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Full Test: 2007 Mazdaspeed 3

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California's Highway 198 is a true test of any enthusiast car. It's got a little bit of everything — significant elevation gain, differing surfaces, jumps and a big enough variety of turns to satisfy any driving geek. We drove Highway 198 in the 2007 Mazdaspeed 3, a car that brings the road to life in an entirely new way.

You see, there's a lot going on when the Mazdaspeed 3 is working hard on a back road. Its tires bark for grip as they bite the surface, the gearbox whines just enough to be noticeable and the engine whooshes, snorts and snarls. At least, that is, when all four wheels are on the ground.

But that isn't always the case on this road. More than once during our drive we experienced the deafening silence that accompanies air under the tires. It's an impossible-to-ignore peacefulness interrupting an otherwise chaotic sensory overload. And it's one that we'd never experienced on this road — probably because we'd never gone this fast here. The Mazdaspeed 3 is a serious enthusiast car. It's a lot of machine for the money and it offers the same balance of speed, practicality and value we've found previously only in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution or Subaru WRX STI.

Hot-rod hardware
Mazda's 3 is a compact five-door or sedan that's been winning comparison tests and proving itself as a class leader since its introduction in 2003 as an '04 model — hardly a car capable of Evo or STI-like performance. However, the Mazdaspeed version is fundamentally the same animal, but with an infusion of go-fast hardware that nudges the 3 into the realm of serious performance without proportionally increasing its price.

Mazda's 2.3-liter turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder engine, which is shared with the Mazdaspeed 6 and CX-7 crossover SUV, is the most significant change. In the 3 it's rated for 263 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, 11 hp less than the Mazdaspeed 6. The torque rating is identical.

The change, according to Mazda engineers, is strictly a matter of differences in engine calibration. The engine, with the exception of insignificant intake and exhaust plumbing changes needed to make it fit the 3's smaller body, is identical to the Mazdaspeed 6 — right down to the vanes on the turbo wheels. Both cars use the same six-speed manual transmission although the front-wheel-drive 3 lacks the power take-off unit that sends drive to the rear wheels on the all-wheel-drive 6.

Routing 263 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque efficiently through the front tires is the job of the mechanical limited-slip differential and sophisticated torque management undertaken by the engine control computer. Torque is limited based on two criteria — gear selection and steering position — and is especially noticeable while cornering in 1st or 2nd gears.

Chassis improvements
Braces were added to the chassis to tie the strut towers to the firewall. There's also a brace under the car that increases rigidity through the body by minimizing flex in the floor tunnel, and a gusset in the rear that decreases flex at the multilink suspension's lower pick-up points.

Ride height is lowered 10 millimeters relative to the standard 3 while the front and rear spring rates are raised 43 and 30 percent, respectively. Damping is increased across the board and the antiroll bars are 235 and 244 percent stiffer front and rear — the result of a 5mm increase in diameter at both ends.

Larger front brake rotors and beefier calipers were added to deal with the additional speed and weight. The front rotors increase 0.8 inch in diameter from 11.8 inches to 12.6 inches. Upgraded single-piston calipers are included as well.

Detail work
Mazda tells us that all Mazdaspeed products must pass a visual test that easily differentiates them from the standard cars at a set distance. This is true with the Mazdaspeed 3 — if you know what you're looking for. The front fenders are marginally wider, the hood is slightly taller, the foglights are more rectangular and there's a spoiler standing on the rear deck lid. The 10-spoke, 18-by-7-inch wheels are an improvement over the standard car's wheels, but look heavy since there's almost no void area. There's the requisite large chrome exhaust tip as well.

Bottom line? Those who care will know this is a special car, and those who don't, won't. It's subtle enough to slip past a Dunkin' Donuts loaded with handlebar mustaches and mirrored sunglasses without anyone spilling their coffee.

Inside there are deeply bolstered front seats that fully look the part. Editors were split on the seats' lateral support, some feeling the seat bottom was too wide and others finding them perfectly supportive. Our Grand Touring trim level test car had leather bolsters — a touch that shows someone at Mazda realizes that leather in the seat bottoms is a bad idea for performance driving. The same thick-rimmed steering wheel from the standard 3 is in place with buttons for the audio system and cruise control. Aluminum pedals dress things up a bit.

