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…

DRIVEN: 2007 BMW 335i

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos courtesy BMW Canada

A year after launching its new 3-Series sedan, BMW has now taken the opportunity to fill out the remainder of its entry-level lineup. And, at the same time, introducing a brand-new engine that will sate power-hungry Bimmer-philes for quite a while.

While the 3-Series Coupe (codenamed E92) made its Canadian debut at last October’s AJAC Test Fest, it whetted our appetites enough to want a more ‘extended’ test when time permitted. Now that we’ve spent a week in BMW’s new two door, we’ve come to appreciate it even more.

Or should we say appreciate the engine even more. Certainly you’ve already heard about BMW’s first forced-induction gasoline engine since the BMW 2002 Turbo – the company has been making excellent turbo-diesels for years, so they’re not out of practice by any means. Combining a direct injection 3.0-liter inline six with two small light-pressure turbos, BMW has come up with nice round power numbers: 300 hp @ 5,800 rpm, and 300 lb-ft @ a ridiculously low 1,400 rpm.

While 300 horses in a relatively small car is a near guarantee of fun, it’s that torque figure that really stands out. With the peak hitting barely above idle, it’s the big-block-style shove in the back in any gear at any time that characterizes the 335i Coupe. Turbo lag is virtually nonexistent, and with this flexibility, the six speeds feel superfluous.

And, although the 335i weighs 150lbs more than the outgoing M3, the performance gap between the two is negligible. (All of which bodes well for the new V8-powered E92 M3 that makes its debut later this year.)

With such a spectacular engine under hood, you could almost excuse the 335i Coupe if it looked like a dog’s breakfast. Thankfully, it doesn’t, although photos don’t do the car any justice. In person, the Coupe is a more conservative evolution of Chris Bangle’s styling direction; in fact, from the rear, it looks remarkably like a 6-Series with the truck ‘fixed’.

The front isn’t anything special either, although you could argue it’s very much a Q-Car: understated on the outside, anything but underneath.

As with every 3-Series built, the 335i is a performance enthusiast’s dream, with BMW’s typically responsive and engaging chassis, although the run-flat tires do make the ride unreasonably harsh – the first thing M-sport engineers do is throw on ‘normal’ rubber. Why BMW doesn’t adopt that thinking across the rest of its range is a mystery…

Meanwhile, the optional Active Steering is still in the ‘Undecided’ category. At low speeds, only having to use half a turn of lock to maneuver is exceptional, and backing off at high speeds so you don’t go flying off into the weeds if you sneeze certainly is the smart thing to do. However, if you’re in the middle of a changing-radius turn, the combination of speed and angle change can be really unsettling. You find you need to take two bites out of complicated corners when one should suffice.

Non-Active Steering is still superb, though, so you might as well save some money by not selecting it.

The brakes are sufficiently beefy that they’ll take just about anything the road can throw at you, but a day at the track might find them wanting. Why a ‘big-brake’ option isn’t available on any of BMW’s models – including the M’s – is increasingly curious.

Inside, the main features will be familiar to anyone who’s driven a new 3-Series in the last year as the Coupe shares the sedan’s fitments; iDrive is (thankfully) an option, while the sport seats are firm and supportive. Ergonomically everything is correct, but finished with very little passion. Some extra verve would be welcome…

As with any German car, the pricing depends heavily on what options you check; value for money is not at the top of BMW’s game. The 335i starts at $51,600, while our reasonably well-equipped tester – Sport Package, Premium Package, Active Steering and Park Distance Control – rang in at $60,550.

Still, despite the gripes, the Coupe continues to set the bar further away from its rivals. The Infiniti G35 came closest, but we haven’t seen the new two-door version yet. The Lexus IS350 doesn’t come with two doors, and the Mercedes-Benz CLK350 isn’t focused enough. Until someone looks beyond ‘benchmarking’ the 3-Series and truly invests in perfecting the sport coupe, BMW has the enthusiast vote all locked up.