2010 MazdaSpeed3 Sport Review

By Chris Haak

In almost every car that we review here at Autosavant, a common theme is often that the car would be even better with more power. A Dodge Challenger R/T with a 5.7 liter Hemi is good. A Dodge Challenger SRT8 with a 6.1 liter Hemi is very good. So it stands to reason that a Mazda3s Grand Touring – a very good car that is, in my opinion, the best car in its class – would be lights-out awesome if it had more power. Say about 100 more horsepower. And let’s throw in larger brakes, larger tires, better steering, and firmer suspension while we’re at it. So is a Mazda3 with all of those enhancements (including the enhancement of adding a “Speed” to its name) a better car?

In some ways, yes, but in other ways, it’s a little too rough around the edges. Maybe I’m just getting old as I am about to enter the second half of my fourth decade, but I actually preferred the regular Mazda3s with its 2.5 liter four cylinder to the MazdaSpeed3.

Mazda throws in a lot of go-fast equipment standard with the Speed3 for the price. My test vehicle was only about $1,000 more expensive than the Mazda3s, and really the only features the 3s had that the Speed3 did not were leather seats, xenon HID headlamps, and a power moonroof. But the Speed3 adds a 2.3 liter turbocharged and intercooled direct injection four cylinder, larger brakes, limited slip differential, 18 inch alloy wheels, sport exhaust, and numerous other upgrades. Full leather seating is not available with the Speed3 – only sport cloth with a somewhat-obnoxious red and black pattern (even if your car is blue – fortunately, mine was red), and neither are the aforementioned moonroof, xenon HID headlamps. Those items add weight and cost, and Mazda has chosen to put the savings toward performance parts.

This is not to say that the Speed3 was necessarily wanting for features. It comes standard with cruise control, power windows and locks, leather wrapped wheel and shift knob, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and dual-zone climate control. It’s just that without the extra features available in the 3s, the Speed3 won’t be confused for a near-near-luxury car. (Yes, I wrote ‘near’ twice there on purpose). My tester was equipped with just one option, but it was a biggie: the MazdaSpeed Tech Package. It includes a 242 watt Bose 10-speaker audio system with Sirius Satellite Radio, color compact navigation system, alarm, and advanced keyless system with pushbutton start.

I found the driver’s seat to be comfortable and well-bolstered. Though the seats’ inserts are cloth, there is leather (or a leather-like substance) on the outer edge of the cushion. Presumably, the cloth is used to aid the driver in staying in his or her seat during cornering. I didn’t really mind it. Back seat space was at a premium, though we did manage to install two Britax Marathon convertible car sears to haul my sons around. The boys loved the sporty red car “because it’s fast” (in their words), which surprised me because they generally dislike cars smaller than my wife’s minivan. Cargo room behind the back seat was, of course, superior to a sedan’s. It’s also dramatically expandable with the simple action of folding the back seat flat to the floor.

All of the go-fast parts make energetic driving far more enjoyable, but there are tradeoffs the rest of the time. The exhaust drones at highway speeds (sixth gear in the close ratio manual transaxle still allows the engine to churn over 3,000 RPMs at 70-75 miles per hour). The firm suspension that loves curvy back roads and racetracks can feel a bit brutal, particularly for rear-seat passengers, and particularly on less-than-smooth roads. I was also surprised by the clutch’s action; it requires more effort than many cars, and its engagement point surprised me the first few times I used it by coming up so suddenly. Part of the issue may be that the last manual-transaxle car that I drove, about a month before, was the Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT, and the Acura’s clutch was almost too light and too difficult to find its engagement point. The Speed3’s clutch beats you over the head with its engagement point.

Shift action was not quite Honda-precise, but felt better and more direct than did the regular Mazda3’s a few months earlier. I am not aware of any differences in the linkage between the two models, so it again may be an issue of perception. When I reviewed the 3s, it was immediately after spending a week in an MX-5 Miata, which has, hands-down, the best shift feel I’ve ever experienced. That aforementioned TL was quite good in that regard as well, though. Mazda employs electric power steering in the MazdaSpeed3, but tunes it differently in the Speed relative to the regular Mazda3 for better feel. My verdict is that their tuning enhancements work quite well.