Serious numbers
At the track our tester racked up some impressive performance numbers — both in a straight line and through our handling tests. Probably the most outstanding number is the 60-0 braking distance of 116 feet. This often overlooked bit of data proves how thorough Mazda's overhaul of the 3 actually is. And even though this is a single-stop number, our abuse of the brakes during aggressive street and track driving proves them worthy of contending with excessive heat.

At the drag strip, we recorded a 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 14.2 seconds at 100 mph. That's 0.4 second slower to 60 than the last Subaru WRX we tested, but a staggering 1.3 seconds quicker to that speed than a Honda Civic Si. Plus, the Mazda is at an obvious launch disadvantage in the sprint to 60 against the WRX given the Subaru's all-wheel drive. By the end of the quarter-mile the Mazda's added power makes the contest a dead heat against the WRX and blows the Honda out of the water by almost a full second.

Then there's the matter of top speed — normally not a serious consideration for cars in this class. Mazda limits the 3 to 155 mph. Our seat time backs up that claim, but we suspect there's little speed beyond that figure anyway.

The little five-door might not look like a handler, but our numbers prove otherwise. It split the slalom cones at 68.2 mph, only slightly behind the last Civic Si we tested (68.5 mph) and better than the VW GTI (66.1 mph).

In a straight-up contest of grip, the 3 is equally impressive at 0.88g. That's not Evo-like grip, but it's significant considering that the 3 wears 215/45R18 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires, which aren't known for their outstanding road-holding and should wear fairly well.

On the road
Pin it down on a ribbon of road filled with sweeping bends and you'll find the 3 carrying almost as much speed as an Evo or STI — provided that ribbon is racetrack smooth. Mazda insists it doesn't compete with those cars, but we can't help but make the comparison. It's quick enough to require the same heightened awareness needed to drive those cars quickly and, on the right road, will get you there almost as effortlessly. In fact, with a little more grip, it would be hard for any Evo to escape a well-driven Mazdaspeed 3.

The 3's steering is exceptionally responsive just off-center, which makes dispatching transitions as easy as it is quick. It utilizes a 14.7:1 steering ratio — almost identical to the standard car. Sixty percent more roll stiffness than a conventional 3 doesn't hurt here either.

Damping feels adequate on smooth roads, but falls apart a bit on uneven surfaces — probably thanks to the 3's rather portly 3,163 pounds. Body motions aren't as well controlled as we'd like over bumps which affect the whole car. Oddly, this occurred mostly during normal driving over large undulations like frost heaves or railroad track risers rather than at the ragged edge of the car's limits. It's also clear that the 3 is better suited to smooth roads with sweeping corners rather than rough roads with tight switchbacks. It wasn't uncontrollable out of its element, but it loses some of its otherwise excellent poise.

We do, however, love the engine. You won't find more punch for this kind of money in any other car, and that goes a long way in a class filled with capable contenders. Serious grunt starts well below 3000 rpm but ends the party early with a power peak of 5500 rpm. We found upshifting at 6000 was the quickest in most cases, reserving redline only to save ourselves the hassle of shifting twice before a corner. The shifter, which doesn't like to be rushed, has effort appropriate for the job, but feels a bit disconnected compared to some of its competitors.

Get one now
Even with less-than-perfect suspension tuning and a sometimes awkward shifter, the Mazdaspeed 3 is probably the quickest car in its class on virtually any road. It will hardwire itself to its driver's senses and slot down the tarmac with insane speed and purposeful confidence.

But you better act fast if you plan on buying a Mazdaspeed 3. Cars should arrive at dealers by the end of this month, but only 5,000 are coming to North America (Canada's allotment is maybe 250 cars). Given the car's $22,240 base price we'd wager that they will be hard to come by. Opt for the Grand Touring package, which adds the aforementioned leather bolsters, xenon headlights with an auto-on feature, rain-sensing wipers and a Bose 222-watt audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer, and the price goes up to $23,955. Even with our tester's optional $1,750 navigation system the car is a steal.

Highway 198 proved that.

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