The cars we loved.
Mazda has always had one foot in performance and the other in practicality, often with surprisingly good results. For so small a company, it’s a miracle that it even cares about performance considering that everyone wants to go the way of Toyota and create safe looking and performing cars.
That urge may have propelled Mazda’s evolution of the Protege5 which became the Mazda 3 in 2004. The Protege5 was a blast to drive and was even more fun in the 170 hp Protege MP3 variant. However fun those cars were to drive, they were a bit under powered for their excellent chassis. When the Protege line became the 3, the floodgates were opened to improvement. Progress came, but in calm trickles rather than gusing waves.
The Mazda 3 would benefit from a trio development team from Mazda, Ford and Volvo. The 160 hp Duratec Ford 2.3 would be the starting point. The same engine was under the hoods of European Focuses (or is that Foci). It would also use the same 5 speed manual transmission (or four speed automatic). The Volvo influence rubbed of on the Mazda3 in the form of upmarket options like HID headlamps, leather interiors and digital entertainment options. This mix of good genes propelled Mazda3 sales to levels never seen in the old Protege. The Mazda3 instantly became a favorite in the performance community with its sharp handling and practicality. Mazda’s cautious approach had justified a more powerful variant of the 3, but the performance formula would be tried on the midsized 6 sedan first.
That frustrated many Mazda3 performance fans. Not content with excellent handling, some clamoured for more power. The Mazda3 was still getting left behind by it’s all-wheel drive and turbo powered competition. The MazdaSpeed6, had got the goods wanted for the 3: all-wheel drive, and more importantly a 273 hp direct injected version of the MZR/Duratec engine. While the sporty version of the 6 was intended to chase the 3 Series and other all-wheel drive cars like the Subaru Legacy GT, it was hardly a drop in the pond sales wise. It only lasted two years, but its parting gift to the Mazda 3 would be its 2.3-liter turbocharged engine. Detuned for the smaller lighter 3, it made 263 hp. It was 2007 and the Mazdaspeed 3 was born.
Other features from the Mazdaspeed6 like its expensive all-wheel drive system did not make it, but in the lighter cheaper Mazdaspeed3, the enhancements went a long way in improving performance. Still one of the media favorites, the 2007 models could do the run to 60 mph in just under 6 seconds. The 3s real talent came with its handling. Lateral-g numbers were consistently in the high 80s to 90 range, putting it at the top of many comparison tests.
Other changes included a six-speed manual transmission, Torsen mechanical limited slip differential and re-tuned steering. All the changes made the Mazdaspeed3 one of the best handling compact cars you could buy. Stopping was world-class thanks to the use of Volvo S40 larger brakes. Mazda was approaching the limits of front wheel drive performance while Subarur and Mitsubish were pushing the virtues of all-wheel drive.
In the 3s performance transformation, practicality never waned. The top 3 was only available as a five door hatch, giving it the considerable versatility. The interior was simple and straight forward with a slightly upscale feel to it, even if some of the plastics felt cheap. The clear red gauge displays and readouts made getting information simple and when not cluttered with a Nav system, the 3’s simplistic almost Zen-like dash was an exercise in organic themed design.
Simplicity extended to the fully independent suspension and a chassis tuned for performance. The lack of a heavy all-wheel drive system meant that the Mazdaspeed 3’s gas mileage would be close to 29 mpg on the highway. In 2010 a slight reskin do doubt inspired by the 2006 Nagare show car gave the 3 its most controversial change in years: its gaping mouth front end. The organic look did not win over too many new fans for Mazda, but those who could overlook it were rewarded with a highly capable performance car. Fortunately for Mazda, the “Joker face”, as many referred to it, was a short lived experiment.
While fans of all-wheel drive may not see the 3 as being in the same league as the WRX or Lancer, it offers similar performance in a more practical body shell. The formula was so successful that the 3 got very few cosmetic changes over the course of its first generation. An all new generation appeared in 2011 and continued to lead the field, untill the arrival of the Ford Focus ST. The second generation Mazdaspeed3 got the new Kodo corporate face, as seen on cars like the 6 sedan and CX-9 crossover.