Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy Mazda Canada

Mazda has never been known to overpower any of its products in recent years. Even the MAZDASPEED versions of the old Protégé and Miata gained only modest power, despite the addition of a turbo. It was always more a question of handling balance versus outright power. Even the MAZDASPEED6, with its 270 horsepower is blunted by being trapped in a body that weighs over 3,600 pounds.

However, someone at Mazda has finally gotten the message, perhaps in the wake of the Dodge’s SRT offerings – 240 horsepower in the old Neon, potentially 300 in the new Caliber when it hits dealerships later this year. Coming to the hot hatch party underdressed wouldn’t garner Mazda many headlines.

So they let their creative braintrust loose with the new MAZDASPEED3, taking the very potent 2.3-liter direct-injection turbocharged four-cylinder from the MS6, and slapping it in the lighter 3 body. Leaving out the all-wheel-drive system shed even more weight, and the result is a relatively svelte (for 2007, anyway) 3,150-pound package.

Although the MS3 is a few horses shy of its bigger brother – 263 vs. 270 – but the torque output is identical with 280 lb-ft peaking at a low 3,000 rpm. Combined with a close-ratio six-speed gearbox, a clutch-type limited-slip differential, and Mazda’s torque-management system working overboard, the MS3 blows from a dead stop to 100km/h in 6.1 seconds.

During those 6.1 seconds, you’d imagine that it would be chock full of strained arms trying to control a torque-steering monster, but Mazda’s engineers have done a very good job of limiting the to-and-fro. The torque-management computer reads dozens of inputs from the ABS sensors, traction control, steering-angle sensors, etc., and limits the power appropriately in the first two gears. There’s still wheel-spin – you could smoke off the summer rubber muscle-car style in a minute or two if you’re determined enough to abuse it – but the MS3 has been designed from the start with enough beefy pieces to survive the big front-wheel-drive launches.

Thankfully, the suspension has been designed to suit more than just the wrong-wheel-drive drag crowd. Mazda claims a 60 per cent improvement in roll stiffness thanks to retuned dampers and spring rates, along with fatter stabilizer bars. Larger brakes hiding behind 18-inch wheels with low-profile sticky tires round out the package.
Driving the MS3 is a lesson in brutality. Compared to, say, the Volkswagen GTI, the Mazda rides rougher, is louder, faster and corners harder. It’s a much more hardcore machine than Germany’s hot hatch.

The only problem with all that effort spent at reducing torque steer and tire smoke is the reduced effect it has on feel. And while the MS3 grips and grips and grips, you never find you can just dance with it. Subtlety is not its forte… at least not the driving portion.

Visually, there isn’t much to differentiate the MS3 from the lesser models. A larger front bumper, larger rear hatch spoiler, those larger wheels, and the big single exhaust. The True Red paint job – the only colour available in 2007 – tries to garner some attention, but even then, you’d be hard pressed to spot the differences from 50 feet away.

But when you have so much power underhood, being considered a sleeper is never really a bad thing…

Inside, the seats get bigger bolsters, and the pedals are aluminum, but the rest mimics the regular 3’s facelift for ‘07. While the design is still modern, some of the materials are feeling a little brittle, but the cabin is certainly no penalty box.

Mazda has done a decent job at positioning the MS3 competitively in the hot sport-compact segment. Without any options to choose, the pricing comes in at $30,995, higher than the base prices of the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI, but better equipped than either. Might as well try the most powerful hot hatch available while they last…

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