Affordable Exhilaration

2008, Mazda, MAZDASPEED3

The MAZDASPEED3 may be the perfect car. It certainly works for me. It combines a sporty driving experience with economy, environmental sensitivity, and the practicality of five doors and a folding rear seat. Oh, and the price is surprisingly reasonable, too. Buy it in True Red, like my tester, and it's unbeatable.

Mazda names their cars in an unusual way. This compact sedan and five-door hatchback/wagon are known as the MAZDA3 one all-capped unit. The car has been a great success for the brand, with sales approaching a million units since its debut in 2003, when it replaced the Protegé.

The MAZDASPEED3 is the fourth car to wear the sporty MAZDASPEED badge. What MAZDASPEED means to you and me is that Mazda engineers took the 2.3-liter, 156-horsepower MAZDA3 and added a potent turbocharger and intercooler. Suddenly, the 3,100-pound, front-wheel-drive wagon boasts a whopping 263 horsepower and a remarkable 280 lb-ft of torque under the hood.

Road and Track magazine launched a MAZDASPEED3 from zero to 60 in 6.0 seconds not the fastest car in the world, but quicker than many. What it does better than many faster cars is earn EPA fuel economy numbers of 18 City, 26 Highway, and carry EPA Green Vehicle numbers of 7 for Air Pollution and 6 for Greenhouse Gases. That's remarkable!

If you are especially interested in the environment, the standard 2.3-liter engine in the MAZDA3 is rated at 9.5 for Air Pollution and 7 for Greenhouse Gases. But it's not as much fun!

I had a great time with my tester, which was the upscale Grand Touring model. The thing offers a neck-snapping quality right out of the box when you shift into first. There is so much torque going through the driveline that electronic controls are integrated in to keep you from generating a burnout at every stoplight. A torque-sensing limited-slip differential comes with it, too, to help apply that power to the road safely.

The MAZDA3, especially the five-door version, is a remarkably styled thing. It reminds me of my son's basketball shoes, with a pointed toe, pulled back headlamp units, stretched out tail (heel, as it were), and an angled back rear pillar. Mazda has tried to distinguish itself in the compact sedan/wagon class with a bolder design language, and the four-year-old design is holding up well.

The MAZDASPEED3 needed special body and chassis upgrades to handle all that extra power from the turbo engine. Body rigidity was bolstered using reinforcements around the car. The MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension were given higher spring rates and larger diameter stabilizer bars. That means that the MAZDASPEED3 handles a lot more stably and responsively than the regular MAZDA3. Mazda is the company, remember, that sells the iconic MX-5 (Miata) and the unique RX-8 rotary-engine sports car.

Mazda upgraded the exterior of the MAZDASPEED3 without making it a flagrant boy racer. You get 18-inch tires on 10-spoke alloy wheels, a roof spoiler, lower body side skirts, and a lower grille intake. The car also benefits from flared front fenders, blistered to give room for the larger tires. You get the requisite fat tailpipe at the rear, too, and MAZDASPEED badging.

Inside, the sweep of dash and doors conveys serious sportiness. The silver and black color scheme would please an Oakland Raiders fan. Materials and fit-and-finish are fine in this Japanese-built vehicle.

Choosing the Grand Touring over the Sport model adds $1,715 to the price but enhances the experience significantly. For the money, you get automatic on/off headlamps, automatic rain-sensing wipers, high-powered Xenon headlamps, LED taillamps, the Bose Premium Audio system (with 222 watts and 7 speakers), and leather on the seat bolsters, steering wheel, and shift knob. You also receive a theft deterrent system and Driving Information System. The Grand Touring model offers optional satellite navigation.

I liked the hauling capacity of this little rocket. Fold the rear seats down and you're set to move stuff. My double bass fit in fine, as would boxes and bags aplenty.

Prices range from $22,975 for the Sport model to the Grand Touring at $24,690. Those figures include destination charges. If you like the car but don't need the macho powertrain, you can pick up the MAZDA3 five-door for just $18,560, or the basic four-door sedan, with a 2.0-liter engine, for a mere $14,530. In a highly competitive segment, Mazda has a winner here. They're going with their history to provide affordable exhilaration, or as they call it, Zoom-Zoom.

By Steve Schaefer

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Images of the 2008, Mazda MAZDASPEED3

2008 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 front view
2008 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 front view
2008 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 interior
2008 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 interior
2008 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 controls
2008 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 controls
2008 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 rear shot
2008 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 rear shot