After the second or third hard right-hander, there was a noticeable lack of conversation in the car. Brad, my intrepid photog friend, grew quiet as I caned the Mazdaspeed3 through corner after corner, increasing the pace each time, braking later and laying into the throttle sooner. With the LSD working overtime, the handling bar continued to move until finally the howl coming from the front tires evolved into understeer. A quick lift off the throttle tucked the nose in without drama and then the quest to find the limits began anew.
I turned to ask my camera-clutching companion if all was right on that side of the car. He nodded in the affirmative and the fun continued. Mile after mile of twists and undulations were dispatched without complaint. When we finally pulled off to take stock, both of us were convinced that Mazda's 'Speed team is one of the best in-house tuners in the biz. Not particularly because of the MS3's prodigious power, but because its creators took the already competent 3 and created a cohesive package that ticks off all the right boxes for the enthusiast on a budget.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
Granted, we're a little late to the game. We've seen enough Mazdaspeed3s on the road to know that the combination of price and performance has landed it on the shortlists of people looking for a competent corner carver with a healthy dose of practicality. But we weren't content to assume that the MS3 was just another valid option for speed merchants with $25k burning a hole in their pocket. We had to see for ourselves, so when our Sunlight Silver Metallic tester found its way to the Autoblog Garage, we almost forgot to lock the door before we made our way to the nearest desolate road.
One of the more appealing aspects of the MS3 is its understated exterior. Only those in the know, or people able to scope out the Mazdaspeed3 badge on the hatch, will be able to tell that this is more than the standard five-door model. Mazda is intent, however, on making its 'Speed models standout from its lesser siblings, albeit in some very subtle ways. The hood is a bit taller, with a steeper rake angling towards the headlamps that accommodates extra cooling ducts for the intercooler and turbo, the front fenders are a bit wider and the front fascia gets a deeper air dam with restyled fog lamps. Making your way out back, passing the ten-spoke 18x7-inch wheels, you'll find a beefier rear spoiler perched above the rear window and a mildly restyled bumper with a larger exhaust tip.
On the inside, Mazdaspeed-emblazoned doorsills tie in nicely with the matching brushed-aluminum pedals, while the chunky steering wheel found on the standard Mazda3 is left intact (with some added red stitching) and fitted with redundant audio system controls. Our tester came in Grand Touring trim, which includes rain-sensing wipers, a Bose premium auto system with a six-disc, in-dash CD changer, LED taillights and Xenon headlights that allow you to adjust the angle of their projection with a dash-mounted scroll-wheel. The fit and finish inside is standard economy car fare; not quite as good as the Honda Civic, but considerably better than the Lancer we tested last year. The heavily bolstered seats specific to the MS3 are perfect in both their dimensions and execution, particularly the optional leather fitted to the sides proving that Mazda's engineers know that slipping and sliding is mutually exclusive to corner-carving fun.
While interior and exterior appointments deserve note, it's the DISI 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-four, revised suspension and chassis tweaks that inspired our call to Mazda PR. The MS3's engine seems to get the majority of the press, but it's little more than a slightly revised version of the same mill fitted to the CX-7 CUV and Mazdaspeed6. That means 263 hp and 280 lb.-ft. of torque routed to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission equipped with a mechanical limited slip differential. We'll get to how that works on the road in a minute, but the chassis improvements were what impressed the most.
It's hard to see under the acres of plastic fitted inside the engine bay, but if you were to strip it all away you'd find that the front strut towers were beefed up and tied into the firewall to boost torsional rigidity, while reinforced lateral links underneath reduce roll and increase steering feel. The combination of new dampers and springs drop the hatch by 10mm, which is relatively insignificant from an appearance standpoint, but when matched with the larger front and rear anti-roll bars and 18-inch rollers, the changes in handling are a revelation compared to the base model.
There's a bit of consternation around the Autoblog offices about how well the Mazdaspeed3 handles the daily rigors of getting from one place to another. A particularly lively debate ensued in the halls of an LA hotel that pitted Führer Neff and yours truly against each other, with the former complaining about his back, while the latter insisted that it was entirely livable with no Chiro work required. Then again, I'm the idiot that drives Project MR2 around on a 6/8 kg spring setup, so my opinion could be somewhat askew. Regardless, jounce and rebound might be a bit much when navigating pothole-strewn roads, but it's firm in all the right ways and when things turn twisty, the MS3 is an absolute masterpiece.
During our time with the 3, we made regular pilgrimages to our favorite roads, and in one case spent time jockeying with a mildly-tuned WRX. The Mazda hung with the Subie in all but the trickiest of bends, easily keeping up on the straights and doing more than holding its own under braking thanks to the upgraded single-piston calipers, 12.6-inch front rotors and Potenza RE050 tires. Fade was non-existent up until a particularly demanding stretch of road where short bursts of acceleration were followed by repeated threshold braking. After a quick cool-down drive that lasted all of a half-mile, everything was back up to snuff and the punishing continued.
Now, onto the hotly contested issue of torque-steer. Mazda's team of engineers did an admirable job of employing some techno tweaks to limit power in first and second gears. Since output is based on the amount of steering dialed in, we made three separate launches on a less than perfect road with the steering wheel pointed dead ahead. With the traction control enabled, the power restrictions set by the ECU were noticeable, but it allowed the Mazda to dart off the line with a minimum of wheel spin and a few twitches in the wheel. With the electronic nannies defeated, it was a smoky mess, providing plenty of forearm exercise. While traveling around bends, laying into the throttle in second and third did little to upset the MS3's composure, but if the tire is in close proximity to anything resembling a rut in the road, it's advised that both hands are on the wheel.
With that out of the way, we can't speak highly enough of the engine. Even with the performance limitations employed to prevent simultaneous tire destruction and unintended hedge trimming, the direct-injected 2.3-liter turbo is an absolute hoot. Power comes on strong down low, with a bit of lag before 2,500 rpm, and then races to the 6,500 rpm redline. The only complaint is that the last 500 rpm are completely devoid of forward momentum, so shifts between 5,500 and 6,000 rpm became the norm. From the feel of it, we're assuming it's the engine outrunning the turbo, something that could be rectified by those brave enough to begin making changes underhood.
Any modifications to the Mazdaspeed3, however, could easily corrupt a vehicle that strikes a perfect balance between lively and livable. In the end, the MS3 is considerabley more than the sum of its impressive parts. It handles the daily rigors without complaint and offers up the type of performance that can only be had with extensive tuning and considerable cash.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.