When I caught my first glance of the new Mazda3 and saw that ridiculous “smile” from the front grill, my reaction was to slap my forehead and wonder aloud what the heck Mazda was thinking. When the Mazdaspeed3 arrived at my door, someone remarked “Oh, it’s the smiling car.” After living with the MS3 for a week, there is a reason for that idiotic grin on the front of the car-it’s advertising the facial expression of the driver. It all makes sense now.
The MS3 first arrived in 2007 as the hotrod version of the popular Mazda3. With a new generation 3, comes a new MS3. With such an acclaimed, popular car, the changes here are strictly evolutionary. Power comes from the same 2.3L turbo intercooled four, still producing 263hp sent to the front wheels via a 6-speed manual transmission. Mazda did make some adjustments to improve driveability.
Push the START button and the MS3 barks to life. Enthusiasts will love the deep, edgy idle that sounds even better from outside the car. Slip the car into first, put both hands (firmly) on the wheel and you are rewarded with quite a push back into the driver’s seat, accompanied by an authoritative, rising crescendo from the engine room. This is the anti-Honda engine. A big four with plenty of torque, and 6 grand on the tach is about all you’ll want before grabbing another gear.
Though the MS3 lacks the snick-snick shift action of a Miata or Civic Si, the (just) slightly long throws and deliberate action suits the car’s persona. Power delivery is instant, and the MS3 is a riot to stab the throttle and just take off. Passing is a joy. In fact, any opportunity to just point and shoot the MS3 is a thrill.
It certainly helps that the chassis is good and stiff. Steering is outstanding. Excellent feel, perfectly weighted. Simply one of the best on a front wheel drive car. The ride is on the firm side, to be sure. The benefit is suitably sporty handling, but Mazda engineers left enough compliance to make the MS3 a car that is easy to live with on a daily basis. Shod with low-profile 18″ alloys, the MS3 never crashed over bad pavement.
Coincidentally, the state of Pennsylvania plays a role in both of The Garage’s experiences with the MS3. In September Gary piloted one on a rain-soaked Pocono International Raceway (click for the video). During my weekend with the car, I packed in my wife, three year old son, and our Dachshund along with presents for an early Christmas in Lancaster County, PA. Needless to say, the snowstorm that dumped the highest amount of snow in the area for the month of December since John F. Kennedy was president sent my plans of some country backroad driving out the window.
Even so, the weather did little to diminish my admiration of the MS3, but it is not, nor does it strive to be the perfect car. The interior is a nice enough place to be. The controls are simple and easy to learn, the gauges clear. The materials felt good, but not great, and our tester, with 6,000 miles on the odometer had developed a squeak in the driver’s seat. The red and black graphics that are on sections of the seats, door panels and dash trim scream ‘boy racer”, and it is the only trim available here. Our car featured the Tech Package for an extra $1,895, providing you with Bose audio and nav. The stereo sounded great, but the nav screen was tiny, and lacked many features competitors offer. My advice would be to skip this option and buy yourself a superior portable GPS unit.
These are minor annoyances that did little to take away from the joy this car delivers. For the level of performance and intensity the MS3 has on tap at all times, this is not a taxing car to drive. In spite of the firm ride and wicked exhaust note, I felt no fatigue at all after the 250 mile drive home, averaging between 75-80mph but still getting 25mpg.
While contemplating the MS3, I kept thinking back to the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback we reviewed in September. Sure, you lose the all-wheel drive and the incredible Recaro sport seats, but consider this-the MS3 costs over $5,000 less, is lighter, more fuel efficient, has more power, and a manual gear box. With a base price of $23,195USD, this is the greatest performance bargain out there. There is a purity in the driving experience that others lack, and you get a sense that Mazda left some rough edges to give the car its distinct personality. It works, and I’m sold. That idiotic grin on my face when I’m driving the car is proof.