- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” spirit is alive and well in the performance version of its smallest car.

Drivers better keep a close eye on the speedometer because the 2007 Mazdaspeed3 zoom-zooms so readily, it can get way above speed limits all too quickly.

Mazdaspeed is Mazda’s performance label, and it goes on a special, turbocharged version of Mazda3 hatchback that has 263 horsepower, or 107 more horsepower than a regular, naturally aspirated Mazda3 hatchback.

Torque, or that sudden “oomph” when the gas pedal is pressed, is a full 280 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm in the four-cylinder-powered Mazdaspeed3. This is more than what many V-6s provide for bigger, heavier cars.

Add in some brake and suspension tuning, along with low-profile, 18-inch, high-performance tires, boy-racer exhaust note and a few exterior and interior sporty touches, and the Mazdaspeed3 is a rocket ready for spirited driving.

But, performance comes at a price.

Sold only with manual transmission, the 2007 Mazdaspeed3 has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,935, which is $4,660 above the starting price for a base 2007 Mazda3 five-door hatchback with manual transmission.

Indeed, the Mazdaspeed3 has a starting retail price that’s higher than many larger cars, including the mid-size Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.

Competitors to the Mazdaspeed3 include the 2007 Subaru Impreza WRX five-door model, which starts at $25,120 with 224 horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine and manual trans-mission, and the 2007 Volkswagen GTI, which starts at $22,860 with 200 horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine and manual transmission.

Fans of such small cars with atypical power and oh-so-nimble handling relish the feeling of light-weight maneuverability and compact packaging that these cars provide.

And the combination is palpable in the Mazdaspeed3, where this small — less than 15 feet long — hatchback ran eagerly up mountainous roads and around curves. I just had to pick the correct gear from the six available and point the car in the right direction.

There was little unsettling body roll and no power lag to hold me back.

But I seemed to feel about every bump, not just in my backside but in my hands through the small-diameter steering wheel.

The busy ride and noisy exhaust note that’s heard even at idle can be fatiguing over time.

It took me a while to modulate my foot pressure on the gas pedal to avoid torque steer — that unnerving pulling of a front-wheel-drive car to one side or the other slightly when power goes to the wheels abruptly at start up.

The Mazdaspeed3 just has so much power going all at once to the FWD wheels that torque steer was common. It’s one of the things that buyers of the Impreza WRX don’t worry about because Subaru’s Impreza comes with standard with all-wheel drive. Alas, that’s not a feature offered in the Mazdaspeed3.

The WRX and VW’s GTI also have less torque than the Mazdaspeed3 — 226 pound-feet at 2,600 rpm and 207 pound-feet starting at 1,800 rpm, respectively.

There’s no turbo boost gauge in the Mazdaspeed3 to show drivers when and how the turbo is working. But there’s not a lot of time to watch gauges — save for that important speedometer — as the miles fly past. I wished the six-speed manual transmission had a less notchy feel.

But front bucket seats in the test car looked good and were well-bolstered to keep driver and passenger comfortable over long-distance travel.

Too bad the same can’t be said for the back seat, where room for three adults is tight widthwise, and the middle person doesn’t get a head restraint.

Rear-seat passengers also should watch when entering and exiting because the smallish rear doors open right at the rear wheel wells.

Still, I appreciated that rear windows open all the way, the pull-down center armrest back there sits up nicely from the seat cushion and legroom can be adequate in back if front-seat passengers slide their seats forward.

Check out the oh-so-deep glovebox in the Mazdspeed3. I had to unbuckle my safety belt in the front passenger seat in order to reach all the way to the back of this roomy storage area.

The test Mazdaspeed3 also had a problematic Sirius satellite radio hookup.

The antenna looked like an afterthought, with the wiring snaking under the rubber seal around the hatchback liftgate, and intermittently, the radio would be stuck “acquiring” the Sirius stations that I tuned to.

At least the Mazda-speed3 comes standard with curtain air bags. They’re optional on some lesser Mazda3 cars.

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