It’s almost silly to run your errands in a 263-horsepower hatchback with a snickety six-speed manual, a hugely effective limited-slip differential and a sport-tuned suspension.
Silly, but the Mazdaspeed3 ($29,940) is also entertaining, exhilarating and delightful. And at least with the oversized, sorta-racing-tuned disc brakes all around, you can scrub off speed faster than you can generate it with that turbocharged, direct-injection engine under the hood. Or you can just hang on and go, letting those 225/40R18 performance tires – the ones mounted to shiny alloy wheels – hug the pavement like Liberals to the faded glories of the Trudeau era.
The point is, no one can make the purely rational case for a compact, four-door hatchback with a stiff suspension – Mazda calls it “sport-tuned” – and no one should even bother to try. This car is for that small and shrinking group of crazies who still love cars – squirrelly, demanding, very quick cars that ask the driver to put down that smart phone, to disconnect from your friends and your social network, and instead participate in the driving, to pay attention to it and to enjoy the real-world experience.
If you’re a Car2Go type, forget it. You don’t want anything to do with the flagship of the Mazda3 lineup. You probably think the whole idea is an abomination and are painting protest signs as I write this. If you’re a Millennial, someone under 30, you probably aren’t interested either.
“The American auto industry is about to see the rise of Generation N – as in ‘neutral about driving,’” says Mark Wakefield, a director in AlixPartners' Automotive Practice, talking about new research that shows young people care less about cars than past generations. Gen N grew up on the Internet and not so much on cars; they don’t care much about them at all.
Worse, aging – aging!!! – Baby Boomers, such as yours truly, are finding fewer and fewer reasons to drive, says this comprehensive annual study by the global business-advisory firm. Yet another reminder of “time’s winged chariot drawing near,” as Andrew Marvell put it To His Coy Mistress. A lovely ride like the Mazdaspeed3 is one way to keep from wandering into what the poet referred to as “deserts of vast eternity.” Marvell penned his words to seduce his mistress; the Speed3 seduced me with the gutsy rawness of its delightful capabilities.
In a nutshell, you will be hard-pressed to find more new car of the performance type for this sort of money. Dodge will surely come out with an SRT version of the 2013 Dart compact in this price range, but it’s not here yet. I suppose the 160-hp Fiat 500 Abarth ($23,995) is in the mix, though it’s much smaller than the Speed and far less practical. Ford has plans for a 247-hp 2013 Focus ST, but it’s not here yet and we don’t know how much, either.
Honda’s Civic Si $25,990) is already in the game, but at a mere 201 hp the performance is a bit limp by comparison and the ride and handling, the responsiveness, the willingness to be driven hard and give as good as it gets – well, the Si is no match for the Speed3. Hyundai is about to start selling a Veloster with a twin-scroll turbo that spins up 201 horsepower ($25,999), boasts about quicker steering and an enhanced suspension, too. But I’ll wait to drive it on the track before saying more.
And Mini’s John Cooper Works hatchback – 208 hp and turbocharged, also – will get you sweaty and excited, but at $36,900 it will also do a better job of cleaning out your bank account. The same holds true for Subaru’s WRX STi. It is fast and fun and hugely capable, and like its rival, the Lancer Evolution, all-wheel-drive keeps the rubber on the pavement right to the edge of your courage and abilities. But the WRX STi starts at $38,195 and the Evo begins at $41,998.
If you want the best deal in compact zoot, the Speed3 is it. It’s even a better deal now, too. When last I checked, Mazda had a $3,000 factory incentive on cash purchases, pushing the real-world price down to less than $27,000 plus fees and taxes. That’s a whale of a buy.
For that coin, you get a 2.3-litre direct-injection spark ignition (DISI) turbocharged engine, a four-wheel independent suspension (MacPherson struts in front, multi-link in the rear), stabilizer bars, performance tires, and more – including the cosmetic stuff like body-coloured sporty bumpers, side sill extensions, a rear spoiler, bi- Xenon (HID) headlamps, fog lamps, LED tail lamps and large dual exhaust tips.
Inside, the “half-leather” bucket seats with red stitching are a snug and supportive fit. To remind you of where you are, the car also has Mazdaspeed floor mats and scuff plates, aluminum-alloy foot pedals and foot rest, black leather-wrapped shift knob and three-spoke steering wheel with red stitching. The bright electroluminescent gauges include a turbo boost gauge, too. Watch that gauge bounce and go as you goose the throttle.
Cars like this come and go. My bet is this one will be gone soon, at least at this price.
Tech specs: 2012 Mazdaspeed3
Type: High-performance compact hatchback
Base price: $29,795 ($1,795 freight)
Engine: 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 263 hp/280 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.5 city/8.0 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Fiat 500 Abarth, Honda Civic Si, Hyundai Veloster Turbo, Mini Cooper John Cooper Works