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2010 Mazdaspeed3

A high-performance rocket that doubles as a hatchback Add to ...

The Autodrome St. Eustache is one of those community race tracks where, on certain summer nights, anyone can pay $20 for 20 minutes of letting loose in whatever ride you've got.

Mostly, it's an oval, but there is a road course and it's on this we're now getting a taste of the factory-tuned 2010 Mazdaspeed3. The Speed3 is a four-door hatchback that perhaps 10 or 15 years ago would have been a completely suitable race car on some minor circuit.

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It's that fast on the straights and that quick in the corners and the steering is that tight and the braking is that strong. This is a minor-league race car from the early 1990s - sans the four-point belt, super-snug racing seats and roll cage.

And I'm not wearing a helmet, so despite the urge to completely wring out everything, I'm being a little on the careful side. There's a wall at one end and, as you exit a big left-hand sweeper, it comes worryingly close.

You want to get out there to set up for a straight bit, one perfect for lighting up the turbo, which helps the 2.3-litre four-banger spool to 263 horsepower. But if you push too hard, the tarted-up exterior - at least compared to the regular Mazda3 - might take a pranging.

This little hot-shoe Mazda starts at $32,995 and there are no options, other than $200 for the white pearl paint. Red would be my choice, but black and blue are free options, too.

The heart of it all is a 2.3-litre DISI (direct injection, spark ignition) four-cylinder with an intercooled turbocharger. This is the same engine you get in the normal Mazda3, only twice as gutsy.

Oh, yes, this is a lot of power, especially for a front driver. Subaru's all-wheel-drive Impreza WRX has a smidge more, at 265; the other AWD rival is Mitsubishi's Lancer Ralliart (237 hp). All the rest of the competition are front drivers: Honda Civic Si (197 hp); Mini Cooper S (172 hp for the base or 208 hp for the John Cooper Works edition); Volkswagen GTI (200 hp).

Mazda has boosted power by about 10 per cent over the last Speed3, and also tweaked the engine software and widened the ratios of the six-speed manual gearbox. Yes, that hood scoop is real, to help the engine take in cool air. All told, the 0-100 km/h sprint takes 6.1 seconds, says Mazda, noting fuel economy is a bit better, too.

Perhaps most important of all, the power gets to the road without the sort of drama often associated with zoomy front drivers. Torque steer - that pulling to one side that can accompany muscular front-drive cars when they are launched aggressively - has been almost completely wiped clean.

How so? The boys with the pocket protectors have put in a mechanical torque-sensing limited-slip differential, for one. For another, the drive shafts, left and right, are stiffer.

Speaking of stiff, this being a racer in disguise, Mazda has bucked up the Speed3 in important places - suspension mounting points, for instance. They've been reinforced.

The rest of the package is straight out of Pocket Rocket Tuner 101: increased spring rates; better dampers and stabilizer bars; bigger four-wheel disc brakes; 18-inch aluminum wheels with Dunlop performance rubber; rear spoiler. Anti-lock braking, traction control and anti-skid control are all standard.

The Speed3 is quite the piece. Yes, all that power is routed through the front wheels and the traction nannies will intervene if you lead-foot around. Unless you turn them off.

Overall, this ride will carve corners with ease and you do not need a racing licence to have fun. The steering, the brakes, the chassis - they all communicate plenty of info to the driver.

So how does the Mazda stack up with the competition? The WRX and Ralliart feel more hard-core and, with all-wheel-drive, they are. Both are a bit more skittish in terms of turbo response, too.

The GTI simply has less jam and isn't really the racy-ride equal of this Speed3. Honda's Civic Si seems a bit tame, too. The John Cooper Works is a load of a car and I personally love its looks. But the Mini only has two doors.

Mazda has created a nice formula and carved out a tidy little place for itself here. The Speed3 is fast but not furious, and the cabin has enough room for four people and some luggage.

*****

2010 MAZDASPEED3

Type: High performance four-door hatchback

Base price: $32,995

Engine: 2.3-litre inline-four, turbocharged

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.5 city/8.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Civic Si, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Mini Cooper S and John Cooper Works edition, Subaru Impreza WRX, Volkswagen GTI

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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