My first experience with the Mazdaspeed3 was behind the wheel of a 2010 model a few years ago. My colleague Wayne Cunningham wrote and scored our official CNET review and did the majority of the driving, but I was able to steal it away one night. It was dark; it was raining; and the amount of turbocharged torque steer that resulted was terrifying enough to sour me on the whole idea of high-powered front-drive cars.
So, I was surprised by how much I loved the 2013 Mazdaspeed3 -- torque steer and all. The vehicle is largely unchanged save for a new technology package, packing the same performance from its turbocharged, 2.3-liter power train. What gives?
New navigation system by TomTom
Before I get into what changed my mind about the Mazdaspeed3's performance, let's take a minute to talk about what's new in the 2013 model: the cabin tech.
Every Mazdaspeed3 is technically also a Touring trim level, so there's a reasonable level of accommodation before you check a single option box. Standard bells and whistles include a 265-watt Bose audio system with 10 speakers and Bluetooth wireless connectivity for hands-free calling and audio streaming. Audio sources for this slightly-better-than-basic stereo system are AM/FM terrestrial radio, a single CD slot with MP3 and WMA playback, a USB input, and an analog auxiliary input. You get dual-zone, automatic climate controls and a pair of LCDs at the top of the dashboard that display information about the current fuel economy, audio source, and hands-free calls. It's not too bad of a setup.
However, our tester was equipped with pretty much the only major option available: the Mazdaspeed Technology Package. For $2,485 the standard receiver is replaced by a navigation system with a 5.8-inch color touch screen and voice command. It perfectly replicates the interface of a TomTom navigation system, using the same maps, menu system, and voice command system that you'll find on a modern TomTom portable device. We first saw this system in the dashboard of the new Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring crossover that also passed through the Car Tech garage this year. The system features traffic data, multiple pathfinding options, and spoken turn-by-turn directions with text-to-speech street names.
While I'm a fan of TomTom's voice command system, this wholesale importing of TomTom's interface into the Mazda infotainment system does lead to a few minor annoyances. For starters, the Mazdaspeed3 driver has to deal with two separate voice command systems and two separate address books, one of each for the navigation and for the Bluetooth systems. When you sync your contacts from your phone, the addresses associated with those contacts aren't imported, so you'll have to manually input the addresses that you frequently drive to into the TomTom system. Additionally, an odd glitch in the input lockout, which is designed to keep drivers from typing addresses with the touch screen while driving, kept kicking me out of the voice address input while driving in stop-and-go traffic. Outside of these quibbles, I found the Mazda/TomTom collaboration to be remarkably simple and quite good for the price.
The Bose audio system also gains HD Radio decoding with the addition of the Technology Package, as well as Pandora Internet radio connectivity. Simply connect your smartphone to the stereo via USB (for iOS) or Bluetooth (for Android) to gain full control of the Pandora app via the touch screen, including displaying artist and song data, using skip and thumbs-up/thumbs-down controls, and browsing your stored radio stations. A SiriusXM Satellite Radio receiver with a four-month trial subscription rounds out the additional audio sources.
The Technology Package also steps up the Mazdaspeed3's driver safety with a Blind Spot Monitoring System that illuminates an icon in the side mirrors when an obstruction is detected at the vehicle's rear quarter and an Adaptive Front Lighting System that enables the Bi-Xenon headlights to position themselves in sync with the front wheels to better illuminate corners. Mazda's keyless entry, push-button start, and rain-sensing windshield wipers make things even more convenient for drivers.
280 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels!?
Dashboard tech is great, but if you're looking at a 2013 Mazdaspeed3, odds are good that you're more interested in engine tech. The 'Speed3 is powered by a turbocharged 2.3-liter MZR engine that outputs 263 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. A top-mount intercooler chilled by a functional hood scoop allows the turbocharger to cram cooler, denser air into the MZR's four combustion chambers, and direct-injection tech helps it to explode that air and gasoline as precisely and efficiently as possible.
All 280 pound-feet of torque pass through a six-speed manual transmission -- no automatic gearbox option -- on their way to the front wheels. Putting that much twist through the steering wheels creates one significant issue: torque steer. Floor the accelerator pedal and you'll feel a bit of a tug on the steering wheel somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000rpm, where the torque curve is at its meatiest. It's not so much that the Mazda is undrivable, but you'll want to make sure that you keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times. Torque steer is caused by any of a number of factors. Mazda has attempted to combat the phenomenon by using a torque-sensing conical limited-slip differential and equal-length half shafts in the drivetrain construction, but it still had to resort to using what it calls the Mazda Advanced Torque Management System to keep the 'Speed3 in line by limiting maximum torque in first and second gears.
Other go-faster goodies in the Mazdaspeed3 are 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels with a gunmetal finish, Y-rated summer tires, a Mazdaspeed-tuned sport suspension, and bigger, grippier brakes.
