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Saturday, August 22, 2009

First Drive: 2010 Mazdaspeed3, the five-door sports car evolved

It's easy to dismiss Mazda's "Zoom-Zoom" tagline as insufferable marketing frippery. Unlike other automakers who relentlessly cling to past motorsport achievements or well-worn brand imagery, with Mazda, there's an overwhelming sense that its U.S. arm is made up of tried-and-true enthusiasts who put a premium on driver involvement and revel in their status as The Little Guy.

It's very grassroots. And it shows.

Each of Mazda's products – from the divine MX-5 to the oft-overlooked CX-7 – embodies everything we want in a vehicle, regardless of size, capacity or utility. They just deliver. Steering, handling, balance – it's all there. And like every other automaker, we know they occasionally leave something on the table, but it never comes at the expense of the car/driver connection. Here's even more evidence: the 2010 Mazdaspeed3.

Like the recently revised Mazda 3, we approached the 'Speed variant with a fair amount of trepidation. Its standard sibling is far and away our favorite compact, and the last Mazdaspeed version proved at least one Japanese automaker could still put out a proper hot hatch without trying to be all things to all people. It was niche, but embraced its status and didn't apologize for it.

When the team began development of the new Mazdaspeed3, there was talk of boosting output to over 300 horsepower and adding all-wheel drive. But as Mazda learned the hard way with the FD RX-7, going overboard with complexity and sending the price into the stratosphere takes its toll on mechanicals and consumers alike. Even so, Mazda looked above and beyond its direct competitors, benchmarking vehicles like the Mitsubishi Evolution IX for steering feel and handling prowess. As you'd expect, the result is evolutionary. But we suspect when current MS3 owners take a spin in the 2010 model, they'll be more than tempted to trade up – assuming they can get past the styling.

If you haven't warmed-up to the Mazda3's new sheetmetal, the 'Speed version won't help matters. Whereas the outgoing model primarily benefited from a more upright, aggressive fascia and a prominent wing (creating a perfect sport compact sleeper), the new version takes the eccentric lines of the revised 3, adds a blowhole hood scoop, larger wing and a set of 18-inch multi-spoke wheels similar to RX-8 R3's. If it's any consolation, the scoop is wholly functional, directing air towards the top-mount intercooler and – unlike the previous version – providing an uninterrupted flow to the intake.

Although the new ducting boosts efficiency, output is still rated at 263 hp at 5,500 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. However, Mazda engineers confided in us that the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-pot is actually putting out a bit more power. So why isn't it rated higher? Mazda's boffins couldn't elaborate (or give us internal figures), but it came down to the SAE's testing methods. Take that for what it's worth, but color us intrigued... if skeptical.

The redline remains at 6,750 rpm and, like the last model, the engine outruns the turbo at around 6,000 rpm. Forward momentum falls off, but it's not as precipitous as the last MS3, and the additional revs are welcome when you're flying towards a corner and don't want to shift up, only to be forced to immediately downshift before entering a turn. Thankfully, the six-speed manual transmission benefits from a new set of gear ratios that land directly inside the torque curve when short-shifting at the self-imposed six-grand redline.

Mazda is still limiting power in first through third gears based on throttle input and steering angle to quell torque-steer, and while its presence can still be felt, the artificial reigns only manifest when skittering across broken pavement on power and when disabling the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and nailing the throttle in a straight line. If crab-walking was your biggest concern with the last model, it's been addressed and improved, but hardly eliminated. And Mazda admits that they could have done more to reduce the effects, but it would've affected outright performance and they "wanted to keep it a little rough."

Dave Coleman, one of the lead engineers behind the project admitted that one of the primary goals of the new MS3 was to evolve the handling. "The old [Mazdaspeed3] was more of a muscle than a sports car," Coleman told us, "We wanted to bring the handling up to the level of the engine."

With a more rigid chassis to work with, Coleman and the rest of the crew were able to engineer a stiffer suspension that wouldn't affect daily drivability. The geometry remains the same, but everything in between has been upgraded, resulting in a noticeably smoother ride. Those forced to endure the bombed-out roadways of the Midwest probably won't notice, but if your local municipality isn't bankrupt, you'll benefit from the tweaks.

As for the rest of the upgrades, they're relatively minor. The Dunlop SP Sport 2050 tires have grown in width from 215s to 225s and like the standard 3, an electro-hydraulic steering system is employed to provide better feel at speed and ease-up when puttering around the parking lot. Inside, it's essentially standard Mazda3 fare, with the addition of thicker bolsters on the front thrones, red stitching on the seats and steering wheel, aluminum pedals and an LED boost gauge nestled in between the tach and speedo. Did we mention the wonky seat and door card fabric? In keeping with the times and tradition, Mazda is only offering one upgrade – the Tech Package – which includes the undersized Multi Information Display (MID), a Bose Centerpoint surround sound system, six-disc changer, MP3 player connectivity, perimeter alarm and push button start. The Tech pack tacks on an additional $1,895 to the $23,195 base price, which starts just $455 more than the outgoing model.

So... that's a wrap, right? The Mazdaspeed3 is slightly more expensive, benefits from a few substantive modifications, weighs in around 50 pounds heavier than its predecessor and comes clothed in functional love-it-or-hate-it styling. It's not nearly that simple.

Although the gestation of the MS3 was carried out in Japan, most of the drivability developments for the U.S. were done on and around Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. As such, you'd assume the 'Speed would be the perfect daily-driver turned (tuned?) track-tool. It is – to a point.

Around Laguna Seca, the Mazdaspeed3 is exactly what you'd expect: powerful, competent and composed. The steering is sublime, the shifter and gear ratios are beyond reproach and all that torque is delivered in a seamless wave that executes point-to-point track-attacks with ease. It's all incredibly civilized. Understeer comes on smoothly and predictably, allowing a quick lift to bring things back into line, and with that much twist available at nearly any rpm in any gear, mid-corner flubs are replaced with heroic exits. Even torque steer, which you'd assume would necessitate overly measured throttle inputs, isn't an issue. Just squirt and go. It's that simple, but not nearly as entertaining as we expected.

However, leave the track, get on your favorite macadam road and prepared to be amazed. Regardless of the DSC setting, blasting down an undulating stretch of tarmac in the Mazdaspeed3 delivers one of those rare gearhead-affirming experiences each of us craves. Linking bends over pockmarked pavement, the MS3 becomes your surefooted best friend; a trust-worthy confidante that will keep you honest and engaged. The brakes are up to the task, the LSD dolls out the grunt, and finger-tippy steering and rhythmic pedal inputs generate one of the most consistent and rewarding front-wheel driving experiences on the market.

Needless to say, we're smitten all over again. What the 2010 Mazdaspeed3 lacks in on-track exhilaration, it makes up for on the open road. And since that's where most of us spend our time, it's tuned to suit. If you're a dedicated track-addict, your circuit-ready ride awaits you on the weekends. For the days in between, the Mazdaspeed3 fends off the cravings.

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