Stellar handling, near-perfect steering, excellent seats, high-quality cabin trim, a few unexpected high-end features.
Not as quick in a straight line as some rivals, noticeable torque steer, funky styling.
We've all seen him or her — that friend, fellow student or colleague who walks around with a "perma-grin," looking like they're having just a little too much fun during the daily grind. Were any of them to be reincarnated as a car, we imagine it would be as a 2010 Mazdaspeed 3, a fun-loving sport compact that's such a blast to drive that the company is doubly proud to proclaim its name. Yeah, the car might have a face like a circus clown, but when it comes to giving budget-minded enthusiasts the most entertainment this side of a Ringling Brothers show, the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 is as serious as a lion tamer.
Competing in the sport compact class, a segment that boasts such luminaries as the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart, Subaru Impreza WRX and Volkswagen GTI, the Mazdaspeed 3 still has good reason to look so upbeat. All the ingredients for fun on four wheels are present -- spirited acceleration, confident braking and brother-of-Miata steering and handling.
There's also a cockpit fitted with the right tools for the job, namely a meaty steering wheel, well-placed pedals and body-hugging sport seats. The 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 earns bonus points for its high-quality interior trimmings as well as for unexpected standard luxury features like dual-zone automatic climate control and Bluetooth. Its considerably lower price compared to the aforementioned rivals only sweetens the deal.
Even the most happy-go-lucky people have their faults, and the Mazdaspeed 3 is no exception. There's noticeable torque steer when you're powering out of tight turns, and the overdone styling seems a step down from the cleaner previous-generation car. But overall, the good easily outweighs the bad. After a week of living it up with the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3, we were wearing silly grins ourselves.
Sporting a turbocharged, direct-injected 2.3-liter four with 263 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 seemingly has the goods to back up its hood-scooped and be-spoilered body. And with a 6.4-second 0-60-mph sprint and 14.4-second quarter-mile time, it's a fairly quick little bugger.
However, both the WRX and Ralliart are quicker still, with stats of 5.2/13.7 and 5.8/14.2 seconds, respectively. We suspect that some shift-smoothing engine software might be adding a tick or two to the Mazda's times. Also, the six-speed manual shifter doesn't like to be rushed, though it has the precise action expected in a Mazda, and the clutch is fairly easy to modulate as well. During our time with the car, we observed fuel economy of 19.9 mpg combined, not quite hitting the EPA's combined estimate of 21 mpg.
It's in the handling arena that the Mazdaspeed 3 grabs the big-top spotlight. With a buttoned-down chassis and perfectly weighted, laser-beam-precise steering, the MS3 slices through a curvy road like the proverbial hot knife through butter. In performance testing, the 'Speed 3 whipped through the slalom at 72.4 mph -- an incredible number that bests full-on sports cars like the Nissan 370Z and even the Porsche Cayman S. The Mazdaspeed 3's braking performance is also up there with high-priced sport machines, hauling the car down from 60 mph in a scant 113 feet while providing a consistent pedal feel and showing no fade after repeated hard stops.
If there's one nit to pick about the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3's driving dynamics, it's the presence of torque steer (the tendency of a front-drive car to pull to one side under hard acceleration) when powering out of tight corners. Mazda has included torque-limiting software for the first couple gears to address this issue, but we still noticed some tugging at the wheel. Nonetheless, it's easy to manage, and some drivers even thought it added to the engaging, lively nature of the car.
With supportive and heavily bolstered front seats, well-spaced pedals and a tilt-telescoping steering wheel with a generous range of adjustment, the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 provides an excellent driving position for folks of all statures.
Rear passengers are treated to a firm, pleasantly contoured seat with a high cushion that provides proper thigh support. They are also pampered with adjustable headrests and a fold-down center armrest. At 36.2 inches, the Mazda's rear legroom is at the top of the class and is nearly 3 inches greater than what the WRX provides.
Even at higher freeway speeds, wind and road noise were sufficiently muted, even though the MS3 wears high-performance "summer" tires that tend to be noisier than less aggressive, all-season rubber.
As with most sporting cars, the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 has a large speedo and tach, but unfortunately there is no temperature gauge. We'd prefer the latter to the car's turbo boost gauge, something we've always thought rather silly. Really, when you've got the turbo kicked in and you're rocketing ahead, you'd best be watching the road, not the instrument panel.
Atop the center stack there is a dual display setup that's split horizontally. Though it shows both the audio status and the climate control status, they are shown on two separate lines, making them easier to read at a glance. The steering-wheel-mounted controls for the audio system and cruise control are rather small, but prove easy to use.
Our MS3 had the optional Tech package, which includes a navigation system, upgraded Bose audio, keyless ignition and an alarm system. The navigation system is fairly intuitive, and though the screen is rather small, it's still easy to read, as it's located up high and close to the driver. The Bose system provided fairly crisp and powerful sound, a noticeable improvement over the previous Mazdaspeed 3's lackluster Bose setup. An auxiliary audio jack is standard; however, our car lacked the optional iPod integration.
There are a decent number of stowage places within the MS3, with a small compartment on the driver-side dash as well as a generous center console box and door pockets. In our usability tests, the Mazdaspeed 3 accommodated a rear-facing child safety seat in the back as long as the front passenger was no taller than about 5-foot-5. Our golf bag just fit diagonally in the 17-cubic-foot rear cargo area, though our large travel case could be stashed back there along with it. With the rear seatbacks folded down, the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 offers a useful 43 cubic feet of maximum space.
Design/Fit and Finish
Our staffers frankly prefer the cleaner lines of the last-generation 'Speed 3. This new one strikes us as overwrought, though removing the grinning plastic grille alone would be a big improvement. But hey, at least it's happy.
The cabin is likewise busier than before, as seen in the steering wheel and center-stack controls. But in keeping with Mazda 3 tradition, it's nicely finished, with even higher-quality materials than in the past along with impressive build quality. The MS3's interior also features unique leather and cloth upholstery with contrasting stitching. Overall, the Mazdaspeed 3 provides an upscale ambience that puts it a cut (or two) above the Ralliart and WRX and about even with the Euro-chic GTI.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 is a must-drive for anyone looking for a practical back-road (or track-day) weapon that's sharper than a GTI or WRX but more forgiving to live with on a daily basis than a Lancer Ralliart. Value seekers will also appreciate the Mazdaspeed 3's attractive price tag and its premium-feeling, feature-laden cabin.