Mazda Speed3 — Hot shoe fun and functional

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We were just getting back into our 2010 Mazda Speed3 at a rest stop on Interstate 40 when someone approached us. “Hold on, hold on, I want to ask you something,” came the voice.

Not good. Our first inclination in such circumstances is to quickly fall into the seat, shut and lock the door and carefully but forcefully back out of the parking space not wanting to hear the usual hustle. But, for some reason, we got out of the car and met the man who then asked, “Is that the new Speed3, I just have to take a look if you don’t mind.”

Fifteen minutes later we had given him a walk around, let him look inside and opened the hood. We recited some statistics — horsepower, published 0-to-60 times, gas mileage on our trip. Unfortunately, the well shrouded 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder was covered in road salt.

The Speed3 is one of several turbocharged compact hotrods that give driving enthusiasts go-fast fun at an affordable price while delivering excellent storage and decent gas mileage.

If you are into the driving experience there is no need to give up family-hauling utility or break the budget for a car topping $30,000. The Speed3 can be purchased for around 24 grand in hatchback configuration. In addition to the car, you will be purchasing a smile. The driving experience is nothing short of exhilarating.

What you will purchase for $23,995 including destination charge is a turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine cranking out 263 horsepower capable of a 0-to-60 time in under 6 seconds, a slick-shifting six-speed short-throw manual transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in high performance rubber that will allow you to toss the little car through the most challenging curves in a confident manner, and brakes that will pull you down from speed as fast as some of the world’s best sports cars.

What you will also get — listen up family guy — are 17 cubic feet of luggage space behind the second-row seats and 43 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the seats folded. Drop the stroller and diaper bag into the back and haul, big time.

There are a few other worthy examples of compact hatchback go-fast vehicles including the Volkswagen GTI, Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart and Subaru Impreza WRX.
All are fast and all have some wonderful attributes. One thing the Mitsubishi and Subaru have over the Mazda is all-wheel drive. But if you seldom have need for the all-weather traction provided by driving all four wheels, then the Mazda is at no disadvantage.

The Mazda costs less and comes with a sophisticated top-quality interior that rivals cars costing twice as much and are only half as much fun to drive.

We put 600 mostly interstate miles on the Mazda, although we did get to experience its road-holding abilities on 50 miles of winding mountain roads, and we came away impressed not only at the car’s handling prowess, but at its long-distance 75-mph livability.

The steering provides excellent feedback and allows for truly precise driving. And considering the car’s handling attributes the suspension won’t offend. Pavement imperfections are handled with grace.

We discovered to our delight that even in fifth gear, there was ample horsepower and torque to surge past slower traffic at lower speeds. Shove it into sixth on the open road and gas mileage during our 600 miles equaled the advertised 25 miles per gallon on premium fuel.

If you desire down and dirty pedal-to-the-metal acceleration it is there in great gobs through the gears. Be warned, however, that with great torque (280 foot-pounds) comes great torque steer in a front-drive layout. Just be prepared to hang onto the wheel on take-off to keep the car in line. That being said, we’ve driven cars with more torque steer, and once you are underway that momentary annoyance is easily forgotten.

For numbers people and for comparison purposes the Speed3 has been measured by a major automotive publication at 5.8 seconds 0-to-60 and 14.3 seconds at 99 mph in the quarter mile. Equally impressive is stopping power, measured at a neck-wrenching 106 feet from 60 mph.

The driving position is excellent, thanks in part to the tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and seat comfort held up during our long stretches of driving. The gauges are clear and readable and the switchgear is well laid out and intuitive. Once home, one of our usual backseat passengers took a 10-mile jaunt with us and proclaimed the back seat comfortable and leg room adequate, only asking the guy in front to move the seat forward  slightly.

Our test car carried the base price and had everything we would desire on a daily driver including satellite radio; dual-zone climate control; leather and cloth upholstery (very upscale looking); cruise control; Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity; a six-speaker audio system; and steering wheel controls.

Safety has been well covered with four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, and front side airbags and side curtain airbags.

There is one major option and a handful of low-cost extras if you want to add to the standard package. We think, will be the tech package at $1,895, which includes upgraded 10-speaker audio, navigation and a keyless system that allows for keyless entry and push-button start is a smart choice to consider. But even optioned out it would be difficult to push the bottom line much past 27 grand.

When we told our new interstate rest stop friend that he would be hard pressed to find superior performance and handling at the Speed3’s sticker price, we were definitely handing out good advice. But we think that guy was already convinced.

Base price: $23,995; as driven, $23,995
Engine: 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 263 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 280 foot-pounds @ 3,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Length: 177.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,245 pounds
Turning circle: 36.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 17 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 43 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 25 mpg highway, 18 mpg city
0-60: 5.8 seconds (MotorTrend)
Also consider: Volkswagen GTI, Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

The Good:
• Outstanding performance
• Great handling
• High-quality interior
• Considerable standard equipment for base price

The Bad:
• Below average gas mileage using costly premium fuel

The Ugly
• Noticeable torque steer