Hot-hatch comparisons are some of our favorites to put on at Motor Trend. After all, we get to bring together the best-handling cars you can find around $25K to see which dominates on twisty canyon roads, and we learn how much handling prowess you can buy for relatively little money. The Volkswagen GTI has been the car to beat in this category, and it has been improved again for 2010. While the MazdaSpeed3 has not beaten the GTI when facing it in one of our comparisons, Mazda has given it new life for 2010, and we wonder: is that going to be enough to dethrone the GTI?
You can tell just by looking at it that the MazdaSpeed3 has been restyled for 2010. No surprise, it shares the smiley-face front end with the standard Mazda3 sedan and five-door. There are definite differences in its appearance from that of its milder-mannered kin, though: the Speed has round foglights that flank the smile, there are well-defined fender flares in the front and rear, it has a larger spoiler than on the regular five-door, and there is a hood scoop, which is new for 2010. The scoop is functional, too, said to improve the efficiency of the intercooler by improving airflow. There's also a new 18-inch wheel design -- and the wheel and tire package is wider by about half an inch. The dual exhaust tips are larger than on last year's hatch.
The cabin received a refurb as well. The interior is still mostly black with red accents and stitching, and receives the new-for-2010 improvements seen in the regular 3, including the new nav system near the top of the dash at the base of the windshield. The Speed also gets an LED turbo boost gauge within the cluster. The interior is easy to get acquainted with, and once you get the hang of the nav system's controls (only found on the steering wheel), it's fairly simple as well. Some may not like the small size of the screen, but for those who are used to the smaller-size screens on some aftermarket systems, this is about the same and shows just enough of the map to get you where you want to go. Seats offer enough support to keep you in place on spirited jaunts, yet proved plenty comfortable on our 350-mile drive. The cabin is not whisper-quiet by any means, but it seems as if the interior has been treated to sound deadening and benefits from less unwanted noise inside. And while there are plenty of good-looking, sporty touches throughout, the interior feels more refined now without feeling as if it appeals to an older crowd.
Returning for 2010 is the 263-horsepower turbocharged four, backed by a six-speed manual transmission. While horsepower and torque numbers have not changed, Mazda has made gear ratios taller in second through fifth gears. Four-wheel ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, dynamic stability control, and traction control are all standard. Structural improvements include use of thicker steel in high-stress areas, plus use of high- and ultra-high-strength steel throughout the structure. Suspension benefits from stiffer springs and higher damping rates.
Pushing the button to start the engine creates a nasty, rumbling sound from the exhaust, a note that is very different from that of the normal 3. Accelerating, though, we immediately recognized something that has been a signature of the Speed3 since it first went on sale: torque steer. It was the biggest complaint we had with the previous-generation, and returns here. While it isn't as bad as it was in other cars we've tested, it's noticeable enough that we hope to see the addition of all-wheel drive in the future -- or a slight power reduction.
The suspension is plenty firm and taut without being uncomfortable, and the car was confident and highly entertaining in turns. However, when it comes to day-to-day driving, you will feel bumps and dips, as we noticed on some of the poorly maintained roads where we did some of our driving. Steering feel is nicely weighted and communicative. Brakes also felt firm and provided excellent response, plus showed no signs of fade. The clutch was a little temperamental; it wasn't as progressive as we would've liked and on a few occasions, the gates seemed so close together that engaging second gear was sometimes difficult when downshifting.At the track, the new Speed3's performance was not all that different from what it was the last time we tested it (that one was a 2009 model). This year, the hatch reaches 60 mph in 5.6 seconds -- exactly the same time as last year. It completed the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 99.9 mph (as opposed to last year's 14.1 at 100.6 mph), and braking in both cases was 112 feet.
Can the new MazdaSpeed3 beat the next-generation GTI? The Speed3 offers fun on twisty roads at a bargain price, good looks (although we're still trying to get used to the new nose), roomy interior for the car's size, and the practical function of a hatchback. It is also faster at the track than the GTI is. The Mazda is definitely catching up to the GTI, but unless the next generation of the VW has gotten worse than the ones that came before, the MazdaSpeed3 isn't quite there yet. Refinements and other improvements have absolutely made the car better than it was, but until Mazda does something to alleviate the torque steer, It seems the Volkswagen would still be king. However, we won't know for sure until we can get behind the wheel of both. Looks like we just came up with an excuse for another hot-hatch comparison...