A real cherry with a turbo on top

Mazda's Mazda3 hatchback in standard dress is a pretty cool little car. This compact handles the rigors of daily life really well while making those trips to and fro more enjoyable. However, the real fun comes to the road now that the MAZDASPEED3 ups the ante considerably with more power and capabilities.

What sets the MAZDASPEED3 apart from other compact five-doors is what lurks unassumingly under the hood. The 2.3-liter in-line four-cylinder engine produces a whopping 263 horsepower, but more importantly 280 lb-ft. of torque. These power numbers are courtesy of a turbocharger that employs an intercooler that sits on top of the engine. This location assisted the designers in keeping the low profile front-end styling.

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Speaking of styling, it may seem as though the MAZDASPEED3 blends into the crowd, but the sharp eye will notice very quickly that it isn't part of that multitude. Beyond the performance on the road, visual cues include a lower stance thanks to a sport suspension system. The unique 18-inch alloy wheels and roof spoiler are a dead giveaway that something is lurking behind that Mazda badge and grille. The MAZDASPEED3 platform also receives valuable reinforcements throughout giving it a stiffer, more rigid base.

We took the MAZDASPEED3 to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, of course, to test its abilities in a safe environment. Don't want to do these things on public roads, you know. Laguna Seca is an 11-turn, 2.6-mile racetrack that also adds in elevation changes that tax even the most powerful of racecars. It proved to be a great place for an evaluation.

The MAZDASPEED3 powers away from stops with very little torque steer thanks to a unique traction control system that keeps the car going straight. That pulling to the side under heavy throttle is an inherent problem in many front-wheel-drive automobiles. The more powerful you make a front-wheel-drive car, the more diligent the engineers must work to keep the car going straight under hard acceleration. While there is a slight tug on the steering wheel, there is no cause for concern. We've been in tuner cars that tried to make 90-degree turns when we jumped on the throttle. Not here.

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The six-speed manual transmission in which this torque control is incorporated offers up excellent gearing for spirited driving along with keeping reins on the fuel economy. The shifts are concise once you are familiar the shifter. Even during speed shifts on the track we never missed a gate with the shifter.

Climbing the hill up to the famous Cork Screw the car labored just a bit. In all fairness, it takes a lot of power to climb this hill. Mazda was pretty brave to let us test their performance compact under these conditions. They knew this minor condition would be overshadowed many times over by the advantages the MAZDASPEED3 displays.

Hit the Cork Screw at speed and it is like riding a wild roller coaster, flick the wheel to the left, line up on the oak tree on the hill in the distance and flick the wheel to the right. All of this happens in a blink of and eye-and you better not blink. This is where the MAZDASPEED3 shines. The modifications to the suspension system help guide the hatchback through the turns with very little body roll. This makes it easy to keep the car tracking in the direction the driver points the wheels.

Another masterful thing here is that even though the car handles these high-speed turns easily, the suspension isn't so stiff as to not be able to soak up irregular road surfaces on the road to the market. A big salute to the suspension engineers who can make all of this happen in a small affordable vehicle.

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Comfort yet sportiness are carried through to the interior. When you are dealing with an affordable compact car you cannot be too austere with interior accommodations. Most who buy the MAZDASPEED3 are folks who are making their paychecks stretch as far as they can. The vehicle they buy must go far beyond performance; it must function well day-to-day.

The sport bucket seats are cool looking with medium-sized bolsters on seat cushion and back. They are comfortable while supportive during those hard cornering maneuvers we were doing on the track. We drove the MAZDASPEED3 on the road for many back-to-back hours and came away ready to do more.

We are seeing more and more compact vehicles that are capable of injecting spirit into our driving. Unfortunately many do not perform well during the normal day-to-day driving we all must endure. Today, our vehicles must not only be fun to drive, but practical at the same time. While practical doesn't get the headlines, being able to be practical and infuse a high element of fun into the drive does. We think the MAZDASPEED3 achieves its goal. (www.mazdausa.com)

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