The EPA estimates the 2013 Mazdaspeed3's fuel economy at 21 mpg combined, 18 mpg city, and 25 mpg highway. My average miles per gallon hovered at a point that was considerably lower (about 12 mpg) thanks to a combination of a lead foot and San Francisco traffic, but an extended period of calm highway cruising brought my weeklong average up to a decent 17.8 mpg -- still, nothing to brag about there.
Don't let all of that talk of front-wheel drive, torque steer, and torque limiters deter you. The 2013 Mazdaspeed3 is still an amazing car. The power is good and available at a nice midpoint of the power band, where it can be easily accessed. The front-wheel-drive platform encourages good, fundamental driving techniques to maximize your traction and speed. Fortunately, the 'Speed3 offers fantastic feedback through all of its driver contact points (steering wheel, pedals, and the seat of your pants).
As I mentioned earlier, my first experience with the Mazdaspeed3 was in the rain at night and the torque steer was terrifying in that low-traction, low-visibility scenario. This time out, the bit of torque steer that I felt in the 2013 model actually made the car feel more alive and more fun. I couldn't help grinning as I made small corrections to wrangle what felt like too much power for my own good and a car that simply wanted to get into trouble. The Mazdaspeed3 forces you to pay attention to what you're doing when driving quickly -- you can't drive this car in the classic poser position with one hand on the wheel and the other resting on the shifter -- but its relatively safe front-drive architecture and unobtrusive traction control system don't punish you for momentary lapses when you're just headed home for the day.
The 'Speed3's ride is firm, but also not punishing or harsh. You'll want to dodge potholes, but you also won't have to worry about having your fillings shaken out when going over cracks in the road or expansion joints. A good deal of road noise filters into the cabin, but not so much that I had to shout to be heard by passengers or crank the volume to enjoy music. The exhaust note is better-sounding than the Bose stereo anyway.
At the end of the day, the Mazdaspeed3 is an absolute joy to drive and makes me, the driver, feel awesome when everything comes together and I nail a perfect downshift, balance the car on its nose through an apex, and come blasting out of a corner with the turbo at full boil. Possibly more importantly, the Mazda's hatchback design is remarkably easy to live with as a daily driver, boasting plenty of space for four adult passengers and a boot full of their junk.
However, there are a few nits to pick. For example, while the shifter has good engagement, it sometimes catches on the gates during a 2-3 upshift or 5-4 downshift. It's no deal breaker, but requires a bit of care and getting used to. Also, a rearview camera isn't an option on the Mazdaspeed3, but it probably should be. It would certainly make parallel parking much easier and alleviate a bit of my fear of scuffing those sweet 18-inch wheels. Like my complaints about the cabin tech, these flaws in the driving experience are noteworthy, but also relatively minor.
In sum: Current king of the hot hatchbacks?
Our 2013 Mazdaspeed3 totaled $27,955 as equipped. That's starting from a base price of $24,200, and adding a $795 destination charge, the aforementioned Technology Package, an autodimming rearview mirror with compass and Homelink for $275, and ambient lighting that floods the footwells with blue light for $200. At that price, the Mazda's hot hatchback finds itself in a very interesting class of vehicles.
The 2013 Ford Focus ST is more efficient and just as quick as the Mazdaspeed3 in most situations -- despite having less power and torque on paper. The Ford also has nicer interior materials and is only slightly more expensive than the Mazda. The Ford Focus ST is also less squirrelly and gives less torque steer than the older 'Speed3. Whether that last bit is a good thing depends largely on how you get your driving grins. I kind of like the idea of having to occasionally wrestle my car into line, but I think most drivers will value the Ford's additional stability.
The all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX five-door is easily the king of this hot hatchback class and will likely outrun and outcorner both the Mazda and the Ford, but is more expensive and arguably doesn't offer the same level of driver involvement. Some may consider the Volkswagen Golf R a competitor, but its price tag pushes it just outside of realistic comparison. It's a shame that Mitsubishi recently discontinued the Lancer Ralliart Sportback; that model would have also been a good fit for this group.
|Model||2013 Mazda Mazdaspeed3|
|Power train||2.3-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, six-speed manual transmission, FWD|
|EPA fuel economy||18 city, 25 highway, 21 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||17.8 mpg|
|Navigation||optional TomTom-based system|
|Bluetooth phone support||standard|
|Disc player||single-slot CD, MP3/WMA decoding|
|MP3 player support||standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection, optional Pandora Link app integration|
|Other digital audio||optional SiriusXM Satellite Radio, HD Radio decoding|
|Audio system||10-speaker Bose audio|
|Driver aids||optional blind-spot monitoring, Active Front Lighting System|
|Price as tested||$27,955|