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2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

2012 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback - FROM $24,000

With its energetic personality, rewarding handling and thoughtful features, the 2012 Mazdaspeed 3 is a top pick for budget-minded driving enthusiasts.

2012  Mazda MAZDASPEED3 Hatchback

What's New for 2012

The previously optional 10-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system is now standard on the 2012 Mazdaspeed 3.

Introduction

If we were to plot a graph entitled "Hot Hatch Scale," the 2012 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3 would reside on the far side, labeled "Performance." It's got a muscular turbocharged engine, a six-speed manual transmission and handling that's sharp enough to take on legitimate sports cars. As budget-oriented hatchbacks go, this Mazda is certainly one of the best sold today.

At the heart of the Mazdaspeed 3 is its turbocharged 263-horsepower engine, and it helps this front-wheel-drive hatchback charge hard from zero to 60 mph in an impressively quick 6.3 seconds. Technically, this isn't the best time for this type of car -- the all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX can be a full second quicker in test conditions -- but the Mazda is still pretty much tops in the real world. On winding roads, the Mazdaspeed 3 really shows its stuff with precise steering, a buttoned-down suspension and sticky tires.

Like any good hot hatch, the Mazdaspeed 3 still provides ample value and practicality. Passenger space is generous, and with 42.8 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity, the Speed 3 is the rare sporting car that can help you haul a load of stuff from Costco. The well-trimmed cabin also boasts solid fit and finish, and some features (either standard or optional) that you might not expect in this segment.

However, the Mazdaspeed 3 does have some inherent trade-offs. Most notably, sending that much power through the front wheels causes significant torque steer. Boot the throttle as you leave from a stoplight and the steering wheel will wriggle in your hands as if it has a mind of its own. The Mazdaspeed 3 also rides firmly and has a pronounced level of interior noise.

Should you prefer something tamer for everyday driving, we'd steer you to the Volkswagen GTI, a hot hatch that exists on the other side of our graph, labeled "livability." There are also a few other notable choices, including the sprightly Mini Cooper S, the Subaru Impreza WRX and the stylish Volvo C30. But for those enthusiasts who want a hot hatch with equal parts performance and versatility, the Mazdaspeed 3 is the way to go.

Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options

The 2012 Mazdaspeed 3 is a four-door hatchback available in a lone trim level known as the Touring.

Standard equipment includes 18-inch wheels, a limited-slip differential, full power accessories, keyless entry, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, an adjustable front center armrest, a trip computer, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a 10-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system with a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack and steering wheel controls.

The Mazdaspeed 3 Technology package adds automatic and adaptive bi-xenon headlights, a blind-spot monitoring system, automatic wipers, keyless ignition/entry, satellite radio (available separately) and a navigation system with a compact display screen and steering wheel controls. An iPod interface and a six-CD changer are available as dealer-installed accessories.

Powertrains and Performance

The 2012 Mazdaspeed 3 is powered by a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 263 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission directs the power to the front wheels.

In Edmunds performance testing, the Speed 3 went from zero to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds -- quicker than most others in the class. EPA-estimated fuel economy stands at 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined -- OK given its power, but the Cooper S and GTI are more efficient by a fair margin.

Safety

The 2012 Mazdaspeed 3 comes with traction and stability control, antilock brakes, front side airbags, side curtain airbags and active front head restraints. A blind-spot warning system is included with the optional Mazdaspeed Tech package.

In Edmunds brake testing, the Mazdaspeed 3 came to a stop from 60 mph in only 113 feet, which is excellent.

Though the 2012 Mazdaspeed 3 itself hasn't been crash tested, the regular Mazda 3 hatchback upon which it's based has been tested. In government testing, the Mazda 3 earned an overall rating of four (out of a possible five) stars, with five stars for overall frontal-crash protection but just three stars for side-impact protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Mazda 3 its highest possible rating of "Good" in its frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength tests.

Interior Design and Special Features

The Mazdaspeed variant differs from the regular Mazda 3 with its upgraded gauges and sport front seats that have standard black leather upholstery with cloth inserts. Though the red-dot pattern of the upholstery is reminiscent of a Nike athletic shirt from the 1990s, the interior otherwise meets the same high standard of design and quality seen in the regular Mazda 3. The Speed 3 also has the same optional navigation system, which is functional but somewhat limited by its small display screen. Some features aren't shared, however, so there's no sunroof or heated power seats for the Mazdaspeed 3.

The front seats are comfortable, but could offer a bit more adjustment for taller drivers. The backseat offers acceptable space, but it pales in comparison to that of the VW GTI. Some may lament that no sedan body style is available, but the standard hatch allows for a greater level of practicality. The cargo area provides 17 cubic feet of space with the rear seats raised and expands to 42.8 with them lowered.

Driving Impressions

Routing 280 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels is usually a recipe for torque steer. This phenomenon is minimal compared to cars of the distant past, but the 2012 Mazdaspeed 3 can still seem as if it has a mind of its own when you're too aggressive with the throttle while carving a very acute corner. Some might view this as part of the fun, but others may be willing to trade in a little power for the less wild power delivery of a GTI or WRX.

In any case, there's no doubt that the Speed 3 is one of the best-handling and most entertaining hot hatches on a winding road. Impressively precise like few other front-wheel-drive cars, the steering provides plenty of communication and faithfully transmits information from the tires. Considering the car's performance potential, the suspension also provides a fairly compliant ride, though the Mazdaspeed 3 ultimately isn't as comfortable as some other competitors. In testing, we've also found that its clutch take-up can be a little tricky compared to other cars.