1500 miles with the MazdaSPEED3

As the alert reader will note, a few months ago I test drove four cars. In mid-August, I actually bought one of them, but not the one that was first in those rankings; instead, I bought a MazdaSPEED3. I got the Grand Touring package because I wanted the xenon headlamps, the better AC and the upgraded seats. Well, OK, and the rain-sensing wipers and the trip computer.

So, the obvious first question is why I went that way instead of buying the MINI Cooper Clubman S which I ranked first in my drive review. Yes, the MINI seemed more fun to drive, at least for a while, but there were multiple factors which spoke in the Mazda’s favor:

[1] Money. To get the MINI comparably equipped, the price tag was about $5k more. And with the extra options I would have gotten on the MINI, it would have been some $7k more. BMW has certainly figured out how to nickel-and-dime you to death with this car; why on earth is a limited slip diff a $500 option and not standard? I simply could not justify the expense, particularly given the second concern.

[2] Less practical. Yes, I could have gotten my two kids in to the MINI through the one-half of a back door and buckled in the little one via leaning over the flopped-forward front set, and I could have crammed the trunk to the max when I’m doing soccer duty or whatever, but it would have been a pain and gotten old quickly. Why pay ~$6k extra for a car that limits me like this?

[3] Ergonomics. The MINI interior is so focussed on being retro that the designers seriously sacrificed usability in how the controls are laid out. No self-respecting human factors person should reward that nonsense. And the cupholders suck. Oh, and my seven-year-old is enough of a backseat driver as it is, the freaking plate-sized speedo right in the middle of the dash is practically an invitation for him to comment endlessly, and that’s something I just do not need.

[4] Reliability. Now, the MINI is covered by a better warranty and all service is included in the first 3 years, but there is basically one MINI dealer in my area and it’s not a particularly convenient location. Also, there have been reports of some first-year problems with the Clubmans. This was not a huge factor but it was a consideration. (Incidentally, reliability is why the VW GTI never even got a test drive.)

[5] Appearance. The MINI is butt-ugly, and I mean that literally; the back end of the Clubman is a busy, ugly mess. You basically have to get the black roof and trim to cover up the ugliness of it. I know that’s a shallow reason but someone needs to punish MINI for that nastiness. (I’ll note that Top Gear agrees that it’s hideous.) While the front is still MINI-cute, the tail end is simply awful. And the barn door design, while very unique, is dumb. With a standard hatch, if you’re loading or unloading in the rain, the hatch provides cover. Plus, it leaves a dumb blind spot in the rear outward view. Also, this means a second rear wiper and fluid delivery deal; this means more blades to replace and more moving parts to fail.

And, of course, we’ve had at least one Mazda in the garage for a while now, so it has some additional familiarity. In fact, the SPEED3 really is the natural evolution of the Protege5 which it replaced in my garage. That is, it’s still a wagon-hatch thing, but with updated safety and convenience features and an incredibly kick-ass engine. The auto press really likes this car (see Edmunds, Automobile.com, NextAutos, AutoBlog, and Car and Driver for examples of this) and I can see why. However, most auto press reviews are based on fairly short-term tests. Since I’ve now put about 1500 miles on it I figured I should share my thoughts—not just my initial impressions, but really living with it day-to-day for over a month. As with all cars, there are strong points and weak points—in this case, the strong far outweighs the weak, but both deserve consideration.

