Mazda joins the ranks of automakers offering tuned-up versions of their popular small hatchbacks with its 2007 Mazda Mazdaspeed Mazda3. Mazdaspeed takes its place amongst GTI and Si as an indicator that the car it's emblazoned on is designed for low-end sport driving. Mazdaspeed took the Mazda3, an already peppy and fun little hatchback, and tightened the suspension, dropped in a turbocharger, and gave it a limited slip differential.
The result is a car with a great-sounding engine growl and some of the best handling we've seen in a front-wheel-drive configuration. But all isn't perfect in Mazdaspeed land--acceleration suffers from turbo lag, torque steer is a factor, and the stereo is a complete mess. And you won't be upgrading the sound system, as the dashboard configuration isn't suitable for easy stereo replacement.
We like the look of the car, though some might not care for the tuner-look elements, such as the rear spoiler and the big exhaust tip. Mazda's design language combines the right amount of curves with more modern, smoothed out elements on the sides, hood, and roofline. The front is particularly interesting, with Mazda's new tiny grille above the bumper, and an extralarge honeycomb intake below. The fog lights also float in their own slots on either side of the grille. But with its four doors and hatchback, it remains as practical of a car as the Mazda3 on which it is based.
Test the tech: Running to 60
After reviewing the Volkswagen GTI, a reader e-mailed us that the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 is a worthy competitor. So, as we had tested the GTI by doing zero-to-60mph timed runs, we decided to do the same with the Mazdaspeed Mazda3. However, the drivetrains of these two cars are very different. The GTI had Volkswagen's fast-shifting direct shift gearbox (DSG), while the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 has a regular six-speed manual. The Mazdaspeed Mazda3 should regain the edge with its 2.3-liter intercooled and turbocharged engine. The GTI's engine is also turbocharged but only 2 liters.
When we tested the GTI, we had four people in the car. We decided not to repeat that test, only having two people in the Mazdaspeed Mazda3. These tests aren't all about getting the best time from zero to 60mph--if we wanted to do that we would only have one person in the car and we would do our best to destroy the clutch in the process. While we try to get a respectable time, we also want to see how the car handles under hard acceleration.
With our performance computer in place, we drive out to our testing ground.
We hooked up our performance computer and went out to our drag strip. Editors Wayne Cunningham and Kevin Massy each made a couple of runs, of which we took the best. We found that, to get a fast launch, we needed to rev up the engine with the clutch in so the turbo would be engaged, which seemed to be at about 2,500rpm. Take-off in first gear caused predictable front-wheel spin before the car would really get up and go. But wide gear ratios meant a significant rpm drop during the upshift to second, causing the acceleration to flatten out, then pick up as we overcame this second stage of turbo lag. We also had to contend with torque steer when the power kicked in, in both first and second gears. The upshift from second to third was smoother, and necessary, as the car would redline in second above 40mph.
In our zero-to-60mph times, Wayne Cunningham received 7.28 seconds; and Kevin Massy received 7.12 seconds
We were surprised that these times averaged out to only marginally better than what we got in the fully loaded Volkswagen GTI. The Mazdaspeed Mazda3 has 263 horsepower, much more substantial than the GTI's 200 horses. The GTI is also about 60 pounds heavier than the Mazdaspeed Mazda3. Our conclusion from these differing times and vehicle stats are that the Volkswagen's DSG and better management of turbo lag are enough to give the GTI an acceleration edge.
In the cabin
With its sport seats and metal pedals, there's no mistaking the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 for the regular old Mazda3 when you get behind the wheel. The seats are manually adjustable, but an extra lever lets you change the height. They are covered in a grippy material that keeps you from sliding around during hard cornering. The steering wheel is a three-spoke design with embedded buttons for cruise control and the audio system. The materials, fit, and interior look is all very good.
A navigation system is available for the Mazdaspeed Mazda3, but we didn't have it on our test car. If it's anything like what we saw in the Mazda CX-7, it's a worthwhile option. Bluetooth cell phone integration isn't available in the Mazdaspeed Mazda3, so that leaves us with the stereo. The standard system in our Grand Touring trim level Mazdaspeed Mazda3 has a six-disc in-dash changer, an auxiliary input in the console, seven Bose speakers, and a 220-watt amp. We also had the Sirius satellite radio option.
