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Slicing (and some skating) in the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  January 31, 2010 10:57 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

In January, with Boston pinned under freezing temperatures and crusty layers of ice and slush lining the curbs, Mazda sent their cute 3 hatchback — the one with the big 18-inch wheels and big turbo — wearing summertime Dunlops (a writer in Colorado experienced similar surprise). I had driven the 2010 Mazdaspeed 3 last year in the Poconos and came away stricken by its power rush, close-ratio six-speed, and the ease of throwing it into fast corners without concern. Easy, that was, in the summer.

The smooth, uncharted bypasses of Pennsylvania had turned to bumpy Boston roads still slick after a week's worth of flurries and scant sunshine. The week prior I was named captain of the HMS Land Rover LR4, a 5,600-pound vessel that could muscle through a tornado and act like nothing's wrong. But the little Mazda noticed what was going on outside, and I can't blame it for being unhappy.

On my first run, punching the gas in second gear sent the steering wheel jerking and the traction control light flashing. At home, I tried coaxing the Speed into my parking space where the LR4 had bruised a snow pile into submission. After wheel spin, exhaust fumes, and a dab of clutch odor, the Speed was thoroughly upset. It sat on the street, probably dreaming of California, while I punched through the ice for an hour with a cheap shovel.

But so what? Mazda deserves applause for fitting such aggressive stock tires onto a hatchback. If you're a Northerner that actually spent the $25,840 on this fully-loaded compact without dropping another few hundred on all-season tires, then I assume you also bought a fully-loaded Land Rover.

The Speed, to be honest, isn't the best choice if you live around Boston. The stiffer ride beats you up (but with less welts than the Track-equipped Hyundai Genesis Coupe). In the city it's more frustrating since there are few safe avenues to exploit the 2.3 liter's turbocharged 263 horsepower, and you've got to rev it high to get results.

But when you do, hang on. Unlike the Mustang GT's hood scoop, the Speed's actually does something and sucks air into the engine compartment, keeping all those pressurized gases cool. Even in top gear, the little hatch keeps pulling hard and feels very steady as the needle sweeps past your court order.

While Mazda fits a limited-slip differential and limits full-throttle power in the first few gears, the Speed is a handful during a frisky launch and requires a steady grip on the wheel to combat the torque steer. Consider it a thrill for the cautious, prepared driver (i.e., not your kids). For daily driving, I'd welcome the normally-aspirated 3 with its lesser power, smoother ride, and interior without red splotches on the seats and dash trim. But on the perfect road, I'd be kicking myself for throwing out all that thrust.

Let's not pretend, however, that the Speed should be subjugated to average commutes. If you can put up with its adolescent tizzies, you'll realize how mature the rest of the package is beyond the impressive dynamics of the regular 3. Its closer-ratio six-speed is geared taller, so it's less whiny on the highway. (Mazda claims a 155 mph top speed. Don't doubt it.)

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Clutch take-up and feel are on par with the Audi S4, and the shifter movements have a harder, more precise engagement that the regular 3. Steering remains accurate and quick, perhaps a little overboosted at slower speeds (also like the S4), and the suspension's harder springs make it easy to rocket out of corners (bye bye, tailgater). The louder exhaust pumps more bass, but you won't get respect from the import tuner crowd. Slam on an aftermarket pipe and then you can brag in the Bayside Expo Center's parking lot all night.

I haven't driven Volkswagen's GTI, but hear it offers similar punch with more finesse and poise. Like the Mazda, it features strange interior trim — plaid pajama seats, anyone? — as standard. Both otherwise have high-quality, well-designed cabins and a healthy list of creature comforts for around $25,000. Both return OK fuel economy (on premium gas) if you drive them like Corollas, which you're not allowed to do. In my spirited test, I still achieved 20 mpg with just 600 miles on the odometer.

For the rawest performance, good looks (the 3's smile made my day), and affordable price, grab a healthy dose of fear and buy the Mazdaspeed. And then buy another one with all-season tires.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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