2007-2013 Mazdaspeed 3 | Buyer's Guide

Robert
By Robert Bowen
May 27, 2022 | Mazda, Mazdaspeed3 | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the June 2013 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Courtesy Mazda

Mazda is known for producing great driving machines, but  when the turbocharged horsepower wars of the early 2000s really got going, the brand was on the sidelines. Sure, the 2003 Mazdaspeed Protegé was a half-hearted attempt at a compact hotrod, but the car was a one-year-only effort that produced a paltry 170 horsepower—just 30 more than stock. 

The turbo Protegé wasn’t much competition for the established Subaru Impreza WRX, let alone stronger front-drive contenders like the Neon SRT-4 and Cobalt SS. Drivers liked the Protegé’s handling and balance, but on sheer power it fell flat. The Mazda faithful would have to wait a few more years for a competitive entry into that group.

Raw Ingredients

In 2004, the first important event in the history of the Mazdaspeed3 occurred: the launch of an all-new model, the Mazda3, to replace the Protegé. Unlike its predecessor, the new car had all the right ingredients to be a world-beater. For one, the platform was stiff and safe, developed in cooperation with Ford (foreign-market second-gen Focus) and Volvo (S40/V50). 

The Mazda3 was front-drive only—like the Focus but unlike the Volvo—and offered a choice of four-cylinder engines and either a sedan or five-door hatchback body style. In the U.S., the base 2.0-liter MZR served as a thrifty grocery-getter, while the optional S model had a 160-horsepower 2.3-liter variant of the MZR/Duratec engine also used in the Ford Focus. Both could be had with either a five-speed manual or a conventional automatic.

Thanks to the Volvo connection, it drove like a much more expensive car and featured available equipment that went beyond the usual compact sedan or wagon accessories. Buyers could spec leather, navigation, HID headlamps and more. Thanks to all these factors, the Mazda3 was a hit, outselling the Protegé handily in its first few years.

The next key development came in 2006, when the Mazdaspeed6 debuted. This was a hotrod sedan based on the Mazda6. Instead of standard Mazda6 fare, however, this one had all-wheel drive and a stout, turbocharged, 273-horsepower, direct-injection version of the MZR engine. The only transmission offered was a six-speed manual.

While the Mazdaspeed6 seemed quick on paper, even it couldn’t really outgun the same-year WRX or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. The car was tuned much more softly—Mazda saw it as competition for the BMW 3 Series, or perhaps the contemporary Subaru Legacy GT. The Mazdaspeed6 lasted only two years and never sold in large numbers. 

The Alchemy Pays Off

The true magic really happened when Mazda engineers combined the new Mazda3 chassis and the Mazdaspeed6’s high-tech powerplant for the 2007 model year. The direct-injection engine was de-rated to 263 horsepower in the Mazdaspeed3 application, and the all-wheel-drive was lost in the translation to keep the car’s price down. This also reduced weight and complexity.

During development, though, the team paid special attention to steering feel, chassis rigidity and real-world handling. The anti-roll bars were upped significantly in diameter, while the spring rates were only slightly raised and the shocks were tuned to suit. Larger brakes cribbed from the Mazda3 platform-mate Volvo S40 contributed to the ’Speed3’s stopping prowess. A Torsen mechanical limited-slip differential inside the Aisin six-speed transmission increased corner-exit grip and helped with on-track manners. 

These changes, along with the higher power, made for an engaging driver’s car at speed. ECU tuning reduced boost—and thus torque steer—in lower gears, making the most of the “wrong-wheel-drive” chassis. Revised suspension geometry and added chassis crossmembers rounded out the dirty bits of the new car.

The resulting Mazdaspeed3 was what enthusiasts had been waiting for. Finally, Mazda had a challenger for the day’s sport compact wars. Cosmetically, only the upsized 18-inch wheels, rear spoiler and front air dam set the new car apart from the Mazda3 S hatchback—the ’Speed3 never came in sedan form.

The Mazdaspeed3’s hood bulged slightly, but the change is easy to overlook. Inside, new seats unique to the model featured more bolstering and “Mazdaspeed” embroidery. The standard black interior gained red stitching as well as aluminum pedals and scuff plates.

Practical and Powerful

The Mazdapeed3 may not have been much to look at compared to the standard 3, but it was a car meant to be driven. Contemporary reviewers absolutely gushed over its acceleration, lateral-g numbers, steering feel and civility. Most testers got sub-6-second zero-to-60 times out of the new car, and lateral-g numbers pushed 0.85 to 0.90. Quarter-mile times were in the low-14-second range, which was WRX territory. 

As a whole, the Mazdaspeed3 was similar to the Subaru WRX in usability, with roughly comparable straight-line performance. Handling in some cases was better due to the larger wheels and tires, though the car lagged behind the all-wheel-drive competition on a standing-start basis. The fuel economy was better, with an EPA rating of 20/28 miles per gallon. Overall, the compromises seemed acceptable for a car with this much performance.

The Mazdaspeed3 was a step below the Lancer Evolution or WRX STI in performance by any measure thanks to less power and less aggressive suspension tuning. But it was much less expensive than any of these cars—$2500 or so less than the base WRX and roughly $7500 less than the Evolution or STI. That extra money could buy a lot of winter tires if all-wheel drive were an obstacle.

