As a successor to the Protege, the Mazda3 launched in 2004 showcasing Mazda’s new design language and nomenclature. Before 2003, Mazda’s lineup was filled with pleasant but humdrum cars such as the Protege, MPV, Millenia, 626, Tribute, and so on. Starting in the late 1990s, Ford had a controlling stake in Mazda, and the two cooperated on future vehicles’ developments. With Ford’s resources and funding, Mazda had the opportunities to completely revamp its lineup. Numerical names would be used for its models (at least in Europe and North America), and Mazda set about reinventing itself. The Mazda3 and Mazda6 were the results. The Mazda3 (Called the Axela in Asia), developed with Ford alongside the Ford Focus and Volvo S40, embodied European styling and handling in a fuel efficient and affordable package. As a result, it was a success and garnered rave reviews worldwide. The Mazda3 chassis had the capability for more power, so Mazda saw fit to produce a Mazdaspeed variant of the 3. Mazda’s niche division, Mazdaspeed, produced a version of the Protege, which gained mechanical and visual tweaks enough to transform it into a sporty small sedan. This time, instead of a sedan body style, the Mazdaspeed3 would be a hatchback in order to please European buyers. In Europe, hot hatches, vehicles with fast power and sporty handling combined with the practicality and comfort of a hatchback, were popular. I have reviewed both the first and second generation Mazda3s (both sedans), so I was keen to try out these Mazdaspeed version. This is not your ordinary Mazda3.Whereas the top of the line version of the Mazda3 had up to 160 horsepower with a five speed manual transmission, the Mazdaspeed3 had racier exterior tweaks, and a turbocharged 263 horsepower four cylinder with a six speed manual transmission. Sounds like a hoot to me.
To be honest, if you are not a car fanatic, you would be hard pressed to tell apart a Mazdaspeed3 from a regular Mazda3 hatch. That is not necessarily a bad thing since the Mazda3 itself is a fine looking thing whether in sedan or hatchback form. Among the exterior modifications are revised bumpers, different wheel designs, and the addition of a pronounced spoiler. The front has a purposeful stance to it, with a simple grille and sharp headlights. The side is that of a normal hatchback, although I do like that the window line goes upward towards the rear, creating a “kink”. The rear is as simplistic as the front, but it is all in the details. The tailights look fantastic, with clear lens and a black surround, and the diffuser is a sporty touch. The interior is a nice place to be with racy red lightning although the overall ambiance is stark.
The Mazda3 itself drives superbly, and unsurprisingly, the Mazdaspeed3 only improves the driving experience. With minimal suspension and steering tweaks, the Mazdaspeed3 is a blast to drive. The steering tracks straight at center, and when turning, there is a natural buildup in weight. The steering feels like it is lifted from a BMW prior to 2010 and it also provides BMW grade feedback as road textures are subtly felt through the steering. Due to having most of its weight at the front, the little Mazda has a tendency to plow wide, but when it does, it does it with grace, and a flick of the steering wheel pulls it back into line. Aside from the occasional understeer, it is a car made for twisty roads. The lack of body lean and sticky tires make it a joy in the corners, and the steering’s precision and quickness gives the Mazda a go kart feeling. Despite the superb handling and low suspension, the ride is not as stiff as you would expect. It is stiffer than a regular 3, but it is tolerable.
The Mazdaspeed3’s main selling point is its engine, and quite an impressive one at that. The only powertrain choice for this car is a 2.3 liter turbocharged engine and a six speed manual transmission. Labeled “MZR DISI”, with MZR for Mazda’s four cylinder engine family and DISI for Direct Injection Spark Ignition, this 2.3 turbo produces 263 horsepower and 280 lbs of torque. For a car as small as this, that is fast. However, this being a powerful front wheel drive car, Mazda wanted to curb the torque steer. Mazda’s solution was install a torque management system that prevented full power in the first and second gears, but even with this feature, acceleration from 0-60 mph is done in less than six seconds with minimal torque steer. There is some lag at low revs, but power delivery improves after 2,000 rpm. The midrange delivery is what impresses me. With revs at 2,500 rpm, there is so much torque that response is instantaneous as soon as you depress the pedal, and it is amazing how strong this engine is at midrange. This engine maintains its quick pace to the redline. The only transmission available for this model is a six speed manual transmission (save the manuals!). The six speed manual transmission provides short throws and crisp shifts, and the clutch has decent feedback and bite. Despite the engine’s focus on its performance, fuel economy does not take a hit. At around 25 mpg overall, fuel economy is pretty solid for a performance oriented hatchback.
I would say that the one area that the Mazdaspeed3 falters in is refinement. The turbocharged four is buzzy at low revs, and it does not sound particularly polished when it is revved. It is not that it is thrashy, but it sounds more like fitting for an economy car than a sporty hatchback. The tires transmit consider road noise into the cabin as well.
Typically for a Mazda, the cabin is well finished thanks to a soft touch dash and nicely polished plastics. There are some nice touches to the cabin. For example, there is a strip that runs through the middle of the center stack that pulsates when you turn the radio on. This car features one of my favorite gauge cluster ever put in a car. The gauges are logically laid out, but not only that, they are festive with red lighting and a blue hue that looks great at night. The controls are simple, and the rotary buttons for the air conditioning are well placed. It is easy to find a driving position thanks to a tilt and telescoping seat and the seat’s adjustment range. I took a likening to the seats, because of its bolstering that added to the sporty touch. Not only that, they are comfortable as well. There is enough room in the front although I found that the center console can brush your leg. Headroom is adequate, but visibility is lacking due to the rear pillars. The hatchback configuration provides decent cargo room, and the rear seats fold down. Speaking of the rear, two adults can fit comfortably, and access is easy.
Honestly I am smitten by this car. For me, it checks all boxes: sublime handling, excellent powertrain, manual transmission, decent practicality, affordable to run, understated looks. I like this car way better than its main rival, the Volkswagen Golf GTI. It is comfortable enough to be driven daily, but exciting when you want it to be. This car sums up why Mazda is one of my favorite manufacturers. Mazda as a company as kept its brand integrity instead of changing itself to raise sales, and I respect them for it. Most automakers (at least in North America that is) have dulled their vehicles for more sales. Just look at Subaru. It used be a quirky but lovable car company, but now they are chasing Toyota. As a result, their cars are boring. Not with Mazda. It is because of this approach that Mazda has consistently refined its “Zoom-Zoom” engineering. This Mazdaspeed3 is just unbelievably good to drive. I can’t explain it, but the whole time I was driving, it just felt like I was at home. The leather steering feels alive in your hands, and you just never get tired of revving the engine. The crisp shifting manual is icing on the cake and the fact is that it is a versatile hatchback adds a cherry on top of the icing. This car makes you proud to drive a Mazda. It feels as well engineered as a German car, and it feels like it. You know what Mazda’s slogan is? “If a car is not worth driving, it is not worth building.” Amen!