I had already taken a 2010 MazdaSpeed3 for a 20-minute drive at a media event last year, so thought I was at least somewhat acclimated with the car. Plus, I had already reviewed the non-Speed Mazda3. But I was caught off guard by turbo lag literally in the first 500 feet of driving the car. I backed it out of my driveway and headed to the end of my street. I looked to my left to pull out (turning right) and saw a truck lumbering up the hill. Knowing that if I ended up behind the truck, I’d be there for the next eight miles, I wanted to get in front of it. I did an “almost” stop at the stop sign, put the car in second gear, and nailed the gas. Almost nothing. The truck was still approaching, so I threw the car into first, nailed the gas, spun the tires, and was on my way.

Many modern turbos have far less turbo lag than did their ancestors 20 or 30 years ago, and many folks have said that the combination of direct injection with a turbo could be the silver bullet that finally slays the turbo lag demon. Not so in this case. Now, as long as you keep the engine above 3,000 RPMs, it’s more than happy, and turbo lag is almost nonexistent. In fact, with 263 horsepower at 5,500 RPMs and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 RPMs, the engine is strong enough – once it has boost – to continue accelerating fairly briskly in either fifth or sixth gear. I eventually came to an understanding of how to drive for efficiency when I wanted to (which kept the boost way down) or for performance (which keeps the boost dialed up but guzzles premium unleaded) and rarely again found myself caught flat-footed with no power on tap when I needed it.

That first morning as I drove into the office, I also encountered the MazdaSpeed3’s other major vice. The car has a reputation for torque steer, which is of course a common occurrence in front wheel drive cars that are channeling a lot of power and torque into just those two wheels. The Speed3’s 62/38 front/rear weight distribution just means that those poor front tires are being asked to do an awful lot. I’m not one to worry about what others criticize a car about, and I always figured that holding onto the wheel firmly would be enough to keep the car pointing in a straight line.

Well, that morning, I found myself passing another car on a two-lane road (in a legal passing zone, I might add). The road was dry and it was between 30 and 35 degrees F outside. As I dropped the car into third gear to overtake the car in front of me and stomped on the accelerator, for the first time, I felt like I was really fighting for the control of the car. By the time I had upshifted to fourth, I was around the car, and ready to get into my lane again.

Part of the issue in that situation was that the car was equipped with Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires. I would have killed to have those tires on any of the vehicles I’d driven in the excessively snowy winter I’ve been “enjoying,” unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to drive through any snow in the Speed3 with the Blizzaks. This means that dry handling and braking were somewhat compromised by that tires designed for winter weather. I tried no extreme handling maneuvers during my time with the car, but did not notice any steering feel or handling issues related to the car wearing snow tires. Full-force braking distances felt somewhat longer than expected, and that is likely due almost entirely to the tires. Still, I’d much rather the car I’m driving wear winter tires on dry roads than summer tires (which come standard with the Speed3) on snowy or icy roads.

The EPA rates the MazdaSpeed3 at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 miles per gallon on the highway. Using most of its 263 horsepower and having fun with the car makes it guzzle premium like a much larger car, but driving with some tranquility from time to time actually enabled me to top the highway number by two miles per gallon over 30 miles. In a week with the car and over 300 miles of driving, the trip computer reported an average of 21 miles per gallon, which is right where the EPA pegs the combined number. Frankly, it’s not a great number, but it’s also a lot better than the EPA city number that my testing usually results in. Stepping down to the Mazda3s with a six-speed manual and 2.5 liter four cylinder, the EPA predicts 21 city/29 highway/25 combined, so you’re giving up four miles per gallon for the extra 96 horsepower.

The MazdaSpeed3 starts at $23,945 including destination. The only options available, aside from the $1,895 Tech Package, are minor ones such as an auto-dimming rearview mirror and alloy wheel locks. The bottom line on my tester was $25,840, which seems like a pretty fair price for a car with so much performance. If you are considering buying a MazdaSpeed3, be prepared to accept some usability trade-offs. But also be prepared to find yourself grinning from ear to ear when the turbo spools up to 15 pounds of boost and the little car just takes off, front tires clawing at the ground in a fruitless battle for traction.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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