Strong Points
• Fast. Fast as hell. I mean, no, it’s not Ferrari fast and it won’t kill an STI at a stoplight (not that I race at stoplights) but it’s a torque animal and just flat-out moves when the gas pedal is stomped. I have, without really trying to go fast, looked down at the speedo at the bottom of a highway entrance ramp and realized I was in triple digits. The kicker is that you get all that 280 fl-lbs of torque goodness at a modest 3000 rpm. It kind of has the opposite problem as the Honda VTEC in that there’s not much advantage flirting with the redline; the engine does tend to start giving up at high rpms (around 6000), but I find that more manageable than having nothing until you reach high rpms. The other really impressive thing about it is the lack of turbo lag. There is a very tiny bit of it, but very close to none. And, technically, actually it is Ferrari fast in some sense. One of the cool Ferraris of my youth was the Ferrari 308 GTB, which made 240 hp and 209 lb-ft of torque and weighed almost exactly the same as a Speed3. (It was also somewhat less practical, being a 2-seater.) So, 24 years later I get in the same performance ballpark for a small fraction of the price.

• Great handling. The nice thing is that this isn’t just straight-line speed, the car can actually corner, and do it well. There’s some understeer, yes, (it is still front wheel drive), but the suspension is terrific, there’s very little body roll, and the road feel is very good. No, the road feel is not as good as the MINI, but this car has so much power on tap that you can compensate on the back side of a turn by just powering out. One thing that deserves comment is the torque steer issue. The various mags and sites certainly have reported a range on this. Obviously, running 280 ft-lb through only the front wheels is a recipe for torque steer. Mazda engineers must have figured that since it has stability control, the ECU knows the steering angle. Therefore, in first and second gears, it backs off the turbocharger as a function of steering angle. Thus, if the wheels are straight ahead, you get pretty much the full boost, but if the wheels are angled a lot, the waste gate opens and you get less boost. This system works very well. It doesn’t eliminate torque steer completely, but it moderates it quite well. This car has about the same amount of pull on the steering wheel as my old Protege5, which had more like 130 lb-ft of torque. I cannot figure out why some folks have complained about it, it’s really not that bad. Oh, and the brakes are fantastic.

• Comfort and ergonomics. The driver’s seat is excellent. It’s well-bolstered but not over-bolstered. I really don’t care for leather seats and the good news is that the seating surfaces aren’t leather, they’re alcantara, which I wasn’t sure about at first, but which I love. It’s more grippy than leather and breathes better, but is just as comfortable.The other good news here is that the initial impression of comfort conveyed by a short ride is maintained over longer drives and over time. And, quite unlike the MINI, the controls are all in sensible locations and easy to reach. Also unlike the MINI, it has a nice split-storage armrest (with power and aux jack in the larger section). Oh, and the glove box is enormous (but, not chilled like the MINI). The other thing, and this one is key for living in Houston, the AC is terrific. It’s so much better than the AC in my old car that I almost don’t miss the moon roof. Oh, and the auto wipers are trippy.

• Appearance. It’s not a fantastic-looking car (you know, like an Aston Martin), but it’s a decent-looking car. One thing I like about it is that it doesn’t look radically different from a regular Mazda3 though the differences are certainly there (particularly the spoiler). You have to know what to look for to know that this is the version that does 0-60 in less than 6 seconds; there’s a certain understatedness to it. The Speed3 doesn’t scream “look at me” in the way that the MINI does, and while the new WRX looks better than the old one, it’s still kind of ugly. I do like the way the Civic Si looks, but not dramatically more than the Speed3. The weakness here is that there are only four color choices: black, white, gray, and red. And the red is red, bright fire-engine red. The red clearly looks the best (there’s a reason that most of the promo photos from Mazda are of the red) and so I went with that, but I’m not sure I really need any extra attention from anyone with a radar gun. On the plus side, my wife has always wanted a red car so I get some points there. I do still wish they made it in the same bright blue that Subaru provides for the WRX or, better yet, the british racing green you can get for the MINI. That would be beautiful.

Regardless, here is a photo gallery, with pics from both before and after the tint job and rear bumper guards. And yes, the car’s nickname, courtesy of my seven-year-old, is “Lightning” and so I had to get the sunshade with the eyes. (If you don’t get this reference, you need to catch up on your Pixar movie viewing.)

