Back in the heyday of zoom-zoom, Mazda graced the world with a handful of extra-special performance versions of its already entertaining affordable vehicles. The cars dubbed Mazdaspeed — or, in Mazda's preferred style, MAZDASPEED — added sportier suspensions, more aggressive body kits, and of course, more power.
In the case of the Mazdaspeed3, a lot more power. The hot hatch spun up 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque on premium gas, which were big numbers for a cheap speed machine when it debuted back in 2007; wilder still, it routed all that power to the front wheels alone, soley through a six-speed manual gearbox. With boost that came on like an afterburner, torque steer like a rip tide and a design that looked straight out of anime, it was a delightfully immature toy that also happened to be a surprisingly utilitarian hatchback.
The 2021 Mazda 3 Turbo is very much not that car.
The turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four now found in the Mazda 3 (and also found under the hoods of the Mazda 6, CX-5 and CX-9) actually lags behind the old Mazdaspeed3 on horses, spitting out 250 ponies on 93 octane and 227 on regular gas.
It whips the old engine on torque, though; even on cheap fuel, it makes 310 lb-ft of twist, and you can add 10 more to that on premium. But there's no worry about that torque overwhelming the tires, because every turbo Mazda 3 is equipped with an automatic transmission packing a torque converter and all-wheel-drive.
As a result, the driving experience is entirely different than that zoomy hatch of yore. The gearbox shifts smartly when asked of it — Mazda continues to make a strong case for the argument that cars don't need more than six forward gears — but the acceleration feels smooth and forceful, not explosive.
Mazda is pushing hard to move upscale these days, and the Mazda 3's design and material quality shows just how far they've come. But impressive as the company's efforts to lift their compact car up to new heights, the naturally aspirated four has never quite been able to live up to the standards set by the rest of the ride. It's more than adequate for daily driving, sure — but they feel much better suited to the entry-level variants than the unexpectedly fancy Premium Plus Package version that caps the lineup.
With the turbo four, however, the top-trim Mazda3 finally feels like a complete package. Mazda wants people to view it as a competitor to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Audi A3 and BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe; while brand snobs might still prefer a luxury nameplate, it's not hard to make an argument that most of us would be way better-off with a loaded Mazda3 than a front-drive stripper from Germany.
Let's face it: we all love the idea of, say, a Honda Civic Type R or a Subaru WRX STI, but driving one every day would grow a bit tiresome. Unless your commute involves a dozen miles of winding road, a firm suspension and razor-sharp steering might get old over time — and even if they don't, you're still struck driving around in a car with 2 Fast 2 Furious bodywork and a wing big enough to come from Boeing.
The latest Mazda 3 may not be quite the tactile delight to drive as it was in past generations, but it's still one of the more entertaining cars in its class, with firm, direct steering and a nicely balanced suspension. And its interior is a far nicer place to spend time than any Civic or Impreza, with an elegant design and materials that feel every bit worthy of its $35K price. The only downside is a maddening radio tuner, but hey, that's why we have CarPlay and podcasts.
Base Price: $35,390
Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four; six-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Torque: 320 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway
Kelley Blue Book has released their best cars to buy awards for 2021. The results may surprise you.'