An affordable and practical factory tuner car

Mazda claims its vehicles are designed to not only catch the eye, but convey an image of youthful exuberance, style and driving fun.  Their performance division is Mazdaspeed, and their purpose is to amplify all the areas that already make Mazdas stand out, like power, handling, style, driver connectivity, and value.

We had the pleasure and opportunity to drive the 2012 Mazdaspeed3, now in its third year of production since it’s redesign for the 2010 model year, to test whether this vehicle lives up to all of Mazda’s promises and our expectations.

Our first impression of the Mazdaspeed3 was that it looks like something you would see in a comic book.  Words like Screech! Beep! and Zoom! wouldn’t be out of place if they appeared in word bubbles around the car. It has a large black plastic grill up front that grins as if it has just won a street race.  Bold character lines run down the hood and the sides that give the Mazdaspeed3 a strong sense of motion, even when it’s parked.  The hood contains a large functional air scoop designed to feed the turbocharger’s intercooler with cool air. It has aggressively styled 18 inch wheels with low profile performance tires, and a roof mounted wing designed to keep the car on the pavement.

Once we stepped inside the vehicle, however, we were greeted with a less cartoonish appearance that was surprisingly pleasant, attractive, and comfortable.  There is sufficient headroom and legroom for most drivers. The front seats are deep and supportive. The seat back and cushion are covered with black cloth with red accents while the side bolsters are covered in black leather. The sporty 3-spoke steering wheel and shifter are covered in red stitched leather, and the pedals are made from aluminum alloy.  Surfaces are textured and padded in most places where occupants would likely touch them.  All this helps the Mazdaspeed3’s interior feel refined and more expensive than it is.

Although the Mazdaspeed3 seats five, the rear seat can only accommodate two average sized adults comfortably. However, with a five foot ten inch tall occupant in the front passenger seat, we were able to comfortably fit a six foot passenger behind. You can also fit a front facing child car seat without sacrificing front seat comfort, but a rear facing infant car seat will hinder the front seat occupant of finding a comfortable seating position.

The audio and climate controls are clearly labeled and fairly simple to use. It comes standard with dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio capability and a 265-watt Bose audio system with 10 speakers. An optional compact navigation system is integrated into the flowing dashboard and is controlled from the steering wheel.

So what’s it like to drive?  With maximum power output of 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque under the hood, and a close ratio short throw 6-speed manual transmission, the acceleration is very quick and entertaining. 0-60 mph came in just 6.2 seconds with little turbo lag.  Torque steer was reduced, but not eliminated by the limited slip differential with advanced torque management system. Clutch uptake is a bit on the heavier side, but wasn’t a problem.  Shift action is crisp. The steering feels connected to the road and is  responsive.  The car handles very well with little body lean.  Braking is flawless with short stops, and has a solid pedal feel.

The ride in the MazdaSpeed3 is choppy, but livable.  Passengers who prefer a more isolated ride won’t be comfortable on longer trips. The engine, exhaust, tire, and wind noise are all audible at highway speeds, but don’t impede a conversation between the
front and rear occupants. Its 18-inch low-profile high performance summer tires will need to be changed over to winter tires in colder months in many parts of the country.

The Mazdaspeed3 has impressive cargo room with a 60/40 split rear backseat that folds almost flat. Interior storage is also good with multiple bottle holders and cup holders, a large deep glove compartment, and a sliding center console armrest. With the rear seats up, there is 17 cubic feet of cargo space. With the rear seats folded flat, that figure grows to 42.8 cubic feet. Below the floor of the trunk is a compact spare tire with the subwoofer integrated into the spare tire mount.

So does the Mazdaspeed3 live up to all of Mazda’s claims? For the most part, yes. This car is powerful, it handles great, and is a joy to drive playfully. However, because it has so much power driving the front wheels under aggressive acceleration, driver connectivity is hindered somewhat due to the cars efforts to manage this power. If you’re someone who is addicted to speed, you want a practical car, and bang for your buck is at the top of your priority list, then this car could be for you. However, if you like Driving Miss Daisy, and would have no problem trading an exciting driving experience for a slower vehicle with a smoother, more comfortable ride, then there are other cars that will better suit your needs.

Vehicle type: Front Engine, FWD, 5 passenger, 5-door
Base price including destination: $24,795
Price as tested: $26,930
Horsepower: 263HP @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 280 lb-ft of torque @ 3,000 rpm
Redline: 6,700 rpm
Transmission: Manual 6-speed
0 – 60 MPH: 6.2 Seconds
EPA Rating (city/hwy): 18/25
Required Fuel (Octane): Premium Unleaded (91 Octane)
Curb Weight: 3,281 lbs