• Great exhaust note. This is not a major thing, I know, but it’s nice to have a sporty car which sounds like a sports car. It’s throaty but not overmuch. It’s not like a stupid coffee cans bolted on a Civic, it actually sounds more like a V8, even though of course it isn’t. The other Mazda sports car, the RX-8, is fatally flawed in this regard, and so is the Civic Si. A friend was over for a visit when I came home and she asked how I liked the car and I noted that it’s way fast, and she said “yeah, you can tell from how it sounds.” That’s what you want to hear.

The Bad
• The shifter. This I have to say I do not get. I have indeed gotten more used to the shifter over time and it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, but the shifter in this car simply isn’t that great. It’s on the vague and rubbery side, especially when shifting from 2nd to 3rd. I know Mazda is capable of making a better shifter, and the shifter on the RX-8 is excellent, though of course the RX-8 is another torqueless wonder like the Honda. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the way the RX-8 handles and feels, but it’s about as practical as the MINI and has reliability issues of its own.) Maybe Mazda hasn’t figured out a decent shifter that can handle torque? I don’t know, but if I replace anything on this car, it’s likely to be the shifter.

• The Bose “premium” stereo. Kudos to Bose for one of the greatest marketing departments in the world, because there are people out there who actually seem to think Bose products don’t suck. Well, they do. I guess for a stock car stereo I guess it doesn’t completely suck, but it’s not good. In my Pro5 I put in relatively inexpensive JBL GTO speakers and an amp, and that sounded substantially better than the Bose in the Speed3. The bass is muddy and the treble resolution is awful. The mids are tolerable but unimpressive. My understanding is that the Bose system is wired in some nonstandard way, making it difficult to simply drop in better speakers. Ugh.

• There are a few pretty minor quibbles. For instance, it would be nice to have Bluetooth and a turbo boost gauge, and the speedometer could use more of the dial (the scale is a little cramped). The other thing I’ve seen people complain about is the lack of heated seats. Overrated, and certainly not necessary here in hot and sticky Houston. Some have griped about AWD but I think the car is heavy enough as it is; the MazdaSPEED6 was AWD and the weight just killed the fun.

The Rest
These are things I feel the need to comment on but which aren’t necessarily good or bad.

• No moon roof. Now, from a performance standpoint, the lack of moon roof is forgivable—added weight that high up on the car is less than optimal, and Mazda engineers apparently felt they needed the extra rigidity provided by a full roof since they gave in and provided 60/40 rear folding seats (which you could not get on the MazdaSPEED6). On the other hand, I park my car in the Houston sun most days (and the only interior color available is black), and being able to crack the moon roof provides meaningful ventilation. I know when I take the car to the track (which I will do eventually) I won’t miss it but I park in the sun more often than I go to the track, so it might be nice to have.

• Mileage. I’ll be right up front about this: the car does not get particularly good mileage. It’s rated at 18 city and 26 highway, only marginally better than the WRX. Oh, and it requires premium. So far I’ve been getting around 21 mpg when I fill up, which is right on the nose. Now, when I’m a little more aggressive, it’s less than that, and when I’m more moderated, I get about 23 mpg. And, frankly, this is not a car which wants to be moderated. On the other hand, I knew all this going in and I’m unlikely to put more than 10 or 11 thousand miles a year on the car. Our family hauler, which also has a longer daily commute and therefore gets about 18k miles/year, is a Highlander Hybrid which gets more like 24-26 mpg (on standard octane gas) and is not ULEV rated, but SULEV. So I felt like it was OK to be a little less green with my car. Would I like better mileage? Sure. But this is a performance-oriented car, so I wouldn’t really list this as a complaint, either. (This is one area where the MINI really has a big advantage, however.)

So, overall, a few relatively minor issues and a whole lot of wonderful performance while still being practical and comfortable. Given the modest price tag on this car, I have to say that’s a huge win. It’s not a perfect car but I’m confident that it’s the closest thing for under $25k.

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