Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
"And if you say to me tomorrow, oh what fun it all would be.
Then what's to stop us, pretty baby,
But what is and what should never be..."
It might be a stretch to infer anything from the fact that "What Is and What Should Never Be" falls between "Whole Lotta Love" and "The Lemon Song" on Led Zeppelin II. Nevertheless, the car that Mazda prepared for the 2009 SEMA Show that you see would seem to fall neatly between a production Mazdaspeed 3 (which comes only in hatchback form) and the plain old Mazda 3 sedan.
We've already demonstrated a whole lotta love for the Mazdaspeed 3, while the Mazda 3 sedan hasn't earned so much love from us, not the base-model i version with its 144-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4 engine anyway.
So have you ever thought what fun it all would be if Mazda combined the bits from a Mazdaspeed 3 hatchback with the Mazda 3 s Grand Touring sedan to make a Mazdaspeed 3 sedan? Sure the factory Mazdaspeed 3 hatchback is practical, fast and funky, but why not a fast and funky sedan minus the two-box design and pesky practicality of the hatch?
This is a question that Mazda has answered with its project car from the 2009 SEMA Show, the 2010 Mazda 3 s Grand Touring Sedan SEMA.
Show and Go
Like the Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA showcar we drove, we agreed to refrain from firing up the GPS data logger at the test track for this hand-assembled, one-off showcar. But we still got to drive it for a few days, put the fear in a few unsuspecting fanboys and burn a few tanks of premium dino-juice, thank you.
Also like the previous Mazda SEMA car, this Mazda 3 s Grand Touring car is tastefully adorned with a subtle and appealing custom paint job. The base coat of crystal-white pearl helps dramatize the soft-gray graphics. But it's the glossy black roof that really had people doing double-takes.
We think Mazda is clearly riffing on the carbon-fiber roof panel of the BMW M3 coupe here, and when this styling lick is combined with tinted windows, dark-red taillight lenses and 19-inch forged wheels from an RX-8 R3, the Bavarian-meme effect is complete. Who knew the perpetually pleased Mazda 3 could look so sinister?
The Heart of the Beast
Looks only go so far in this world of compact cars, where side skirts and wings so often conceal mechanical shortcomings. Not so here, as Mazda's SEMA team wanted something more than a Mazdaspeed 3 in a sedan wrapper. Instead, Tri-Point Engineering in Canoga Park, California, was commissioned to apply a little go-fast engineering based on its experience with the racing cars it prepares for the SCCA World Challenge.
Tri-Point started by installing a Garrett GT2871R ball-bearing turbo (with 10 psi of boost, a relatively mild amount) to the stock 2.5-liter inline-4 of the Mazda 3 s Grand Touring. What once was an adequately powered four-banger is now a fiend that practically belches fire out of its turbo wastegate and has the power to rip the rubber from this car's 225/40ZR19 Yokohama Advan Sports. Mazda simply admits that this engine produces "well over 250 hp at the wheels." To which we would add, "Yeah, about 50 hp over 250!"
And what's even more shocking, there's no torque steer — not the kind that twists the steering wheel out of your hands when you introduce the throttle pedal to the properly affixed floor mat, anyway. Sure, there's noticeable steering squirm and wiggle, but it doesn't threaten to put the car in a ditch.
This is some feat, as the Mazdaspeed 3 struggles to maintain traction with its 263 hp at 5,500 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. Our seat-of-the-pants guesstimate for this SEMA car suggests upward of 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. And as long as we're prognosticating, we'd peg this MS3 SEMA sedan at 5.8 seconds to 60 mph with a quarter-mile performance of 13.5 seconds at 105 mph.
Jeez, These Are Tight Suspenders
If you were wondering if Mazda reused the special StopTech brakes from the Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA for this car, we can confirm that they were indeed recycled, repainted and fitted to this car.
The SEMA team also replaced the stock discs with Powerslot rotors and then used Mazda 5 calipers for the rear brakes (painted to match the StopTechs, of course). This brake setup improved initial bite and delivered more progressive effectiveness with better feel from the pedal. The overall action is very much like that of a racing car, as braking effect is related to pressure on the pedal rather than travel of the brake pedal. Nice job, guys.
Until this point, everything goes, stops, sounds and works like a factory hot-rod sedan. But unlike the well-sorted suspension of the Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA, the sedan's KW suspension kit with coil-over dampers and an adjustable rear antiroll bar made this SEMA car ride like a freight car.
Though the two SEMA cars share many of the same suspension parts, it appears they've not yet been optimized for anything resembling a reasonable ride on the street. (Sorry for the smell of spilled coffee in this car, Mazda. I didn't even see the pencil in the road until it was too late.) It feels like our long-term Mitsubishi Lancer Evo project car before we tweaked the Vorshlag knobs.
Would the Mazdaspeed 3 Sedan have circled our skid pad with more lateral acceleration than a stock MS3's 0.89g? Probably. Would it have run faster than 72.4 mph through the slalom like the MS3? Probably not, because as we've demonstrated and measured with many too-taut suspension setups, it'd likely get way too squirrelly and slide wide (or oversteer) as the 70-mph barrier approached, even with the sticky high-performance rubber.
As it is, this car is barely drivable on anything but the smoothest stretches of tarmac. Forget about charging up mountain roads with confidence, because if this stiff-legged car encounters a midcorner bump, it skips over the line like RuPaul at a ball-gown sale.
What Is and What Never Should Be
The premise behind the SEMA showcar is sound. A Mazdaspeed 3 sedan is a good idea, and Mazda has proven here it can get the look, the drivetrain and the brakes that such a car deserves. The suspension? We know that the right people can turn the right adjusters to make the KW setup work, but we all have to recognize that the Mazdaspeed 3's standard suspension is already as firm as a street setup can be.
So that leaves the matter of price. Of course our $12,000 parts-only estimate for you to build a car like this in your garage is pretty ludicrous. If, on the other hand, you call up Tri-Point and have them work up a Garrett turbo kit and Mazdaspeed suspension/brake package with appropriate wheels, you might get out of there for about $5,000.
The larger question is, should Mazda offer a factory-built Mazdaspeed 3 sedan? Well, the MS3 is already a niche player. It would be an expensive gamble to engineer, build and EPA-certify such a car.
What do you think? Post a comment and let us know if you and your friends would be interested in a Mazdaspeed 3 sedan. We are, but then again, we like the idea of a BMW M5 wagon, which apparently appeals to only about a dozen people in the country.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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