WHO doesn't like a nice practical hatchback? I know I do.
This here Mazda3 is a good example of one. It's got four doors and seating for five. There's a spacious cargo area in back, and the seats can be folded flat if you need a little more room.
It's front-wheel drive, which means it'll even be good in the snow if you get a set of season-specific tires. There's navigation, a decent stereo, heated front seats that are quite comfortable; all-in-all, a nice, safe, sensible vehicle for the family.
But hang on, what's wrong with the hood on this thing: there's a great big hole in it! And why the giant alloy wheels? Why the large rear spoiler? Why, instead of the friendly, goofy look of the regular Mazda3, does this one seem like it's thinking about biting my leg off?
I think I should probably take it for a drive to find out. Off we go. . . .
The first clues that the Mazdaspeed3 is no ordinary hatchback are all over the place. Yes, it might resemble the normal Mazda3 Sport in silhouette, but there's that whacking great hood scoop and a multi-slashed front grille that resembles the gills of a shark.
It's wearing big shoes too: 18-inch lightweight alloy wheels that give further indication of sporting intent. Extended side-sills and a rear spoiler complete the aerodynamic package. HID headlights are standard and my tester was equipped with the optional Adaptive Front Lighting System that directs those bright lights around corners.
While there is no standard roof rack for either the base Mazda3 or the 'Speed3, both come equipped with the mounting hardware necessary to fit dealer-sourced crossbars if you need a little more carrying capacity.
Like the regular Mazda3, the 'Speed3 has a driverfocused cabin that's attractive, but perhaps a bit spartan.
Being the most-sporting variant available, the blue interior highlights of moreefficient models are replaced by red accents everywhere.
In most applications,
such as the instrumentation and the dash trim, this mild lipstick works well. The seats and the door panel cards, on the other hand, look a little late-'90s with their redwave pattern. A full charcoal treatment would work much better here, but it's not garish.
For a front-wheel-drive car, the driving position in any Mazda3 is excellent.
However, stepping out of the company's MX-5 directly into the 'Speed3 clearly illustrates the difference between a "sports-car" and a "sportycar." The shifter throw feels a little longer, you sit a little higher; still, it's very good overall.
There's only one set of options for the 'Speed3 - the Technology Package, which contains navigation, keyless start, a power driver's seat and the Adaptive Lighting system. The navigation system is - no other word for it - useless. Don't get the tech package unless the other features are important to you.
This is especially true as this year's minor update to the 'Speed3 made the Bose audio system standard across the board. Audiophiles need no longer shell out to rock out. Performance
Gadgets are great, but technology isn't what the 'Speed3 is about. Not, that is, unless you count all the technology working to keep those front wheels from liquefying the tires.
With 263 horsepower and a colossal 280 foot-pounds of torque at just 3,000 r.p.m., Mazda's hot hatch is pretty much the hottest one out there. For those counting the ponies, that's 25 per cent more power than something like a GTi, and enough torque to give the little 'Speed3 highway passing that'd embarrass anything up to and including the mighty Subaru STi.
That's once it's moving; getting the 'Speed3 off the line is something else entirely. Mazda has limited the turboboost for the first three gears and only allows you to access the power when the wheels are pointed dead straight.
There's a clever limited-slip front differential, and the tires are a sticky, summer-only compound.
The net effect? Pretty much nothing. Stomping the go-pedal on the Mazdaspeed3 is like holding on to the leash of a really big dog when it sees a squirrel up ahead. It leaps forward, the steering wheel dances back and forth in your hands.
Is this a relaxing, soothing way to get around? Most assuredly not. Is it fun?
Oh heavens yes. Of all the ever-more-rapid modern machinery around, the 'Speed3 is one of the only cars that actually feels like you need to work at it. You wrestle the steering into submission, hang on tight as you blast through a corner, feather the throttle, then bury it on exit.
It could not be more different from the darting, flowing ballet of an MX5 with its pop-and-lock breakdancing. I absolutely adore it.
As it's top of the range for Mazda's compact offerings, the $29,940 'Speed3 comes with pretty much everything you can think of as standard.
Interior features include Bluetooth, part-leather heated seats, that powerful Bose audio system, and aluminum accents. Exterior enhancements include fog lights, rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights.
Official fuel economy figures are 11.5 litres/100 kilometres in the city and 8.0 l/100 km on the highway.
Unlike its all-wheel drive competition, the 'Speed3 does a pretty good job of approximating these figures in real life, particularly on the highway.
The technology package ($2,440) includes a multifunction display screen that is a little too small for navigational duties, but works well as an on-board trip computer. The self-levelling headlights are directional, as mentioned, and new for this year is a blind-spot monitoring system - although take a single trackday course in your car and the instructor will show you how to set your mirrors so this feature becomes redundant.
Power!; practical, spacious interior; all-weather capability - with the right tires; good value.
Wicked torque steer; exterior styling will be too over-the-top for some; navigation needs updating. The checkered flag
The raucously unapologetic king of the hothatch segment.
Competitors Volkswagen GTi ($29,375)
Volkswagen pretty much invented the idea of the fast, practical car with the original GTi in June of 1976 (in Europe only). When it finally made its way to our shores, the pocket rocket became a sales sensation, and a tidy '80s GTi is quite a desirable little car.
The current model sports a 200 h.p. engine and an available dualclutch transmission that's the sportiest automatic transmission this side of a Porsche. It might not have the power of the 'Speed3, but it does have a more balanced character.
Subaru WRX 5-door ($33,395)
Drive the 'Speed3, and you'll eventually muse aloud what the car might be like if it had the grip of all-wheel drive to help put all that power down. Uh, well, it'd be like a Subaru WRX.
This year, the WRX is flared out like its big-brother STi, and unless you're tracking the car extensively, it's a far better buy. Its engine produces 265 h.p. - very close to the Mazda - but it makes use of the power in a much more controlled way.
Even so, the 'Speed3 is quicker than the numbers suggest, and where the WRX has the rugged feel of a car set up for gravel racing, the Mazda will certainly give the Subaru a run for its money around a racetrack.