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Mazdaspeed3: The fast and the curious

October 09, 2009|DAN NEIL

Look, the world needs some good news. Wars, the economy, swine flu. My God, Andrew Lloyd Webber is making a sequel to "Phantom of the Opera."

So now comes the 2010 Mazdaspeed3 -- which is the best-in-class compact-hatch Mazda3 stuffed with horsepower foie gras -- and that, oppressed citizens, is an occasion for good cheer.

Here's a car with room for four adults and one magical halfling; a car with excellent rear cargo storage and good fuel economy; a car with a sticker price ($23,945 base MSRP) within reach of every waiter, barista and entry-level clerical whipping boy in the San Fernando Valley.

And it rips.

Powered by a fervid, phat-with-torque turbocharged four-cylinder engine (263 hp) and strung with a cat's cradle of stiff springs and struts, sticky 18-inch tires and big brakes, the Mazdaspeed3 can throw you around like an LAX baggage handler.

And may I say how refreshing it is to drive a sporty car that doesn't weigh 2 freaking tons? The Mazdaspeed3 weighs a feathery 3,221 pounds, and this relative freedom from mass translates to moments of hilarious fun on the road. The car is pitch-able, chuck-able, eager and willing.

Hook a 12-volt car battery to a Meyer lemon. Take a bite. That's what the Mazdaspeed3 feels like. Sweet, tart, electrifying.

Oh, but is it ugly. Hol-ee cats. What's the deal with that grille?

New for 2010, the Mazdaspeed3 (and the regular Mazda3) is fitted with this psychotic piece of plastic in the lower bumper clip, a toothless meth-hillbilly smile that cries out for nothing so much as a low-speed front collision. You'd have to tie a pork chop to the back bumper just to get dogs to chase it. You could put this car's picture on a box of Ex-Lax and sell it empty. Stop me if you've heard these. . . .

In fairness, I should point out that in this segment -- over-amped versions of compact transport drones, also known as "hot hatches" -- a warthog-like aesthetic rules. The Mitsubishi Evo, the Subaru WRX, Volkswagen GTI. None of these cars can get a date on their looks alone.

Inside the Mazdaspeed3, matters improve. The styling is restrained and contemporary, with overachieving finish materials and leathers and, at night, a faint techno-glow from the indirect lighting and jazzy instrumentation. One reason for the spare modernity of the instrument console is that many of the function switches have been relocated to the steering wheel. The seats and door panels are trussed up in kinetic-pattern cloth weave, which is great if you like your car to have a moire pattern.

The big glitch in the Mazda innards is the curious, if not downright crazy, location of the tiny multifunction/navigation display, stuffed under a binnacle near the windshield. I know it's a budget car and finding real estate in the dash console for a big display is a packaging challenge for designers. Still, this isn't a nav screen, it's an eye test.

Anyway, that's OK. One of the things about the Mazdaspeed3 I like is its embrace of character, its willingness to let a little raggedness show here and there in the cause of adrenaline. A good example is the way the computers talk to the engine. (This gets a bit geeky, so bear with me.)

The eternal struggle with front-drive cars is torque steer, which is the transient effect on steering of dumping a lot of torque into the front wheels, which also happen to steer the car. The more throttle and the greater the steering angle, the more pronounced the effect and the more the car wants to pull to the left or right. Mazda has taken all the usual steps to quell torque steer (equal-length half-shafts, limited-slip differential, beefy engine mounts, stiffer suspension, electric-power steering).

It has also taken the unusual step of tinkering with the engine programming. The car's computers actually dial back engine power in the first three gears a bit to smooth out the torque-steering effect. This throttle management doesn't null out torque steer altogether.

When you stand on the gas coming out of a corner, the Mazdaspeed3 can wander and waiver. But it tames it and even makes it entertaining.

One consequence is that if you hold the car at steady throttle through a corner, the engine will actually pick up revs all by itself as you unwind the wheel (that's the computer telling the engine that it's OK to bring on more power).

In-teresting.

On a country two-lane that would otherwise involve a lot of sawing at the wheel and gear-swapping, the Mazdaspeed3 is strangely refined and effortless, while still generating major sideways grip and utterly felonious pace. With the limited-slip differential busily chatting away between the front wheels, the Mazdaspeed3's point-and-squirt, corner-to-corner transitions are impeccable. Brake feel is excellent.

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