2012 Mazda Mazdaspeed3 Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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It's said that when the composer Maurice Ravel debuted his classical masterpiece Bolero at the Paris Opera in 1928, a member of the audience bolted from the auditorium screaming, "He's a madman!" as the music built to its relentless, driving crescendo. To which Ravel responded with a smile saying, "She's the only one who understood the piece." Driving the Mazdaspeed3, I think I understand where that long-ago audience member was coming from.

Like Ravel's famous composition, the Mazdaspeed3 appears innocent enough at first: A simple, modern-looking 5-door hatchback with a smiling grille and nice 18-inch alloy wheels.

But just as Bolero offers some immediate hints that it's not necessarily quite what the audience might be expecting, so too does the Mazdaspeed3. There's the matter of that bulging hood with the big scoop. What's that doing on a grocery-getter? And there's the big rear wing, too, and the oversized dual exhausts.

Climb in and stab the start button, and it's like when the Bolero's lilting opening flute melody hands off to the clarinet - the Mazdaspeed3 fires up with an unexpected, sonorous burble that clearly doesn't belong to any bread-and-butter hatchback.

Slip the close ratio 6-speed manual transmission into gear and engage the clutch, and it's a bit of a shock; the Mazdaspeed3 has a rather abrupt clutch engagement, squawking the tires upon launch unless you're careful. Even under light throttle inputs, with a not-yet-warmed-up engine, it accelerates with surprising suddenness.

Finally, when the car is warmed up, you can bury your foot deeply into the throttle, and it's then that you realize the true madness of Mazda's engineers - what were they thinking, putting this much power into a front-wheel drive hatchback? The Mazdaspeed3's turbocharged 2.3-litre engine develops 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, and although it appears to channel a full 10 of those horsepower directly up the steering column in order to arm-wrestle the driver over directional control of the car, it'll still slingshot you from 0-100 km/h in a scant 6.2 seconds. It's like the final moments of Bolero, with the entire orchestra playing "fortissimo possibile" ("as loud as possible") and bouncing from the key of C to the key of E and back again - it's at once absolute madness and pure, unadulterated brilliance. It's also enormous fun.

The Mazdaspeed3 is equally fun in the corners. The ride is perhaps a wee bit firm, and the handling can feel hard-edged and choppy at times, but the car has razor-sharp reflexes and excellent levels of grip. It gets stiffer springs and stabilizer bars than the standard Mazda3 Sport that it's based on, which gives it a flatter cornering attitude, and a torque-sensing conical limited-slip differential helps get the ample power to the ground even when accelerating around sharp bends.

In order to provide confidence-inspiring stops even from Mazdaspeed3's speed-limited 250 km/h top speed, there are oversized ventilated disc brakes at the front and big solid disc brakes at the back. The brakes are anti-lock, naturally, and in order to help keep everything in line there's also standard traction and stability control.

Unlike some go-fast cars, with the Mazdaspeed3 all this performance doesn't come at the cost of practicality. Because it's based on the eminently practical Mazda3, the Mazdaspeed3 actually makes a great errand runner and daily commuter, at least it does once you get used to the abrupt clutch and so-so fuel economy (a claimed 11.5 L/100km in the city, 8.0 on the highway), and provided you can limit your natural instinct to stomp on the loud pedal at every available opportunity.

Inside, the Mazdaspeed3 boasts comfortable sport seats (unique to the model) with tasteful accent patterning, and it has the same sensibly laid-out dash and centre stack as the regular Mazda3 (although there are unique instrument faces and some red stitching on the leather steering wheel and shifter). Also the same as the regular Mazda3 hatchback is the 60/40 split-folding back seat and reasonably roomy cargo area. What's not the same (certainly not the base version) is the Mazdaspeed3's extensive list of standard equipment, which in 8-point type runs to 22 centimetres of column space on Mazda Canada's web site. Highlights include a 10-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 Bose audio system, anti-theft alarm, dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, bi-xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers and heated mirrors, and that's just scratching the surface.

My test car also included an optional Technology Package that added a nice suite of features including adaptive front lighting, blind-spot monitoring, power adjustable driver's seat, intelligent key system with pushbutton start, satellite radio and colour multi-information display with compact navigation screen. My only real complaint here was that when Mazda says "compact" navigation screen they really mean it, and I found the screen so small as to seriously undermine the navigation system's real-world usability.

On the whole though, the Mazdaspeed3 is extremely entertaining to drive and reasonably practical to boot. Pricing isn't too impractical either, starting at $31,735 including destination fees, plus $2,440 if you want the Technology Package. Admittedly this is almost double the price of the Mazda3 Sport hatchback (which starts at $18,590 including destination) but it's only a little more than potential competitors such as the VW GTI ($30,740 including destination fees) and Honda Civic Si ($27,385). For that little more you get an extra helping of unbridled enthusiasm, a bit more "fortissimo possibile," and if that sounds like your kind of fun, the Mazdaspeed3 should be on your list of cars to check out.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Hatchback, Mazda, 2012, Mazdaspeed3, $30,000 - $39,999, Mazdaspeed, Compact,

Organizations: Mazda

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