Mazda MAZDASPEED3 – 2008 Review: Cheap thrills often produce moral conflict and can literally leave a bad taste in your mouth, but that’s not the case when it comes to the tasty, exciting, and inexpensive Mazdaspeed 3. This is not a “look at me” kind of car. Rather, it is a “look at me go” kind of car. The Mazdaspeed 3 is an absolute delight to drive hard and fast, provides room for four adults when it’s your turn to be the D.D. (designated driver), and converts into a cargo-toting grocery getter with a single-handed flip of the back seats. Thrilling yet practical, the Mazdaspeed 3 is the best kind of cheap date – and you won’t want to kick it out of bed for quaffing an extra quart of oil.
Photo Credit: Mazda and Staff
What we drove
Mazda loaned us a Sunlight Silver Mazdaspeed 3 Grand Touring wearing a window sticker of $26,440 including a $635 destination charge and a $1,750 navigation system. That may sound expensive, but you can get your jollies by spending as little as $22,975 on the standard Sport model. Every Mazdaspeed 3 comes with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a six-speed manual transmission, 18-inch wheels, automatic climate control, and bolstered sport seats covered in sturdy fabric and black leather. What makes the $24,690 Grand Touring version special is adjustable Xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, a 222-watt Bose audio system, and a theft deterrent system. Buying the Grand Touring also provides access to an optional navigation system.
Equipped with the same turbocharged, 2.3-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine as the larger and heavier Mazdaspeed 6, the Mazdaspeed 3 is detuned by seven horsepower to 263 and puts power to the pavement through the front wheels instead of all four. Despite these seeming buzz-killers, the MS3 surges forward, tires breaking loose on pavement zits, steering wheel tugging from torque steer, and rocketing to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds according to Mazda. Though it launches decently, we had more fun dropping a coupla gears and whooshing past traffic on a tide of torque than tromping on the throttle from a standstill and smoking the front rubber. As an added bonus, our car averaged 22.5 mpg despite the abuse it suffered all week. The shifter is just OK: the car is relatively easy to launch but the gearbox sometimes requires wrangling to get into fifth and sixth gear.
Drive the Mazdaspeed 3 on Malibu’s Latigo Canyon Road, and it’s easy to forgive any nits we have with the balky transmission or the suspension’s funky spring rates. On undulating pavement, the springs allow too much jounce in an effort to improve ride quality around town, and the car just ends up feeling a little too woozy from time to time. At speed, say when blasting across the bridge spanning the Los Angeles River between the 710 freeway and Long Beach’s Broadway exit at ass-puckering velocity, the Mazdaspeed 3’s tail gets nervous and disconnected just when you need it to be calm and composed. Otherwise, grip from the 215/45R18 Bridgestone Potenzas is extraordinary, the brakes are indefatigable, the steering is sharp, and the shocks are beautifully balanced for optimum contact with the road and a ride quality you can live with.
Forward visibility is excellent thanks to thin pillars and a good view over the hood and down the road. The Mazdaspeed 3’s side mirrors are large rectangular reflectors that really help erase blind spots. Rear seat head restraints impede on visibility through the back window and the rearmost roof pillars are rather thick, but there’s a rear window wiper to clear rain and snow for a better view. Our test car’s adjustable Xenon lights did an incredible job of illuminating the road, but the high beams were dimmer halogens.
Fun to Drive
Embarking upon Mazdaspeed 3 ownership with a clean driving record is a requirement for no other reason than you’ll get to enjoy the car for the maximum amount of time it takes to lose your license or amass enough insurance points to make driving it prohibitively expensive. This car is an absolute blast shredding canyons, scorching vacant interstate, slicing through traffic, and screaming away from stoplights. Every road trip, every commute, and every errand becomes a perfect excuse to plant your right foot and hang on for the ride of your life. If having a great time behind the wheel is a big priority in your life and you need the extra space a five-door hatchback delivers, you absolutely need to take the Mazdaspeed 3 for a test drive.
It took awhile to get the seat properly adjusted, but once we got situated the Mazdaspeed 3 was reasonably comfortable. Somehow, the seats manage to deliver support for long drives and hold the driver in during aggressive curves without feeling hard or restrictive. Nice trick, Mazda. Gripes include an upper door panel that’s hard plastic and uncomfortable, and an accelerator that’s too close for taller drivers resulting in fatigue during longer drives. The thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel is pleasing to hold, but not as stylish or meaty as what Volkswagen installs in a GTI.
It doesn’t look roomy, but the Mazdaspeed 3 can carry four adults in cross-town comfort. Family types with kids in rear-facing or regular child seats will have trouble with clearance space between the front seatbacks and the rear backrest, so wait to trade the minivan until Frick and Frack are a little older. For adults, leg room is snug with tall people in front but the back bench is supportive and foot space is decent. The rear center armrest contains two cupholders and the plastic surround is moved forward far enough that it doesn’t impede on comfort.
Our Mazdaspeed 3 Grand Touring model came with a 222-watt Bose stereo that successfully eliminated the booming exhaust; the rat-a-tat-tat rifle shots coming from every expansion joint, pock mark, and Bott’s dot on the freeway; and the irritating wind noise around the pillars at speeds over 75 mph. In case you hadn’t inferred it from this description of the driving experience, the Mazdaspeed 3 is a loud car when it’s underway.
