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.