It's amazing to see how fast the hot hatch market has evolved in the United States. Europeans have always appreciated their hatchbacks while many American saw them as small station wagons for those goofy "Old World" people. Now that Americans are turning their attention again to more economically friendly vehicles, hatchbacks have become a viable alternative to the small SUV, sedan, and in some cases, the minivan.
For those speed freaks who love power but have a family, are fortunate enough to be offered a choice of many "hot hatches." This segment includes the Volkswagen GTI, Subaru WRX STi, MINI Cooper S, and the new MazdaSpeed 3, which is the high performance version of the Mazda 3. Available only as a hatchback, the new MazdaSpeed3 is actually a polarizing vehicle. Granted, it has amazing performance, but its design is basically a love it or hate it thing. Mazda calls it "Nagare," or "flow," and it's quite polarizing.
Unsurprisingly, many don't like it, but it has also attracted a younger generation to the brand, which is exactly what Mazda wanted. Continuing with their "Zoom Zoom" tagline, this new design actually seems appropriate. The new Speed3 comes with a 2.3 liter turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Interestingly enough, this is the same configuration from the previous model. It seems like Mazda was pleased with the performance enough not to change this. However, this doesn't mean the overall driving experience hasn't been altered. In fact, it's become even better.
Due to a decrease in weight and more aerodynamic body sculpting, the Speed3 is more of the powerhouse machine it's always been. With a total of 263 horsepower, the car doesn't disappoint when it comes to performance. However, handling is something else. Because it only comes with front-wheel drive, all of that power is being directed at the front wheels and not enough balance is created. The Subaru WRX, by comparison has all-wheel drive and it shows. Power is much more even and the increased road grip gives the driver extra reassurance the car will not go skidding off the sides.
When it comes to the Speed3, you may find yourself holding back a bit on, say, a figure-8 racetrack (or any other twisty roads). Another major issue is the over abundance of torque steer. I'm not sure why Mazda driving dynamic engineers thought this was a good idea, but the car is in dire need of some returning in order to make it more drivable. This handling issue is a bit unusual for Mazda, as they have produced one of the best handling sports cars of all time, the MX-5 Miata. Not to mention the superb RX-8 which may be seeing its final year of production.
Inside the car and you'll find a jet fighter style cockpit, which is a carry-over from the standard models. The previous generation Mazda 3 had a very nice, but somewhat bland interior. The redesigned version is much more dramatic as it gives the driver a sense of involvement with the car. Instead of just merely being the person behind the wheel, the curved and sweeping dash enhances the experience. To put it mildly, the new MazdaSpeed3 is a great drive. It's such a powerful machine that you'll be amazed Mazda managed to get power output like this in a five-door hatchback.
It carries a base price of almost $24,000 which is an incredible bargain. Call it cheap speed, if you will. Maybe those Europeans were right after all.