Thumbs Up: As fast as you can go for less than $24k
Thumbs Down: Significant torque steer, interior isn’t for everyone
Buy This Car If: You want a practical, fun to drive hatch that won’t break the bank
If you asked me to name my favorite cars of all time, the 1989 to 1994 Mazda 323 GTX would be in the top ten. Designed primarily as a Group A rally car, Mazda sold just enough of these hot hatches worldwide to go racing. The car featured a turbocharged, inline-four motor that put out 132 horsepower in stock form, but was capable of much more without revising engine internals. Power went to all four wheels, ensuring that traction was maintained on all surfaces and in all weather conditions. Sadly, unmolested examples, especially those without the fault-prone digital dash, are hard to come by.
The Mazdaspeed 3 represents the evolution of the Mazda 323 GTX. They both feature a hatchback design (although the 323 GTX had 2 doors to the Mazdaspeed 3’s four) and both use turbocharged, inline-four motors. Handling on either example is beyond reproach, especially within their price point and time frame. So what’s the real difference between the two? The 323 GTX had AWD and the Mazdaspeed 3 doesn’t, and that difference is significant.
Instead of focusing on what the Mazdaspeed 3 doesn’t have, I’d rather tell you what it does bring to the table. First, there’s the 263 horsepower, 2.3 liter turbocharged motor. How good is it? It’s epically good, and the updated Mazdaspeed 3 now pulls hard in every gear to damn near the motor’s 6,750 rpm redline. As is typical with Mazda, the motor is significantly stronger than it needs to be, featuring a forged steel crankshaft and connecting rods. Power feeds through a limited slip differential, and sixty miles per hour from a standing start comes up in less than six seconds. Mazda’s PCM (Powertrain Control Module) does what it can to limit the effect of torque steer, but you can’t avoid it entirely when the same wheels steer the car and try to put down over 230 horsepower. As long as you’re not hard on the gas, at maximum boost in first or second gear with the wheel turned, it’s not a big problem. If you are trying to turn and stand on the gas in a low gear, just make sure you’re paying attention.
You can get any transmission you’d like, as long as it’s a six speed manual. Shift throws are short and precise, but not as short or exact as in Mazda’s MX-5. The wide gear spacing allows for both brisk acceleration and reasonable fuel economy. After a week of spirited city and highway driving, I’d managed to achieve a fuel economy of 21.5 mpg; impressive, considering my generous use of the fun pedal. Mazda claims 25 mpg highway, and I’d bet that you can do even better if you’re more conservative with your right foot than I am.
The interior is another place the Mazdaspeed 3 really shines. My tester came equipped with Mazda’s Tech Package, which included a 242 Watt Bose Centerpoint sound system, a six disc CD changer, Sirius satellite radio, a perimeter alarm, push button start and one of the best factory nav systems I’ve ever seen. I’m usually not a fan of integrated nav systems, since their operation isn’t very intuitive and systems usually blend the stereo with the nav. Try to call up the map and you wind up changing the radio to your wife’s country station – never a good thing. Mazda keeps their stereo controls separate from their nav controls, simplifying the operation of both. Their small but clear nav screen lies at the top of the dash, just below the windshield. Unlike most nav systems, which require you to focus on the middle of the center stack, Mazda’s system allows you to keep your eyes on the road. When not functioning as a nav screen, the display show the trip computer, vehicle data or music information.
Seats in the Mazdaspeed 3 are comfortable and supportive. They’d work equally well for the occasional track day or the annual summer road trip. Mazda uses an interesting blend of fabric and leather, but my preference would be for all fabric. The leather doesn’t add any comfort and probably won’t wear better than fabric, but it does require extra care. The driver’s seat is height adjustable and the center console features a sliding armrest. Even passengers have decent leg room and aren’t cramped by the firewall.
The rest of the interior is up to Mazda’s usual standards. There’s ample storage space, including door pockets, a center console, a sunglass holder in the headliner and a large glove box. Instruments are clear and easily read, and feature Mazda’s orange illumination. A digital boost gauge splits the speedometer and tachometer, but I’d have liked a coolant temperature or oil temperature gauge as well. The steering wheel has controls for the cruise control, stereo and nav systems, and is adjustable for both height and reach. The Mazdaspeed 3 features integration with Bluetooth phones and an automatic climate control system, features not always found at this price point. If I could fault anything in the interior, it’s Mazda’s tribute-to-M.C.-Escher fabric and trim panels. I know you’re keeping cost down by simplifying the interior options, but plain black would be an attractive alternative, even if you charged customers a little more money for it.
As you’d expect from a five door hatchback, there’s ample cargo room. The rear seat is a 60/40 split for maximum versatility, and Mazda includes a removable package shelf to keep stuff like camera gear and laptops out of sight. If you’re a dog owner, I’d say any breed up to the size of a St. Bernard would be able to get comfortable in the back, as long as the seats are folded down.
Mazda made some key styling changes to the Mazdaspeed 3 exterior for the 2010 model year, in order to further distinguish it from the regular Mazda 3. Front styling is polarizing; I got as many thumbs up as I did thumbs down from car fans, who either loved the “smiley face” grille or hated it. I’m not a fan myself, and the offsetting grille color only magnifies the effect. The black car with the black grille looks fine, but every other color combination just looks cartoonish when viewed from the front. The rest of the car’s styling won universal praise, and the Mazdaspeed 3 manages to look both fast and refined at the same time.
Aside from the front styling and funky interior, it’s FWD drivetrain layout is the other limiting factor to the Mazdaspeed 3’s appeal. As much as I may not like the interior cloth or the stoned-guppy grille, I would have one in my garage if Mazda built it in AWD. I understand their reasons for not doing so (cost, availability of a suitable AWD drivetrain), but that doesn’t mean I have to like them. As equipped, my tester had an MSRP of $25,880, and there really aren’t too many competitors that offer comparable performance and content at this price point.
If I were shopping for an everyday car I could still flog on a track at the occasional High Performance Driving Event, I’d seriously consider the Mazdaspeed 3. It’s fast, but relatively forgiving and undoubtedly practical. I’m not in the market for another car with those qualifications right now, but if Mazda does decide to build an AWD version, I’ll be right in to my local dealer to drop off a deposit.