Three knobs is one too many. This is probably the worst stereo interface we've seen.
Although the manual indicated we could use MP3 CDs in the changer, it wouldn't play our test CDs. We also followed the manual's instructions and plugged an MP3 player into the auxiliary jack, then pushed the Media button on the stereo. But nothing happened. The Media button seemed to be disconnected, which was a shame, because the aux jack is easy to access in the console, and there are convenient indentations in the lid for running a cable out.
But we found more to dislike about the stereo in the satellite radio interface. The stereo has three knobs (where most stereos can get away with two): one for channel selection, one for volume, and one for audio settings. Tuned to Sirius, we could change stations by turning the selection knob, as long as the display showed the channel number. We could also push in the knob to change the display to the channel name, track, or artist. But we couldn't change the station in any of these other display modes. The implementation also was generally poor, with a weak antenna that let the station cut out with minimal external interference.
The audio quality from this system was passable, with its best performance in the midranges. Highs weren't as clear as we would like, and the bass wasn't particularly rich. With some tracks, we could also overwhelm the speakers, getting an unpleasant hum at high volume.
Under the hood
The Mazdaspeed Mazda3 mainly stands out for its driving experience. Anyone getting behind the wheel will feel a happy adrenaline rush as the engine growls and the car shoots forward. Flicking the steering wheel and feeling the control the car offers will engender feelings of driving superiority. And for the most part, the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 keeps its performance promise.
We ran the car through San Francisco city streets, down Bay Area freeways, and on twisty mountain roads during our week of driving. Some rain also gave us wet pavement to work with. In all of the cornering we put the car through, it proved to be one of the best handling front-wheel-drive cars we've driven. We had a good, twisty mountain road complete with a few 15mph hairpins to drive the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 on, and it gripped the corners well. The wheel is very responsive and the car's limited slip differential makes a serious difference in letting the tires dig in, right at the point where you think they're going to break free. We also took corners at speed in the wet, and again, we could feel the tires digging in right where we expected them to start slipping.
An intercooler and turbocharger bring this four-cylinder engine's output up to 263 horsepower.
Beyond the limited slip differential, the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 also gets a tightened suspension. While this contributes to the excellent handling ability, it also leads to a somewhat rough ride. As a daily commuter, the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 will take its toll on most drivers' enthusiasm.
The power train in the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 is the same as in the much bigger Mazda CX-7. It's a 2.3-liter direct injection turbocharged 263 horsepower four cylinder. But in the Mazdaspeed Mazda3, it's been tuned to make a very pleasing growl, although one of our reviewers suggested that growl would get annoying in daily use. We pointed out some of the problems with this engine's acceleration in our timed runs, above. You won't notice these issues under normal use, once you learn to modulate the accelerator to overcome the first gear turbo lag. But it will always be at least somewhat noticeable during the upshift to second.
For the engine's fuel economy performance, we were pretty happy with the 24.5mpg we observed in our mixed freeway and city driving. The EPA ranks the car at 20mpg in the city and 28mpg on the highway, and it's rare that our real-world number comes right in the middle of the EPA tests. For emissions, the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 is rated as an ultra-low emission vehicle under California's LEV II program, which is about average for this type of car.
Mazda equips its Mazdaspeed series cars pretty well, so there are few options to choose from. Our Mazdaspeed Mazda3 had the Grand Tourer trim ($23,955) and only one option, Sirius satellite radio ($430). With a $595 destination charge, that makes for a total of $24,980. The only serious tech option we didn't have was navigation, available for $1,750.
In the world of hot hatchbacks, the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 exhibits a few important values, but not all. It's got the handling, the body style, and a peppy engine. But it won't deliver the thumping bass that is also part of the hot hatchback culture, and the stereo won't easily be upgraded to satisfy music lovers. The Honda Civic Si can be had for less money with an excellent navigation system and a decent stereo. Or, for better performance, the Volkswagen GTI offers the DSG. What the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 has over both of these competitors is a roomier interior, hence, a note of practicality.