First Drive: 2010 Mazda Mazdaspeed3 [Review]

Small pocket rockets like the 2010 Mazda Mazdaspeed3 get a bad rap from soccer moms in Suburbans - or at least they do when we're behind the wheel. While blasting through some rather engaging twisties and avoiding horses, cows, sheep and old hippies just south of Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California, we managed to encounter just one such concerned citizen.

While snapping photos of the rather understated and elegant gray Mazdaspeed3 during a zoom-zoom-free break at the side of the road, my new foe showed up to ask why so many sporty hatchbacks were buzzing through her area. It quickly became clear that the vehicle itself was of little interest - but talking to the organizers of this media drive, if not the California Highway Patrol, was high on her agenda.

Her dissatisfaction with my colleagues' driving was enough to keep her from learning about this sportiest of small Mazdas - but at least my Nikon enjoyed the car.

The object of my lens, and my current case of A.A.D.D. (automotive attention deficit disorder) is the 2010 Mazdaspeed3, the high performance variant of the Mazda3 five-door econobox. From its crap-eating grin up front, to its spoilered rear deck, this ride is the full package, unlike its understated predecessor. It competes handily with the Subaru Impreza WRX, Volkswagen GTI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a field that outclasses the Dodge Caliber SRT4.

A family resemblance
Although the redesigned Mazda3 joined the Cheshire cat smile now shared with the Mazda6, CX-7, MX-5 Miata, and RX-8, the Mazdaspeed3 gets a bit more of a "prankish" style. Appearing at first like a mild, happy-go-lucky ride, the Mazdaspeed3 has a Mr. Hyde side to its grinning Dr. Jekyll look - and you'd better be buckled up when that alter ego takes control.

It's a torquey little monster just waiting to pounce. Torque-steer has your squirreling off to the right and then you correct it"¦it's a good thing the car has its stability control enabled from ignition, otherwise there might be a rash of insurance claims and yelping about unintended acceleration by people who don't know how to drive.

But we are getting way ahead of ourselves.

The Mazdaspeed3 hunkers down nicely by way of its low-profile 18-inch Dunlops on aluminum alloys, and ground effects package, which starts with a swooped down front end, and is finished by a decklid-mounted spoiler. A functional hood scoop feeds cold air directly to the intercooler, and a rear fascia helps to rout the twin chrome tipped exhausts out the back.

This Mazda is based on a two-box, five-door design, which combines the best of both worlds: Tossability and utility. Utility from the fact that the hatch opens to hold a ton of cargo - 17 cubic feet with the seats up, and a ginormous 42.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. Tossability from the vehicle's fun-to-drive manners.

The interior is mostly business that lays out nicely and allows your hands to fall where you hope they would. A sense of fun creeps in by way of the sport matrix fabric that makes up some of the seating inserts on the well-bolstered front seats, and the door panels.

The steering wheel offers most of the general controls that you would normally find on the dash. In addition to the cruise controls, audio and Bluetooth buttons, you'll find a joystick-like button that serves as a cursor and enter switch for various functions that come as a result of the MazdaSpeed Tech Package. Included in this kit is a 242-watt Bose audio system, in-dash 6-disc CD changer, Sirius satellite radio, a rather compact navigation (four-inches) screen, perimeter alarm, advanced keyless system, and a push button start. That's a lot of goodies for under $2,000.

The overall design and layout of the interior, with the exception of the wings housing cruise control buttons on the lower bout of the wheel, is well executed. Those cruise control housings got in our way during spirited driving.

Dizzy DISI
Powered by a 2.3-liter DISI (direct injection) turbo powerplant putting out 263-horsepower and 280 lb-ft. of torque, the Mazdaspeed3 makes the list of cars that provide as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. Step on the loud pedal and a raspy (albeit four-cylinder, higher-pitched) note starts to sing from the engine room.

The six-speed manual transmission offers precise shifts with a slightly long throw. Gearing has gone taller than on the model it replaces, which should assist with the mileage numbers which the EPA pegs at 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Power to weight is helped by the fact that this car is just barely over 3,200 lbs.

Tip-in is absolutely normal, as we like it, and quickly helps you feel comfortable at the pace you set for yourself. On the street, understeer is dialed in nicely with MacPherson-struts up front and a multi-link setup bringing up the rear. On the track, though, there is a pronounced tendency to have to saw the wheel back in to maintain the line. Nonetheless, we like the feel we received from the electo-hydraulic-assisted rack and pinion steering, but be aware: Torque steer is alive and well on this beast.

Making tracks
As in genetics, what a difference a generation makes. This rocket launches out of pit row at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, hugging the inside line while waiting for traffic to pass. Once on their way, we stand on it and are immediately swung out to get with the rhythm of this 2.2-mile 52-year-old racetrack, cranking through the double-apex Andretti Curve, onward to the gradual ascent up the hill on this legendary track near Monterey. The Mazdaspeed3 takes the turns that follow with ease in third gear, with some gentle encouragement from a tap of the brake pedal on the 12.6-inch rotors. Powering up the hill with ease, we set up for turn-six leading to the Rahal Straight. Cut the apex, and power on for about four-seconds, touch the brakes again and bear right to turn-eight, the famed "Corkscrew." Braking hard shows some brake-fade after continual laps but still sets us up for the leap of faith we encounter every lap at Laguna Seca. After swinging left and peaking the crest of the "˜screw, point the nose of the car at the dead tree directly ahead. Hang on as the road disappears from under you. If you've aimed correctly, the car cuts right through, staying on track and sending you on your way. If not, you'll hit the gravel or worse.

With a top speed (speed limited) of 155 mph from the blazing intercooled four-cylinder and the six-speed manual, the Mazdaspeed3 is an absolute blast to drive when Mr. Hyde is at the wheel.

Leftlane's bottom line:
If you are looking for German handling and a rear-wheel-drive feel, forget this one. You're barking up the wrong tree.

Fun from a small package is what the Mazdaspeed3 is all about. It's the perfect car for a tuner or enthusiast driver. That it comes at a fairly reasonable price only enhances its standing. A smiling car that will put a smile on even Dr. Jeckyll's stoic face.

2010 Mazda Mazdaspeed3 base price, $23,195.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.