The hot hatchback market is well-defined by the likes of the Honda Civic Si, the VW GTI, and the Mazdaspeed3, with camps of followers for each car arguing incessantly online about the superior attributes of each. The new 2010 Mazdaspeed3 enters this milieu, delivering what you would expect from a hot hatchback. But then it reaches further, adding some very tasty icing on the cake.
Intent on making the new Mazdaspeed3 iconic, Mazda offers it in only four colors. Our red Mazdaspeed3 showcased Mazda's Nagare styling, a design language teased in concepts over countless car shows, but finally realized here in the sensuous curves that line fenders and hood to outline the evil grin from the grille. And Mazda advances the idea of a grille far beyond the simple metal grates of yesteryear, coming up with a modern interpretation composed of black, curved fins--a mouth more appropriate to a mythological beast than a car.
But getting down to business, your typical hot hatchback gets its steam from a small displacement turbocharged engine. For Mazda, that meant a turbocharged direct-injection 2.3-liter four cylinder. If that power plant sounds familiar, it is because Mazda used it on the previous Mazdaspeed3. If it sounds pretty modern, that is because most automakers wish they had such an advanced power train. When it came out in the previous generation Mazdaspeed3, it was practically space-age technology.
For those who appreciate numbers, the Mazdaspeed3's engine makes 263 horsepower and, wait for it, 280 pound-feet of torque. Let me repeat, 280 pound-feet of pure twist to the front wheels. Most V-6s would be proud to produce that kind of torque.
There are two ways to get the 2010 Mazdaspeed3 moving. The first is to drive it like any normal car, putting the six-speed manual in first and gently balancing clutch let-up with throttle; this is the method high school driving instructors teach. This leads to a mundane push forward as the tachometer needle maybe hits 2,500rpm. The car gets rolling at a moderate pace and then you shift to second.
The other way, and the method most people interested in the Mazdaspeed3 will use, involves putting the car in first, giving it throttle until the tachometer is well past 3,000, then dropping the clutch. This method results in pure madness, as those 280 pound-feet of torque do their best to pull the front rubber loose from asphalt, a generally successful endeavor. The real insanity comes as the front end dives in torque-steer-induced pull to the right. The driver will naturally pull the wheel to the left, resulting in a titanic struggle to keep the car in line. It is neither pretty nor precise, but it sure is fun.
That six-speed manual isn't the quick, precise shifter of the Civic Si, nor that of the manual version of the new VW GTI. Strangely, the Mazdaspeed3's transmission and handling feels very European, with a certain amount of controlled play, whereas the new GTI leans toward Japanese precision.
Where the Mazdaspeed3 excels, and the peg on which its fans can hang their online arguments, is its handling. We said of the previous generation Mazdaspeed3 (before we had tested the dear, departed Chevy Cobalt SS) that it was the best handling front-wheel-drive car we had driven. A standard limited-slip differential in front lends to the handling.
We flogged this car through turn after turn on mountain roads. It laughed off the long sweepers, its front wheels doing a yeoman's job of pulling the car through. But on the hairpins and sharp, low-speed turns it showed incredible delight. It rotated as if an axle were driven vertically from roof to floorboards through the middle of the car, the front end eagerly asking for more turn-in.