- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

Standing alone, the Mazda 3 hatchback is a pretty cool little car. It handles the rigors of daily life pretty well while making those trips enjoyable. The real fun comes now that the MazdaSpeed3 ups the ante with more power and capabilities.

What sets the MazdaSpeed3 apart from other compact five-doors is what lurks unassumingly under the hood. The 2.3-liter in-line four-cylinder engine produces a whopping 263 horsepower, but more importantly 280 foot-pounds of torque. These power numbers are courtesy of a turbocharger that employs an intercooler that sits on top of the engine. This location assisted the designers in keeping the low-profile front-end styling.

Speaking of styling, it may seem as though the MazdaSpeed3 blends into the crowd, but the sharp eye will notice very quickly that it isn’t part of that crowd. Beyond the performance on the road, visual cues include the lower stance, thanks to a sport-suspension system. The unique 18-inch alloy wheels and roof spoiler are a dead giveaway that something is lurking behind that Mazda badge and grille.

I was able to test the MazdaSpeed3 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (of course) to experience its abilities in a safe environment. Not going to do this on the street. Laguna Seca adds elevation changes to a race track that taxes even the most powerful cars.

The MazdaSpeed3 powers away from stops with very little torque steer thanks to a unique traction-control system that keeps the car going straight. That pulling to the side under heavy throttle is an inherent problem for front-wheel-drive automobiles. The more powerful you make a front-wheel-drive car the more chance there is of inducing torque steer. While there is a slight tug on the MazdaSpeed3 steering wheel, there is no cause for concern.

The six-speed manual transmission offers excellent gearing for spirited driving along with helping with fuel economy. The shifts are concise once you are familiar and even during speed shifts on the track I never missed a beat with the shifter.

The elevation changes and the famous Cork Screw make this track perfect for testing. Approach the Cork Screw at speed and it is like riding a wild roller coaster, flick the wheel to the left, line up on the oak tree on the hill and flick the wheel to the right. This is where the MazdaSpeed3 shines.

The suspension system helps guide this little car through the turns with little body roll and keeps it going where the driver wants it to go.

The suspension isn’t so stiff so that it cannot soak up the irregular road surfaces on the street to the market. It is a big salute to the suspension engineers who can make all of this happen in a small, affordable vehicle.

We are seeing more and more compact vehicles capable of injecting spirit into our driving. Unfortunately, many do not perform well during the normal day-to-day driving. Our vehicles must not only be fun to drive, but practical at the same time.

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