2010 Mazdaspeed3 - Click above for high-res image gallery

Last summer, our man Damon Lavrinc drove the then-brand-new 2010 Mazdaspeed3 around California's legendary Laguna Seca Raceway and then Caramel Valley's world-class back roads. And he loved it. I mention this because we're sure that under similar, near-ideal conditions, I would have been nearly as smitten. But reality has a funny way of tossing monkey wrenches at even the most lovely picnics. To wit: I had the Speed3 in Los Angeles during the recent torrential downpour/tornado warnings, then drove to Phoenix through a monsoon the same day/night that Russo and Steele got their tents blown across a freeway. Ideal? Hardly. Informative? Keep reading and decide for yourself.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

We'll start with looks, because the new Mazda3 might be the single most polarizing mass-market vehicle design since the Bangled 2002 BMW 7 Series. After spending seven days with the car, my take is that the Speed3 is so deformed it's kinda cute. How can you not love that homely side view? It's mutated, it's bizarre, it's got muscular fenders leading to soft organic lines that finish in hardboiled creases all capped off by a handsome, purposeful wing. Then there are the taillights that actually extend a few inches off the body. The world hasn't seen lines like that since the fins of the 1950s. And of course, there's the mouth – and it's not nearly as smiley as the standard Mazda3. In Mazdaspeed guise, the grin is filled with scalloped gray teeth. Even if you hate what you're seeing up front, you must admit that the forged wheels are trés sexy. Summarizing, the Speed3 is so... unique that I can't help but like how it looks, especially painted Celestial Blue. Also, like the last generation Speed3, Mazda only sells it as a five-door, which is snappier looking than the sedan.

The inside's not nearly as charming. First of all, as our photographer noted, "What's up with those seats?" What's up, indeed. They look like a psychedelic black and red test pattern, and they're done no favors by the gray leather bolsters. Luckily, you spend most of your time sitting on said seats, so outta sight, outta mind. Almost. This questionable pattern is repeated on plastic dash pieces with the front passenger bearing the brunt of it. Still, the seats offer plenty of sporty comfort and reassuring bolster, both of which are quite essential when you begin sawing the wheel.

Speaking of the steering wheel, it contains 18 buttons. While I generally prefer my wheels totally button-free, I'm man enough to admit that a mute or volume button doesn't spoil the broth too much. But 18? In the parlance of our electronic times, FAIL, as you wind up whacking them during (*ahem*) spirited driving. Also, because of all the buttons, the steering wheel is awkward to hold and the thumb rests are too small. While I'm griping about the interior, the blue-on-orange gauges ought to be a hit with University of Illinois fans, but the rest of us find them difficult to read and much too bright. Sadly, if there's a dimmer, I couldn't find it – as far as I could tell, it's either full blast or diminished to nighttime levels.

Okay, okay, okay – the Mazdaspeed3 is a performance car that exists only because Mazda saves money on stuff like the exterior and external design. Let's get down, dirty and start talking about driving. It's a poorly kept secret that vehicle-for-vehicle, Mazda offers better handling rides than any OEM save Porsche. Fine, maybe BMW. But the point is, Mazdas handle shockingly well. Of course, there's the MX-5 Miata, a sports car so good it has its own spec racing series, and if you can think of another sub-$25K car with a spec series, we'd love to hear about it. Then there's the sadly under-appreciated RX-8, specifically in R3 trim. Short of an open-wheeled car, I've never driven anything with such wonderful handling.

That includes the Speed3. The day Mazda dropped the Speed3 off was the beginning of the big rains here in Los Angeles. The freeways were flooded, Tujunga's mud was sliding and there was a tornado in Long Beach. Mazda made a business decision not to over-complicate (read: keep the price down) the Speed3 with goodies like all-wheel drive. But man-o-man would I have appreciated some Subaru WRX-like grip once the heavens opened up, or perhaps just some all-season tires.

Here's why. The Speed3 sends oodles of power to the front wheels alone: 263 horsepower and a very healthy 280 pound-feet or torque to be precise. Knowing full well that all that grunt would totally overwhelm the front tires, Mazda rigged a system that prohibits the motor's full fury in first, second and third gear depending on available traction and steering angle. Still, even with this nanny in place, the engine momentarily stumps up some frankly frightening torque-steer before the electronics cut in. So imagine flooring it, feeling the steering wheel about to wrestled from your hands, and then feeling the power drop. It's not exactly the best sensation on dry pavement, and it's straight-up nerve-racking in the wet and oily.

The Mazdaspeed3's skittishness was compounded times infinity on our drive out to Phoenix. Admittedly, the conditions were so severe that they would have tested any car's mettle. It was like driving through the angrier parts of the Bible. Around Needles, I hit (what seemed like) two-feet of standing water and watched in terror as semi truck after semi truck slid off the road, into the desert and then oblivion. Why oblivion? Because the rain was falling so hard that visibility was around 50 feet. Maybe less. As you might imagine, the summer tire-equipped Speed3 proved to be quite the handful. In the car's defense, all that fright kept me wide awake on the 350-mile journey.

But what about on dry land? Surely the Speed3 is a class-leading corner carver on sticky asphalt. Let me put it like this, if the Mazdaspeed3 existed in a bubble where its only competition was the Mini Cooper S and the Volkswagen GTI, the Speed3 would be the king of the winding road. But back to monkey wrench hurling reality, the Subaru WRX is a more capable, more enjoyable corner carver. The WRX is also nearly as potent (265 hp, 244 lb-ft of torque) and because the Subie's power is never interrupted, it's quicker in a straight line. There's also the not-quite-good-enough Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart that I'll grudgingly admit is a better, less darty back road companion than the Speed3.

The Speed3's trouble really does start and end with its number one selling point: that turbocharged 2.3-liter brute of an engine. The previous iteration of the Speed3 shipped with the same power stats. Once again, 263 hp and 280 torques. However, during a way off the record conversation with a Mazda engineer, it was explained that the old Speed3 made its power under "ideal" circumstances, whereas the new car's engine ratings are totally legit. So take that for what it's worth (i.e. not much). Still, if you find yourself looking at a long, lightly curving on ramp and gun it, when fourth gear allows the full dosage of bada bing! to be dumped in the breach, hold on tight – the Speed3 will try to rip the helm from your hands. As such, this little guy's got one of the most severe cases of torque steer I've ever experienced. For those wondering, the worst was a 2002 Nissan Maxima. *Shudder.*

Granted, all of the above foibles either have to do with the weather or what us auto journalist types jokingly refer to as "9/10ths." If you're not pounding the metaphorical snot out of the Mazdaspeed3 or driving through God's wrath, does it behave any better? Most assuredly yes. At a more comfortable, let's call it 7/10ths pace, the Speed3 is a very capable sporty little hatchback. But for $25,840 (the lone option on our tester was the $1,895 tech package) the enthusiasts among you would be happier and better served with a similarly priced Subaru WRX. Look at the bright side, the WRX is one of the very few cars that might actually be weirder looking than the Mazdaspeed3.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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