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If Chevrolet’s small-block V-8 had been introduced one year earlier than it actually was, it would have been stuck in the staid, bulbous and wallowing 1954 Chevrolet. Sure that would have meant that the ’54 Chevy was faster, but it merely would have been a faster block of crap. But instead the small-block appeared alongside the also all-new, all-stylish, elegantly lithe and nimble 1955 Chevrolet and history was made – this was a great car in which a great engine like the small block could develop into a legend.
The Mazdaspeed3 does for Mazda’s DISI engine what the ’55 Chevy did for the small-block.
Mazda’s Direct Injection Spark Ignition (DISI) Turbo engine had the distinct disadvantage of showing up last year initially in the Mazdaspeed6 mid-size sedan and CX-7 crossover SUV-like thing. Both of those sophisticated machines have their advantages and attractions, but they’re relatively large, relatively heavy and, except for a few front-drive CX-7s, usually burdened by all-wheel drive systems with their inherent parasitic drag. The 2.3-liter DISI four-cylinder engine makes enough power to keep those machines interesting, but not enough to turn them into legends.
The Mazdaspeed3, on the other hand, weighs in at 3153 pounds, 436 pounds lighter than the MazdaSpeed6 and 776 pounds lighter than the all-wheel-drive CX-7, and the power take-off on its six-speed transaxle’s case has been blocked off. The result is that the merely adequate DISI engine in the Mazdaspeed6 and CX-7 is allowed to romp heroically in this car.
Of course that amplification starts in the engine bay where the DISI takes up residence. Mechanically the four-cylinder, 2.3-liter DISI in the Mazdaspeed3 is identical to the DISI in the Mazdaspeed6; the same DOHC aluminum cylinder head, same direct injection fuel system, same aluminum block, same pistons, same forged steel crank, forged steel connecting rods, same counter-rotating balance shafts, the same 87.5-millimeter cylinder bores and 94.0-millimeter crank stroke and the same turbocharger heaving through the same intercooler and plumbing. The only difference, says Mazda, is a slight change in software programming for quicker throttle response. Some differences in exhaust routing and such mean the DISI is rated at 263 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 280 pound-feet of peak torque at a measly 3000 rpm while it makes 11 more horsepower in the Mazdaspeed6 (the torque rating is identical).
With its thick torque spread (remember that chunky peak number occurs way down at 3000 rpm) the contrast between the DISI engine in the Mazdaspeed3 and the 197-horsepower i-VTEC 2.0-liter four in Honda’s directly competitive (in at least price and attitude) Civic Si couldn’t be starker. The Honda engine feels like it was engineered in a meth lab; it needs to spin like a Tasmanian devil in order to generate significant thrust.
The DISI engine, on the other hand, whomps off the line with the slightest dip into the throttle but doesn’t perform like a V-8; this is something new, a creamy, seamlessly torque-laden four with an eager-to-please personality. It still has that four-cylinder eagerness that a V-8 can’t quite duplicate and slightly shrill exhaust note that’s almost brat-like in its impropriety. The Mazdaspeed3 the friendliest thoroughbred in the corral and the quickest – Mazda claims a zero-to-60 time of under six seconds with an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. It feels even quicker.
The basic structure and substance of the Mazda3 five-door hatchback carries over to the Mazdaspeed3 intact. There’s still a simple set of MacPherson struts holding the front off the ground and a slightly more advanced multi-link suspension system keeps the rear bumper from dragging on the pavement. Of course, however, there have been modifications.
As is well known, the Mazda3’s basic structure is Ford’s global C1 small-car platform upon which the Volvo S40 and European Ford Focus are constructed. However for this most powerful C1 the body rigidity had to be augmented and Mazda did that by reinforcing the cowl area, center floor tunnel, and rear shock towers with additional steel. They also added a front strut tower bar to decrease deflection there. This is a very solid small car despite its five big door openings.
It’s also a slightly lower car thanks to a suspension that drops ride height about a third of an inch compared to the standard Mazda3. The shocks and springs are stiffer but hardly brutal and seem well matched to the 215/45ZR18 summer-spec performance tires.
The Mazdaspeed3’s steering is excellent, but still not quite as communicative or precise as that of the Civic Si’s and its initial turn-in to corners isn’t quite as crisp. And while the six-speed transmission’s shifter action is better than good, it’s nowhere near the almost-perfect shifter in that Honda. On the Mazda Raceway track at California’s Laguna Seca the Mazdaspeed3’s initial understeer was apparent diving into the tighter corners, but the engine was so brilliant and traction system so elegant that it pulls through a corner after the apex effortlessly. Under braking the nose squats down rather than dives; once again only the Honda Civic Si is as good when it comes to front drivers. And the Mazdaspeed3’s ABS-controlled brakes are simply superb – 12.6-inch diameter ventilated discs in front and 11.0-inch solid discs in the back.
If there’s any reaction the Mazdaspeed3’s performance ought to inspire, it’s sending Honda engineers back to their CAD systems to conjure up a turbo system for the Civic Si.
Inside there are aluminum covers for the pedals, red accent stitching on the steering wheel and upholstery and the seats have been specially designed for support during hero work. The Mazda3’s compliment of front, seat-mounted side, and roof-mounted curtain airbags all carry on to the Mazdaspeed version.
This is not, however, a car to buy
because of steering wheel stitching or special LED taillights. This car’s
attraction is performance, not the image of performance. They could ship it over
here available only in taupe paint and genuine rust and it would still be one of
the most exhilarating cars Mazda has ever sold in the
With a price starting at $22,835 the raging Mazdaspeed3 is also a raging bargain. While it’s bound to be compared with other powerful front drivers like the upcoming Dodge Caliber SRT4, it also compares favorably with such all-wheel-drive near-legends as the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Yes, it really is that good.
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 176.8 x 69.5 x 57.7 in
Wheelbase: 103.9 in
Curb weight: 3153 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors; cruise control; CD player
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles