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Mazda's Speed Demon

Editor's Rating: star rating

The Mazdaspeed3 may be, dollar for dollar, the hottest low-priced compact on the road today

Up Front

The Mazdaspeed3 is a hot little skateboard of a car that's rapidly becoming a cult model among young driving enthusiasts. Nearly 80% of buyers are male and their average age is only 35, youngest in the segment, according to J.D. Power's (MHP) Power Information Network (PIN). There's a reason for that: Dollar for dollar, this may be the hottest low-priced compact on the road.

If you're looking for a tamer vehicle, stick with the regular Mazda3, the popular model the Speed3 is based on. The Speed3, however, only comes with a six-speed manual transmission and there's only one choice of engine: a turbocharged version of the 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine that comes standard in the Mazda3. The turbocharger raises the engine's output to 263 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque, up from 156 hp and 150 lb.-ft. of torque for the 3,000-lb. Mazda3. As a result, this car goes like a bat out of hell.

The Speed3 comes in two trim levels: the Sport, starting at $22,935, and the Grand Touring, starting at $24,650. Both are well equipped for the money. The Sport comes with performance tires, 18-inch alloy wheels, sport seats, a limited slip differential, an adjustable steering wheel, power accessories, and a CD player with an auxiliary jack. Additional standard gear on the Grand Touring includes rain-sensing windshield wipers, xenon headlights, leather seat bolsters, and an upgraded Bose sound system.

Only a handful of options are offered, including a $1,750 navigation system (available on the GT only), $430 Sirius satellite radio, and an auto-dimming mirror for $200. The limited color choices include red, silver, black, mica, and "cosmic blue mica."

Fuel economy, not surprisingly, is lower than in the regular Mazda3. The Speed3 is rated to get 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. In 199 miles of mainly highway driving, I got 19.3 mpg. By contrast, a Mazda3 wagon is rated at 22 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway. However, the Speed3 requires premium gasoline while the Mazda3 uses regular.

The Speed3 is a niche model, but it's selling very well. Overall U.S. sales at Mazda, which is controlled by Ford (F), were up 10%, to 250,597, in the first 10 months of this year. The Mazda3, far and away the company's top model, saw its sales soar to 28.3%, to 103,493, during the period, topping the 100,000 mark for the first time ever with two months remaining in the year. Of that number, 5,505, or a little over 5%, were Mazdaspeed3s.

Behind the Wheel

Start putting the Mazdaspeed3 through its paces and the first thing you notice is how quick and agile it is. The car only weighs 3,153 lb. and it feels light on the road. Both the suspension and brakes have been sport-tuned, and Mazda engineers have done a lot to stiffen the car's frame so there's virtually no wallow when you throw it into curves. Steering is tight, but the shifter feels a bit squishy compared to more expensive sports cars.

However, driving the Speed3 is a bit like riding a bucking bronco. That's largely because of a phenomenon called "torque steer," which often occurs when you drop a powerful engine in a front-wheel-drive car. Mazda claims electronic controls minimize torque steer in the Speed3, but that wasn't my experience. The steering pulls hard to the left or right when you punch the gas. When you hit a pavement seam during rapid acceleration, the car sometimes jigs to the left or right slightly, which can be disconcerting.

Timing the Mazdaspeed3 in zero-to-60 acceleration runs is tricky. My times were all over the map, with the lowest being 6.9 seconds. However, with practice and under better conditions than I had, the Speed3 could jump from zero to 60 in about six seconds.

The Speed3's interior suggests the car's sportiness. The red stitching on the black leather shift knob, the leather-wrapped steering wheel and the well-bolstered sport seats complement the cadmium-red instrument lights. Macho-looking aluminum foot pedals are standard, and there are stainless steel scuff plates in the door openings.

The Speed3 seats four comfortably and five in a pinch. Legroom up front, which is rated at 41 in., is adequate. The rear seats are roomy enough for adults who aren't long-legged or over six feet tall. With the driver's seat set for someone my height (5 ft. 10 in.), I had enough knee room in the rear seat to be comfortable on shorter trips. The rear seats fold down to create space for hauling bulky loads.

Buy It or Bag It?

If speediness, handling, and a relatively low price are your priorities, the Mazdaspeed3 is an excellent choice. Its average selling price is $23,978, according to PIN, and that's a bargain considering all the standard equipment the car comes with and the way it performs.

However, the market for sporty economy compacts is crowded and there are numerous competing models to consider. If you need all-wheel drive and better ground clearance, the obvious alternative is the newly redesigned '08 Subaru Impreza WRX hatchback, which has an average selling price of $27,072 (the WRX sedan is going for $26,441). Watch this space for an upcoming review of the WRX.

Of the less expensive competing models, by far the most attractive in my opinion is the Honda (HMC) Civic Si, which sells for an average of $21,923. The Honda is a great little car for the money, but it's a sedan and doesn't have quite the practicality of a hatchback. Other budget sport sedans include Chrysler's Dodge Caliber SXT ($18,183) and the $19,331 Mitsubishi Lancer.

Roughly comparable German models tend to be far more expensive than the Mazdaspeed3. For instance, the '08 Audi 3 hatchback is selling for an average of $32,830 and BMW's (BMWG.DE) '08 Mini Cooper S for $32,022, according to PIN. The Volkswagen (VOWG.DE) GTI hatchback, which sells for an average of $25,149, is closest to the Mazda in price. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP)).

The bottom line is that you might consider test-driving the Mazdaspeed3 against the WRX, Civic Si, or GTI, but it should hold its own against any of its rivals.

See BusinessWeek's slide show to see more of the 2008 Mazdaspeed3.

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