Driven: 2010 Mazda Mazdaspeed3 Sport

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Hot hatches are a sore spot for American connoisseurs. The Europeans and Japanese always seem to get the best ones, while we're stuck with inferior models. Not so with the Mazdaspeed3.

Sure, it's no Ford Focus RS, much less the RS500, but it's a 263-horsepower, 280 pound-foot, turbocharged, front-driving monster. Except it's not quite so monstrous anymore--aside from the new snout.

Go Speed Racer Go!
The previous Mazdaspeed3 was a brilliant car, too. With sleeper looks, the same drivetrain, and a very well-sorted suspension, it can make quick work of even the mighty 2009+ Subaru WRX in the right hands, whether on the street, the autocross course, or the road course. But it has a nasty reputation for torque steer, or should I say vicious torque steer.

It's a reputation well-earned--piping all that power through the front wheels and a good limited-slip differential can make for some exciting moments as the car gets its own idea of where it wants to go under power. The new car fixes this, somewhat, but it's still a handful.

We're not complaining, though. It's character like this that makes the Mazdaspeed3 a true hot hatch. It's not a fully-refined, double-rinsed, fast-yet-bland version of what a hot hatch should be. It's the Real McCoy. And it's a joy to drive.

Spool the turbo up, get the engine to about 3,500 rpm, and the fun kicks in. Don't worry about that last 800-1,000 rpm, though, as it's basically there just to keep you from having to shift in awkwards spots--there's almost no power at the top end. But between 3,500 and 5,500 rpm, it's a rocketship.

Handling is improved slightly over the previous model, though in back-to-back testing with my girlfriend's car (a bone-stock 2008.5 'Speed3), the differences are minute at best. The new car rotates a little more fluidly at turn-in, handles bumps just a little better, and shows a little less tendency to understeer at the exit. But you have to really be pushing the limits to even notice.

A Face Only A Mother Could Love?
The first thing you might notice if you're a Mazdaspeed3 fan is the new look of the 2010 model. It's definitely a change from the understated looks of the previous model. The hood-mounted scoop gives a more menacing look, while the flared front fenders and more complicated side panels give the car a more modern feel. Then you have that smiley face.

Looking to my eye like a combination of fish gills, joy, and drunken stupor, the new 'Speed3's grille isn't exactly a plus compared to the previous car's use of hexagonal mesh and conventional bars. But it's an eye-catcher, and marks the car out as something special from a distance. And you can always change it out for something more to your liking once you buy the car, even though you shouldn't have to. Whatever side of the smiley-grille issue you're on, though, there's no denying the car's solid overall package.

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