. It's easy to modulate braking force this way no matter how hard you're driving, which makes us wonder why this practice is the exception among automakers rather than the rule. Outright stopping power remains commendably short at 113 feet from 60 mph.
Ultimately, the achievement of the new car is that you can really take it by the scruff of the neck and drive it like a loon without the car's composure going to pieces.
Where the old car was a bit of a novelty in an overworked-chassis-with-a-big-engine way, it was slightly one-dimensional as a result. The ironic flip side of the new car's handling manners is that they magnify powertrain quirks that weren't as obvious in the less-capable outgoing car. The 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 really goads you into utilizing the ultimate grip of the tires, and as a result you find more occasions for fine throttle adjustments to change its attitude.
Driven in anger, the post-gearchange pause observed during testing is obvious. Boost response, too, is a shade soft. Not first-gen WRX soft, but enough to make you wonder why the Mazda's smaller turbo, 0.3-liter displacement increase and direct injection haven't combined to produce snappier throttle response than an Evo. Best acceleration still dictates shifting the MS3 before its redline of 6,750 rpm, though the drop-off in power after 6,000 rpm is now less pronounced.
Make no mistake, though, because punch from this creamy-smooth mill is plentiful. In fact, there's so much torque for these front wheels to handle that keeping torque steer at bay is the car's full-time job, much as it was in the previous MS3. Unwind the wheel as you exit 2nd-gear corners quickly and the MS3 literally accelerates itself, as it decides that the tires can handle more torque and opens the throttle. Road cambers that you never knew were there make the tires nibble this way and that when you pour on the gas in a straight line.
The front-end fight is never excessive, but the obvious attempts at managing it feel somewhat synthetic and remove an element of driver control. Were it armed with a mechanical solution like the RevoKnuckle front suspension geometry of the Ford Focus RS that's sold in Europe, then Mazda's torquey front-driver could make even better use of its engine's sauce and feel more natural to drive besides.
All of these niggles require some reflection on the fact that it's not that the powertrain is worse than before — it's not — it's just that the chassis has made a larger leap forward.
Refinement is improved in the revised cabin, which sports a contemporary design that melds function and style like few others at this price. Nor does this interior design forget that execution of the basics is always important, as there are large, clear gauges and a simple-but-effective three-knob climate control system.
From its airy layout to the low-gloss presentation, the interior of the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 is quite a pleasant place to be. Worry not, as the psychedelic disco pattern on its door panels and seats is less apparent when you're seated inside.
Our production-spec tester is equipped with the optional Tech package, which includes premium audio and a navigation system with a remarkably crisp screen the size of a postage stamp.
Its metal-faced pedals are positioned well for rev-matched gearchanges. If only the shifter cooperated. It's too easy to outrun the synchros in 2nd and 3rd gears on quick gearchanges, and the shift action itself is not Miata-precise. Clutch take-up, too, is a bit abrupt.
We haven't mentioned the updated styling since that's subject to opinion. But since you asked, the new car adds some design flourishes that won't appeal to everyone. The overall shape is familiar, but where the old car was fairly handsome, the nose in particular of the 2010 car is challenging to gaze upon. Its grille is clearly a tip of the hat to the styling language of Mazda's Nagare concept car, but the styling language comes off looking like a football player's mouth guard.
Happy Happy, Joy Joy
Styling wasn't what the MS3 was all about when it was introduced. It was about being a practical and cost-effective ass-kicker. And the 2010 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3 still is.
Breathe easy and worry not about the change in acceleration numbers. The 2010 MS3's handling improvements have made it an even quicker car point to point, while its superior ride quality and cabin appointments provide rewards when you dial back the pace.
Mazda has made the MS3 more capable and more fun. And the best part is that it's managed all this for just $455 over the outgoing car. That's something to smile about.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Vehicle Testing Assistant Mike Magrath says:
The previous-generation Mazdaspeed 3 had a pucker factor of at least 5 on my personal scale of 1 to 10. Sometimes 7.
As opposed to the brick-solid cars from AMG ($$$) and BMW M ($$$$) cars, the former Mazdaspeed 3 ($) always felt like it was built to the absolute limits of its chassis. It would get light and sketchy at minor road imperfections, and when it did, well, hope you weren't on the throttle because that baby would torque-steer your arms right out of their sockets. It was scary at times, but in terms of grins-per-mile, it couldn't be beat. After a few hours and a few subconscious muscle spasms beneath you (that pucker factor thing), you could predict when it would try to tear your arms off, when it would try to boil its tires and when it would decide to grip and rotate the back around. It took real concentration to go fast.
But then Mazda redid the 3 platform, adding more stiffness (7 percent on the base car), more suspension compliance and more ride isolation. Pucker factor for the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3: 2. And that's only if you look at the speedometer and/or your lap time at the track, as you'd never be nervous at all otherwise. This thing's fast in an effortless, confident and capable way that's less aftermarket pocket rocket, more in-house professional tuning shop. Torque steer is minimized, while the suspension works so well to absorb road imperfections and maintain grip that you can make things happen and program the navigation at the same time.
This new high-performance 3 feels less like it was thrown together by bored engineers late at night, and as such, it actually feels boring by comparison. The 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 can be driven at ten-tenths without fear. And really, the last thing we need is stupid kids buying a car this inexpensive and this capable, since they're going to be less afraid to push its limits. So it's hard to say if the decline in the car's pucker factor is a good thing or a bad thing.