Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing
Anyone who has ever been to the annual SEMA (Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association) show knows the drill. You must enter the vast halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center carrying a generous side order of suspension of disbelief because some of the jaw-dropping showcars you'll see could not (or should not) ever be driven in any realistic sense of the word.
In short, a SEMA car is sometimes more like a pile of parts under a snappy paint job. But SEMA cars still look great, even if their recently applied kustom kolor paint jobs depend on the body heat of passing showgoers and the combined luminescence of thousands of individual camera flashes to complete the drying process.
So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that we accepted the keys to a 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA showcar that Mazda dangled in front of us — especially since it withdrew them momentarily until we agreed to a "no testing" caveat.
"No testing? Sounds like another showcar that's a no-go car," we thought, rolling our eyes like a smart-aleck teenager.
In-House, Not Outhouse
Happily, it turns out this is not the case. This 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA car drives like a well-sorted piece. It handles, stops and accelerates impressively. It neither rattles your kidneys with its stiff-legged ride nor crashes your head against the ceiling with the soggy ride. And that's because Mazdaspeed didn't simply farm the showcar project out to someone and write a check. Instead, in-house engineers and designers carefully combined parts from the Mazda parts bin with those from trusted aftermarket partners.
A showcar must also be a low car. Fully stuffed fenders and a low, low look are required. The standard car's P225/40R18 tires might work well enough in a street car, but they certainly don't fill the fenders to SEMA expectations.
Step One of Mazda's solution comes from its own warehouse in the form of 19-by-8-inch forged-aluminum wheels from the 2010 RX-8 R3 ($1,236 each). Conveniently, these lightweight rims come shod with 225/40R19 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A high-performance summer tires ($259.00), a step stickier than stock MS3 rubber.
With the same tire profile but a larger rim dimension, the 19-inch Potenzas are exactly 1 inch taller that the stock items. The surplus fills in the wheelwells to the tune of a useful half-inch, but the other half-inch unhelpfully raises the car off the ground a like amount.
Enter the Coil-Overs
Step Two comes in the form of a Variant 3 coil-over kit ($2,195) from KW suspension, a SEMA stalwart that brings TUV-certified spring and shock upgrade kits from Germany by way of Sanger, California. But here "coil-over" is a bit of a misnomer (in the rear, at least), because the kit maintains the separate spring and shock layout seen in the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 suspension walkaround.
No matter. Both ends of the car get KW performance shocks with independently adjustable rebound and compression damping, and the calibrations have been optimized to work with the kit's stiffer coil springs, which in turn sit atop height-adjustable perches that can reduce ride height anywhere between 0.8 and 2 inches.
As dialed by Mazdaspeed engineers, the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 showcar isn't crazy low, but the fenders are now fully stuffed with Bridgestones. The suspension is lower by more or less an inch (more in front, less in back), yet the taller tires keep the ride height reduction to only a half-inch more or less, while the dreaded fender gap is reduced by some 1.5 inches, more or less.
Mazdaspeed found it necessary to modify the upper strut mounts to add some negative camber and improve tire clearance. But the independent rear suspension gained too much negative camber on its way down, so Mazda fitted off-the shelf Mazdaspeed accessory upper links ($250) that are 3mm longer and take about 0.9 degree of negative camber out of the picture.
And somehow it all works. The MS3 SEMA showcar grips and turns mightily. The ride is obviously firm, but the suspension isn't terribly harsh and it's not nearly as punishing as our departed Evo X long-term car (the unmodified one). Steering communication is diminished a bit, but response remains sharp. This showcar is most definitely a driver.
Of course, no SEMA showcar worth its floor space is complete without eye-catching multi-piston brake calipers to fill out the enlarged rolling stock. Here Mazdaspeed turned to Stop Tech, a supplier well-versed with Mazda equipment through its association with motorsports.
But there's a problem. The brakes for a Mazda RX-8 mount farther out toward the tire, where the wheel's spokes are thin, but the brakes for a Mazdaspeed 3 sit closer to the hub, right where the spokes of the RX-8's forged alloys have more meat. Bottom line: RX-8 R3 wheels don't come close to fitting over the standard Stop Tech Mazdaspeed 3 brake kit ($2,145), which consists of four-piston front calipers and 32mm-thick rotors. Time for some customized bits and pieces.
Stop Tech delved into its parts catalog and came up with a solution involving a different offset for the rotor hat, thinner 28mm rotors and matching skinny calipers. But the wheel profile is such that even these measures didn't relieve all the interference and an 8mm front wheel spacer was deemed necessary.
All this results in a clearance between caliper and wheel that is not more than 1mm. The clearance between rotor and suspension ball joint on the back side of the wheel isn't much better. We're beginning to see why Mazda isn't anxious to have us push this showcar to its absolute limit on our test track. Too bad. The brake pedal action is reassuringly firm and this is a well-balanced set of brakes, so they ought to test well.
Under the Hood
You'd be laughed out of the place if you brought a car to SEMA without an engine upgrade of some sort. But with 263 horsepower already directed to the front wheels, the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 isn't exactly hurting, while torque steer already makes its presence known. Mazda wisely decided that nothing more than a modest power gain was warranted.
AEM had just the ticket, an open-element intake that's CARB-exempt ($327), meaning you can bolt one of these babies on and coast through a smog inspection. The air filter box and associated resonators and chambers are removed and replaced with a mostly straight, tuned aluminum pipe with an exposed washable air-filter element on the end.
AEM claims a 14-hp gain in the middle of the power band at 3,600 rpm, while peak output rises by no more than 3 or 4 horses. Call it a combined output of 267 hp.
We can't really tell if this means much in terms of speed. The 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA showcar feels urgent and stout, but a regular Mazdaspeed 3 feels strong, too. On paper, there's a bit more useful power, but the taller RX-8 tires produce taller gearing, and that might put us right back where we started.
What's unmistakable is the intake's very distinct chuff from the turbo blow-off valve at every shift. Turns out the discarded air box acted as an intake muffler. The acceleration potential of the Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA car is a decidedly open question, but the engine sure sounds racier. As for torque steer, we'll call it a draw. Some situations generate more, while others produce less.
Beyond the Numbers and on to Other Numbers
As cool as it is and as well-sorted as it seems, the Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA showcar isn't feasible for sale at your local dealer. The wheels and brakes can barely coexist and the tires are over-big; they didn't rub this time but they might if pushed hard. An OE automaker like Mazda could never take things quite this far on a production car.
But that's not the point of the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA showcar. Heck, that's not the point of the SEMA show itself. Even though the cars are conceived to draw your eye, it's the parts and what you can make with them that are the reason everyone comes here.
From that standpoint, you could build your own 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 SEMA showcar with parts you can buy today. But it's not exactly cheap. We figure the add-on parts described above cost just north of $11,000, not including installation, shipping, tax, hand-wringing and showcar paint. And if you shop around and stick to wheels that are designed to actually fit your Mazdaspeed 3, you can save $2,000 or $3,000 of that and avoid the above-described brake fitment headaches.
Would it be worth it? How much faster would it be than a standard car?
Who knows? Did I mention we weren't allowed to test it?
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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