The Mazdaspeed3 had a few minor strikes against it, though. First was the general concept:  263 is very close to the upper limit for useable front-drive horsepower. At that point, torque steer becomes a major issue. Second was the poor shifter feel: Many reviewers complained about the cable-operated shifter’s vagueness. The same complaint has been leveled against other cars with similar designs.

These issues aside, the original Mazdaspeed3 is an attractive overall package—roughly the same performance as much more expensive cars, combined with the general excellence of the basic Mazda3 platform. Rather than a cobbled-together special, the Mazdaspeed3 feels like a coherent package, designed to get you where you want to go, every day, without putting your driving skills to sleep. Add in five or six years of depreciation, and there is even less to complain about. It’s one of today’s best deals for a late-model hotrod. 

Things to Know

Chassis

The chassis is well balanced from the factory, though many people complain about the short life of the factory struts. Aftermarket struts or coil-overs are the easy solution. If you plan to use the car on track, consider investing in a rear anti-roll bar with adjustable end links—although the stock car does rotate better than most front-drivers.

Thanks to all that power being sent to the front axle, the ’Speed3 is hard on tires. 

Body

The Mazda3 is a basically sturdy car, and the ’Speed3 inherits most of those good traits. A review of owner experiences suggests a tough, quality interior with minimal rattles and little unexpected wear. 

Some owners complain about the power windows not working correctly, but it’s an easily rectified situation. 

Engine and Drivetrain

Mechanical issues on cars that haven’t been abused are few—with one exception. On early cars, one of the engine mounting bolts has been known to come loose and cause the engine to detach from the body—with disastrous results. Mazda issued a Technical Service Bulletin for this problem, and most cars have been fixed by now. The factory rear motor mount is also marginal for the power of the engine, and it should be replaced or reinforced if it hasn’t already failed.

Clutch and transmission problems are few unless the car has been misused. Any vibration in the clutch pedal may be a symptom of a problem with the engine. Many people have reported feeling vibration in the clutch right before a rod exits the side of the block. This is caused by a bent connecting rod and the resultant power loss in that cylinder. 

Many engines, including otherwise decent ones, have a penchant for blowing blue smoke from the tailpipe. There are a number of factors that can cause this problem, and the solution is not always clear. Heavier-weight oil (10W-30 or 10W-40) is often recommended by Mazda dealers. A TSB to replace the turbo has also been issued for early cars. Replacing the PCV valve can fix the problem. Larger turbos, free-flowing exhaust systems and other changes to the intake and exhaust make it worse. Plumbing a catch can into the PCV system between the PCV valve and the intake manifold will help contain oil under vacuum. That oil is the most common cause of the smoke. 

Another frequent engine problem on high-mileage or abused examples is worn timing chains. A cold-start rattle is a sure sign of worn timing chain components, and the fix is rather expensive due to the difficulty of accessing the timing setup and the factory tools needed to reset it. 

The MZR engine is tough, but it doesn’t have much tolerance for sloppy tuning. The factory turbo is very close to its maximum efficiency level at stock power and boost levels, which is probably a good thing considering the engine’s weaknesses.

Simple bolt-ons, such as a cold-air intake, can unleash some power as long as you’re willing to have the car tuned. The factory intake incorporates the MAF housing, and switching parts around can result in poor running, check-engine lights and lean conditions under boost. A 3-inch downpipe and test pipe can also significantly help power levels, but again, it’s best to combine them with a tune to avoid quickly killing the engine. 

Early cars don’t have a dedicated hood scoop for the top-mount intercooler, so it quickly succumbs to heat soak.Because of this, a Mazdaspeed3 can benefit from a front-mount intercooler much more than, say, a WRX. Unlike many other turbo cars, the stock ’Speed3 doesn’t appear to benefit from a cat-back exhaust.

Our old 2008 Mazdaspeed3 project car made nearly 300 horsepower at the front wheels thanks to four simple upgrades: a front-mount intercooler, aftermarket downpipe, AEM intake and Cobb AccessPort tune. 

Big turbo kits are available, as are the internal engine components to build a 500-plus-horsepower monster. However, part of the attraction of the ’Speed3 is its overall package, and it would be quite easy to overpower the front-wheel-drive chassis with much more power than stock.

The Mazdaspeed3, like many such budget hotrods, tends to attract a slightly less experienced owner pool. Watch out for bodged upgrades. 

First gear is so short and torque is so abundant that some owners just start off in second gear.

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Comments
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MonzaRed
MonzaRed New Reader
6/22/22 1:26 a.m.

I'm gonna have to disagree. I owned a 1st gen. That car stock would embarrass modified GD chassis or GR chassis wrx's and all generations of mitsu evo stock for stock. It beat up on the E46 M3's as well. All from a 40-60 mph roll it was nearly unstoppable in its class. A great driver in a sti could barely inch away from one up to 110-120mph before getting passed..

triumph7
triumph7 HalfDork
6/22/22 12:41 p.m.

I had a 2010 for a while and had the turbo fail, fortunately under warranty, at around 40K.  The only real problem was having a car that only got 20ish mpg on PREMIUM when gas went up over $4.  Couldn't imagine that now!

Mndsm
Mndsm MegaDork
6/22/22 1:07 p.m.

Have a 2007. Had it since newm currently broken with a bad turbo. I'd call it.....medium modified. All its foibles aside there's a reason I kept it as long as I have. 

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