Based on the Mazda 3 hatchback, the Mazdaspeed 3 benefits from a low liftover height and decent cargo space behind the back seats. The hatch lid sits a little low when it’s raised, so watch your head when bending down to load or retrieve items. To expand space, just flop the 60/40 split-folding rear seats down using the handy releases mounted to the outboard edges of the seatbacks. Once everything is in, or out, Mazda provides a close assist grip to make closing the hatch easier.
Overall, the Mazdaspeed 3 is a tightly assembled car, but we did find a few flaws during a thorough inspection. On the outside, the hood’s gap tolerances were inconsistent at the windshield pillars and we discovered very minor variances in fit between the front doors, the beltline trim, and the hatch. Inside, the seams where the center console matched up to the dashboard were sloppy, the ashtray cover was a bit tweaked, and the glove box door could have used a smidge more attention to detail with regard to fit.
When the Mazda 3 debuted for 2004, its interior became the gold standard for small car quality. Four years on, it’s still nice, but competitors have caught up – especially Honda’s Civic. The Mazdaspeed 3’s cabin is all business, and could use some silver trim in place of the dark charcoal accents on black plastic. The fuzzy, low-rent headliner should be swapped out for a woven mesh fabric, and the leather portions of the sport seats feel a little stiff and dried out. Hard plastic abounds, and at the very least the upper door panels should be softer to be kind to elbows. Love that handsome shifter, though.
I have a love-it and hate-it reaction to the Mazda 3 Hatchback. From some angles it’s all out of proportion but from others looks dashing and European. Hanging a bigger nose on the front, bolting on larger wheels, tacking on a roof spoiler, and stapling additional black plastic onto the rear bumper cover sets the Mazdaspeed 3 off as the go-fast variant, but doesn’t improve the car’s looks or balance. Inside, five different grains and patterns create a busy aesthetic but I really got a kick out of the orange and blue gauge lighting at night.
The Mazdaspeed 3 comes equipped with multiple storage areas. The glove box is positively huge and features an easy-to-reach latch. The center storage bin under the armrest is larger than it looks, deep but not wide and equipped with a two-tiered design that separates small items from larger ones. Unbelievably, the Mazdaspeed 3 is equipped with a total of eight beverage holders, four of which are molded into the door panels for use with water bottles. The seatback storage pocket is mounted to the driver’s seat rather than the passenger’s seat, making it damn hard to use for the driver, and the lower left storage slot needs a door to restrain items from becoming entangled in the wiring for the floor-mounted Bose subwoofer.
The Mazdaspeed 3’s navigation system is housed atop the dash, separated from the stereo and climate controls. Using the few buttons and “mouse” that are stashed down to the right of the gearshift is distracting but becomes easier to use over time. The stereo design is a bit strange. Power it up and blinking red lights scan across the dash sequentially. Stranger are the tuning and sound control knobs that reside on a different plane from the central power and volume knob, and a separate station display at the top of the dash over the air vents. Basically, the Mazdaspeed 3’s infotainment setup looks cool, but doesn’t function intuitively. Stick to the handy satellite buttons on the steering wheel and get a good map instead of the pricey navigation system.
As with the stereo display, climate control information is shown at the top of the dash above the air vents. Otherwise, the Mazdaspeed 3’s heating and air conditioning system is simple, comprised of two knobs with integrated function buttons. One nice bit of design detail is how Mazda arranged the airflow mode buttons as a circular pod in keeping with fan speed and temperature knobs which flank it, but this also begs the question: Why not make it a knob instead of buttons?
The Mazdaspeed 3 is idiot-proof. The only secondary function that might cause bewilderment is the spin dial that controls the height adjustable xenon headlights. Otherwise, all controls are located where expected and operate as anticipated. The driver’s window offers one-touch down operation but not up. Dog lovers should note that the Mazdaspeed 3’s rear glass goes all the way down for tongue-flappin’ good times. Speed junkies with too little sense should note that the dynamic stability control system can be shut off, but we really don’t recommend doing that. The DSC saved our butt on one set of off-camber S-curves.
Mazda is throwing the Mazdaspeed 3 up against any sport compact, but the truest competitors that share a five-door hatchback design include the Audi A3, the Chrysler PT Cruiser GT, the redesigned Subaru Impreza WRX and WRX STI, the Volkswagen GTI, Dodge Caliber SRT-4, and the Chevy HHR SS. Others with four entry portals but a trunk instead of a hatch include the Honda Civic Si, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, and the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. If you need a hatch but can live without the rear doors, Mini sells a terrific little Cooper S turbo, Scion will add a supercharger to your tC, and Volvo has a turbocharged version of its snazzy C30.
2ND OPINION - Blackett
Maybe if I spent every weekend at the track, the Mazdaspeed 3 would be more appealing. But since I don’t, it’s not. That being said, I’m in love with the tight steering, extremely stable and firm chassis, whiplashing brakes, and turbocharged engine that makes a transition from 60 to 100 mph with unbelievable ease. There’s simply no denying the Mazdaspeed 3’s capabilities, made all the more spectacular given our tester’s $26,000 sticker price.
But that brings up my first gripe, which involves the rumor that at least some Mazda dealers are inflating prices to about $30,000.
2ND OPINION - Buglewicz
For a long time I used to write exclusively about the “sport compact” phenomenon, and cars like this were the segment’s bread and butter. After several years, I really started to agree with those that said the whole idea of hopping up little four-banger cars was kind of stupid when you think about it. I mean, sure, the Mazdaspeed 3 is fast, looks great, has lots of power, is a hoot to drive, can blow the doors off cars costing thousands of dollars more, still gets decent gas mileage, and is so involving that even the torque steer just adds to the fun.