Take a good look at the Mazdaspeed3. Even the grinning grill of this compact rocket seems more mischievous than that of its Mazda siblings, like it has a secret: Sure, I'm practical enough to get the groceries, but think how much fun you'll have doing it with the 263 turbocharged horses underneath this hood scoop. Zoom-zoom . . .
Appearance: We differ in opinion on the grille, but both like the Speed3's taunt, yet subtle, profile. The scoop in the hood is not only aggressive in appearance, but necessary for the air intake of the turbocharger. The roof-mounted wing and slightly shouldered taillights make for a pleasing rear design.
Performance: Mazda's "zoom-zoom" slogan isn't hype with the Speed3. It has thrill-inducing acceleration and, with all that power going to the front wheels, the Speed3 just may be the poster child for torque steer. Even with the electronic goodies that limit the torque steer, there's a fair amount of steering-wheel tug, which Peter found unsettling under hard acceleration in city driving. The handling, however, is tight with minimal body lean. You'll definitely be grateful for the well-bolstered front seats. Lyra discovered just how well the car handles at highway speeds when she had to evade a truck's flying debris on the interstate. (Thank the high-performance rubber, 18-inch wheels and the power-assist steering.) We both liked the firm clutch, but felt the gears on the six-speed manual were a bit too close, especially shifting into third, which can take some fishing to find. And we both liked the rumble from the sport-tuned dual exhaust.
Interior: Nice touches include the "Zoom-Zoom" message on the status-display screen when you start the car with a push button. The optional nav system has a squint-inducing small screen that is high and far forward on the dash. The seats have a red-on-black graphic design that can be a bit dizzying. Peter didn't like their manual adjustments. Lyra liked the turbo-boost gauge positioned between the speedometer and the tach. The Bluetooth setup is by voice, which Lyra found a bit cumbersome. But when hooked up, it works well. As you might expect, the rear legroom is minimal, but Peter's kids were not uncomfortable in the back on a drive to Orlando. The wide-opening rear hatch had room for four suitcases. And, hey, Mazda, what's up with the ridiculously wimpy sound of the horn?
Our 3 favorites
Styling: The chiseled design says performance.
Cockpit: Speed3 details like the aluminum-alloy pedals and the luminescent gauges make the car hip.
Cargo: For a compact car, there's room with the zoom.
Price point: It's a performance bargain for the money.
Zippy handling: Quick and responsive, with superb evasive moves.
Design: Based on Mazda's Nagare concept cars, the lines flow elegantly.
The bottom line: We loved the sports-car performance and practicality of the Mazdaspeed3, but as a daily ride, all that torque can get tiresome. If you're just looking for a stylish, fun compact, then consider the standard Mazda3.