Mazda's internal tuner car division, Mazdaspeed, has done it again. The 2007 Mazdaspeed3 delivered the most fun I've had in a front-wheel drive vehicle since I first drove the original VW GTI. Like the GTI, the 2007 Mazdaspeed3 is a hatchback with performance refinements that raise it way above the car that it is based on, in this case the Mazda3. The Mazdaspeed3 carries Mazda's standard 3 year/36,000 mile warranty, and base prices will start at just $22,240. EPA MPG estimates 20/28.
First glance: Stealth speed
There have been just a few Mazdaspeed models over the years: The 2003 Protégé (photo), the 2004 Miata (review) and the 2006 Mazdaspeed6 (photo/review). Mazdaspeed models are based on standard Mazda editions, equipped with some minor body modifications and some substantial performance enhancements. They're designed to be street-legal daily drivers with enthusiast credentials.
The Mazdaspeed3 looks just like the five-door Mazda3 with a few minor variations: Some subtle flat black trim pieces, slightly lower stance, 18" alloy wheels and a bigger rear spoiler. Unlike some of the other factory tuner cars (Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru WRX STi, for instance), the Mazdaspeed3 is stealthy. If you didn't notice the "Mazdaspeed" badge on the rear gate, you might not realize you were chasing after a very special car.
In the Driver's Seat: All business, but couldn't we have a boost gauge?
One thing I missed was a turbo boost gauge. The Mazdaspeed folk informed me that there was no need for one -- the turbo is completely controlled by the engine's computers, and there's nothing that a driver needs to worry about. Bummer -- it's so much fun to watch the turbo needle zoom around the dial.
The Grand Touring edition of the Mazdaspeed3 starts at $24,550 ($2,310 more than the Sport edition), and includes a tilt-up screen DVD Nav, Bose audio and an in-dash 6-CD changer. The navigation system actually sent me to the owner's manual to figure out a few functions -- the outrage! -- but performed well in an unfamiliar setting.
On the Road: Yeah, baby, yeah!
It's not hard to get lots of power into a front-wheel drive platform, but it is difficult to manage it. Mazdaspeed has done a great job of controlling torque-steer, which is the tendency of front-wheel drive vehicles to pull to the side under hard acceleration. The 3 isn't totally immune to the effect, but it is very minor -- a real compliment to the chassis and suspension enhancements in the Mazdaspeed package. Braking is also excellent. After repeated laps on the track, I didn't feel any fade or diminishment in braking, just great brake feel. And did I mention fun?
Journey's end: Everything I love about the 3, turned up to 11
Mazda says that the competition for the Mazdaspeed3 includes the Honda Civic Si, the Volkswagen GTI, Chevrolet Cobalt SS and Saturn Ion Red Line. The Mazdaspeed3 has more power (and more doors) than all of them. The big boys of factory tuner cars, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru WRX STi, each start at over $29,000, with all-wheel drive. They don't make great daily drivers and they stick out like a sore thumb come speeding ticket time. Personally, I prefer the Mazdaspeed3: It's the most driving fun you can get for your money that is still practical enough to be your only vehicle.
-- Jason Fogelson