If Chevrolet's small-block V-8 had been introduced one year earlier than it actually was, it would have been stuck in the 1954 Chevrolet. Sure that would have meant that the '54 Chevy was faster, but it merely would have been a faster block of metal. But instead the small-block appeared alongside the also all-new, all-stylish, elegantly lithe and nimble 1955 Chevrolet and history was made -- this was a great car in which a great engine like the small block could develop into a legend.
Mazda's Direct Injection Spark Ignition (DISI) Turbo engine had the distinct disadvantage of showing up last year initially in the Mazdaspeed6 mid-size sedan and CX-7 crossover SUV-like thing. Both of those sophisticated machines have their advantages and attractions, but they're relatively large, relatively heavy and, except for a few front-drive CX-7s, usually burdened by all-wheel drive systems with their inherent parasitic drag. The 2.3-liter DISI four-cylinder engine makes enough power to keep those machines interesting, but not enough to turn them into legends.
The Mazdaspeed3, on the other hand, weighs in at 3153 pounds, 436 pounds lighter than the MazdaSpeed6 and 776 pounds lighter than the all-wheel-drive CX-7, and the power take-off on its six-speed transaxle's case has been blocked off. The result is that the merely adequate DISI engine in the Mazdaspeed6 and CX-7 is allowed to romp heroically in this car.
The Mazda3 is already a well-established hit for Mazda; the only thing that keeps the company from selling even more of these subcompacts in America is that worldwide demand is so intense that there's not enough production capacity to supply more. And it's a success that's deserved since the Mazda3 works so well in every form in which it's sold; it handles great, is logically laid out and attractive in both general shape and design detail. The genius of the Mazdaspeed3 is that it amplifies everything that's already good about the Mazda3 so effectively.
Of course that amplification starts in the engine bay where the DISI takes up residence. Mechanically the four-cylinder, 2.3-liter DISI in the Mazdaspeed3 is identical to the DISI in the Mazdaspeed6; the same DOHC aluminum cylinder head, same direct injection fuel system, same aluminum block, same pistons, same forged steel crank, forged steel connecting rods, same counter-rotating balance shafts, the same 87.5-millimeter cylinder bores and 94.0-millimeter crank stroke and the same turbocharger heaving through the same intercooler and plumbing. The only difference, says Mazda, is a slight change in software programming for quicker throttle response. Some differences in exhaust routing and such mean the DISI is rated at 263 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 280 pound-feet of peak torque at a measly 3000 rpm while it makes 11 more horsepower in the Mazdaspeed6 (the torque rating is identical).
The super-small "three-shaft" six-speed manual transaxle to which the Mazdaspeed3's DISI is lashed is also the same one used in the Mazdaspeed6 and in turn it feeds a conical limited slip differential. And hitched to that diff are hardened steel equal-length driveshafts. To further stifle any possible torque steer, the powertrain control module has the turbocharger wastegate bleeding off excess boost during possible torque spikes in first and second gear and allowing maximum boost only in third gear and beyond and restraining torque output when sensors indicate that the front wheels are angling into a turn. And finally the drive-by-wire throttle operates according to algorithms intended to minimize torque spikes no matter how cluelessly the driver whacks, slams, thrashes, or drops anvils on the accelerator pedal.
With its thick torque spread (remember that chunky peak number occurs way down at 3000 rpm) the contrast between the DISI engine in the Mazdaspeed3 and the 197-horsepower i-VTEC 2.0-liter four in Honda's directly competitive (in at least price and attitude) Civic Si couldn't be starker. The Honda engine feels like it was engineered in a meth lab; it needs to spin like a Tasmanian devil in order to generate significant thrust.
The DISI engine, on the other hand, whomps off the line with the slightest dip into the throttle but doesn't perform like a V-8; this is something new, a creamy, seamlessly torque-laden four with an eager-to-please personality. It still has that four-cylinder eagerness that a V-8 can't quite duplicate and slightly shrill exhaust note that's almost brat-like in its impropriety. The Mazdaspeed3 the friendliest thoroughbred in the corral and the quickest - Mazda claims a zero-to-60 time of under six seconds with an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. It feels even quicker.
The basic structure and substance of the Mazda3 five-door hatchback carries over to the Mazdaspeed3 intact. There's still a simple set of MacPherson struts holding the front off the ground and a slightly more advanced multi-link suspension system keeps the rear bumper from dragging on the pavement. Of course, however, there have been modifications.
As is well known, the Mazda3's basic structure is Ford's global C1 small-car platform upon which the Volvo S40 and European Ford Focus are constructed. However for this most powerful C1 the body rigidity had to be augmented and Mazda did that by reinforcing the cowl area, center floor tunnel, and rear shock towers with additional steel. They also added a front strut tower bar to decrease deflection there. This is a very solid small car despite its five big door openings.
It's also a slightly lower car thanks to a suspension that drops ride height about a third of an inch compared to the standard Mazda3. The shocks and springs are stiffer but hardly brutal and seem well matched to the 215/45ZR18 summer-spec performance tires.
The Mazdaspeed3's steering is excellent, but still not quite as communicative or precise as that of the Civic Si's and its initial turn-in to corners isn't quite as crisp. And while the six-speed transmission's shifter action is better than good, it's nowhere near the almost-perfect shifter in that Honda. On the Mazda Raceway track at California's Laguna Seca the Mazdaspeed3's initial understeer was apparent diving into the tighter corners, but the engine was so brilliant and traction system so elegant that it pulls through a corner after the apex effortlessly. Under braking the nose squats down rather than dives; once again only the Honda Civic Si is as good when it comes to front drivers. And the Mazdaspeed3's ABS-controlled brakes are simply superb - 12.6-inch diameter ventilated discs in front and 11.0-inch solid discs in the back.
If there's any reaction the Mazdaspeed3's performance ought to inspire, it's sending Honda engineers back to their CAD systems to conjure up a turbo system for the Civic Si.
Most of the unique elements of the Mazdaspeed3's interior and exterior are readily apparent and rather conventional. What may escape notice are the slightly flared front fenders and the bump in the hood to clear the top-mounted intercooler (air is fed to the intercooler through ducting in the hood). The deep front air dam, revised bumper covers, rear spoiler are all more apparent.
Inside there are aluminum covers for the pedals, red accent stitching on the steering wheel and upholstery and the seats have been specially designed for support during hero work. The Mazda3's compliment of front, seat-mounted side, and roof-mounted curtain airbags all carry on to the Mazdaspeed version.
This is not, however, a car to buy because of steering wheel stitching or special LED taillights. This car's attraction is performance, not the image of performance. They could ship it over here available only in taupe paint and genuine rust and it would still be one of the most exhilarating cars Mazda has ever sold in the United States . In the history of sport compacts, this car is an immediate icon.
With a price starting at $22,835 the raging Mazdaspeed3 is also a raging bargain. While it's bound to be compared with other powerful front drivers like the upcoming Dodge Caliber SRT4, it also compares favorably with such all-wheel-drive near-legends as the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Yes, it really is that good.
Engine: 2.3-liter in-line turbocharged four, 263 hp/280 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 176.8 x 69.5 x 57.7 in
Wheelbase: 103.9 in
Curb weight: 3153 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors; cruise control; CD player
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles