Test Driven: 2012 Mazda Mazdaspeed3 (7.5/10)

I have yet to meet an owner of a Mazdaspeed3 (MS3) who didn’t legitimately love their car. Something about the car seems to inspire people, they always have that “I know something you don’t” smirk on their face. Mazdas have always had a good sporting dynamic to them, but the enthusiasm that owners seem to have about this car goes beyond that. I have always known about the MS3, but somehow, while I’ve been out driving all sorts of fun cars over the years, it has eluded me. So recently, I decided it was time I take one out for a spin to see what these owners are so smug about.  

Going into my drive I knew all of the facts and figures on the car. I also knew that a few years ago an MS3 had managed to keep up with my STI in a stoplight grand prix. So I definitely respected the car’s performance, especially since all of its power is sent through the front wheels. My last experience with a similar front wheel drive was the Chevy HHR SS, which proved to be a lesson in the mistakes of old GM. Happily though the MS3 would prove a much different car than the Chevy, but with experience also in a host of Subarus and Mitsubishis I could compare it to its more formidable rivals as well.

From the outside the defining feature is the MS3’s overly happy clown smile. Since the car came out this has been the subject of tons and tons of criticism, and I don’t wish to say anything on it other than it is the only part of the exterior I dislike. The rest of the car features Mazda’s Nagare design language, which makes for some nice flowing creases and sleek lines. Overall I find the MS3 to be a very nice looking car, one that exudes an unmistakably sporty essence. It fits the car’s character well.

 

The interior of the MS3 is nice enough, similar to other Japanese cars in its class. They have added some funky red coloring to the seats, but overall there is nothing to write home about, or complain about. Materials are average, but it all has a nice design and functionality, so it works. The seats on the other hand are quite good once you’re in them. They offer well-cushioned support, and have good bolstering for lateral G’s. This is nice in contrast to the harder racing style seats found in Evos and STIs. The driving position was also quite good, but anyone in the back seat will face the same cramped room as in the other Japanese offerings. So the MS3 is nice if you’re up front, but only livable if you get stuck in the back.

 

Right away I noticed that the MS3 was very engaging to drive, even just as we pulled out of the lot. The controls were all very communicative, to an extent that took me by surprise for some reason. The clutch was nicely sprung, and really let me know where the engagement was through my foot. The gearbox had a direct, crisp action to it, no guessing whatsoever. The steering was quick, sharp, and full of road feel; a very important feature on a front-drive car with power. Needless to say I found myself enjoying just getting to know the MS3, even before the real fun began. However, a word of caution to buyers wanting more refinement, this is a sports car and it rides like one. It won’t break your back on bumps like my STI or and Evo would, but it is very firm and you will feel every imperfection in the road. The MS3 offers solid driving engagement in all forms, for better or worse.

Speed wise I can attest that the MS3 feels legitimately fast, right on par with a stock Evo, STI, WRX, etc. It has that addictive “rush” of acceleration that can have you breaking the law in an instant. Mazda claims 263hp and 280ft/lbs from its 2.3L turbo four, but on stock dyno runs MS3’s put down around the same 240whp that the awd rally cars do; one area front drive has advantages is in less power loss at the wheels. This means it delivers the same kind of adrenaline rush when merging hard onto the freeway, and the same feeling of savagery at wide open throttle in 2nd and 3rd gear. The area that most surprised me though was how well the MS3 put its power down. It did want to torquesteer a little, but the chassis and controls were so communicative that I was able to make the proper adjustments right away. Even coming out of a tight bend, I could tell just how much grip there was, and the right amount of gas to give it. In the way it delivers its power the MS3 is night and day better than the Chevy. It is still front wheel drive, but it does a damn good job at putting fine control in the hands of the driver.

The MS3’s chassis is also quite good at carving the hell out of some corners. It handles very neutral until the limit, where it is still a front-drive car. The chassis really lets you know what is going on though, so it is all very controllable, hardly a dog like the Chevy was…yet again. Treat it like the well set up, front wheel drive car that it is, and the MS3 will reward you with a serious pace through the bends. It is a blast, plain and simple. I find that many people who cannot stand front wheel drive cars always try and drive them like rear or all wheel drive cars, and wind up frustrated. Each setup has its own technique, and the MS3 excels when approached as such, offering the sharp handling and response that driving enthusiasts desire.

Overall I felt the MS3 was a really complete package as is. In the age of The Fast and The Furious I know it is akin to blasphemy to say a car shouldn’t be modified, but I honestly wouldn’t want to add much to it if I bought one (maybe handling stuff but not much on power). I am aware that the MS3 has a good amount of potential, but every owner I’ve talked to with over 300whp has said it won’t get traction until at least midway through 3rd gear. So all the extra power really does is ruin the car’s balance and refinement, making it a dog like the HHR SS. This is not a car for big power in my mind, because it simply cannot put it down. What is the point of making a top end car out of a hot hatch with short gearing? A good driver in a stock MS3 will easily outrun any idiot with 385fwhp on a road course. If you want a lot of power in this class you should go for the all wheel drive cars because they will at least put the power down. The MS3 has found such a great balance between speed and handling that any modifications done should aim to keep it that way.

At this point the MS3 has to be the best front wheel drive car I have ever driven. It exceeded my highest expectations of it with is sensational dynamics. However, it has a lot of very formidable competition in its market. At around $27K, tax and everything, this MS3 is taking on new WRXs, Lancer Ralliarts, GTIs, etc, but also slightly used Evos and STIs. The MS3 finds itself right in the middle of the pack, with advantages and disadvantages in various aspects. It has the same practicality as the other hatchbacks, but lacks the functionality of all wheel drive; a major selling point for the rally cars. Its fuel economy is also significantly lower than that of a GTI, but will be a little bit better than that of the heavier, all wheel drive cars. It will not however, compete with the all-out handling and braking performance of the STI and the Evo. All offerings in the segment require premium fuel, and as stated above, the power delivery of the MS3 is right up there with the Evo, STI, and WRX. So package wise the MS3 has its pros and cons against its competition, many of which are functional differences that will determine someone’s final choice for them. Up against the WRX though (its closest competitor), I might add that it was nice to have the MS3’s 6th gear on the highway.

As for the MS3 itself, it is a phenomenal automobile. The car is a practical thrill ride that won’t hit your wallet too hard, and will deliver the same smiles you get from far more expensive cars. I was thoroughly impressed with it as a driver’s car because was very communicative and all the controls were crisp as could be. Comfort and fuel economy are secondary priorities for the MS3, so if those are most important to you then I would point you towards Volkswagen. If your priority is a great driving experience, then this seriously might be the best front-drive car offered in the US right now. For all-round performance in the real world the MS3 is right up there with the best of them. I see now why all those owners have that smirk on their face, the MS3 deserves it.

WoM Score: Mazdaspeed3 

Primary Function: Performance: 2
Secondary Functions: Practicality(2), MPG(1): 1.5
Visual Appeal: 1
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 2

Final Score: 7.5/10

-Nick Walker

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