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Review – 2010 Mazdaspeed 3

The Good: Powerful engine, lots of performance for little money.

The Bad: Torque steer can be intimidating, uncooperative shifter.

The Verdict: A sports car for the poor – with room for four.

When arranging for us to test the Mazdaspeed 3, the Mazda PR representative seemed almost a little contrite about our opinion of the regular Mazda3 we reviewed last August. “I hope it finds your favor better than the Mazda3 did,” he remarked in an email.

We were a little puzzled. After all, it wasn’t that we disliked the 3; it was a playful little economy car, even if it was laden with malapropos features like heated leather seats and xenon headlamps that turned with the front wheels. It was just awfully pricey – $24,455 is a lot to pay for a compact car.

But if they were concerned we were going to be harsh on the Mazdaspeed3 for the same reasons we took the regular 3 to task for…no worries, Mazda. Because the Speed 3 is not an overpriced compact car. It’s a vastly underpriced sports sedan.

Like any good sports car, the Speed 3’s greatness ultimately boils down to two factors: the engine and the suspension. And this engine is a doozy – a 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder with a hefty turbocharger bolted to it, pumping the little engine up to 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Given the car weighs a mere 3,221 pounds dry, this adds up to some serious whee!

But unlike most cars with this much power, the Mazda directs all that power to the road through the front wheels, and the front wheels alone. When so much power is directed through the same wheels being used to aim the car, it results in torque steer – when the force of the engine is strong enough to tug the car off course. In most front-wheel-drive cars, the condition is too slight to be noticed – but in the Speed 3, it’s as subtle as the latest Roland Emmerich film.

Mazda’s official line is the torque steer adds to the car’s fun factor, and while I certainly wouldn’t want the front wheels doubling as the drive axle on most performance cars…I gotta agree with the good folks at Mazda. It is pretty damn fun – once you get used to combating the wrenching wheels. (Though extensive driving may lead to the development of Popeye-like forearms.)

But the torque steer wouldn’t be much fun if the car didn’t blitz off the line like Reggie Bush. (And yes, I know that defensive players blitz, while Reggie is an offensive player.)

(Ed: Actually, Terrell Owens is an offensive player – Reggie is just a running back. Zing!

Oh, come on! That was gold!)

Sorry about that. The point being, this little sucker is fast. Given a twenty-foot gap to accelerate between the stop sign and the angry traffic of the FDR Drive, I revved up the engine, dumped the clutch – and wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t been rear-ended by a Super Duty.

Having the turbo on your side means you’ve got power pretty much whenever you want it. Turbo lag is just apparent enough to be noticeable, without giving you the sort of hyperdrive effect seen on such cars as the old Porsche 930. By highway speeds, the tight-ratio six-speed manual gearbox has the engine spinning fast enough to make passing power available right frikkin’ now – and that’s just a safety feature, dude.

As for that stick shift – while I have to award major props to Mazda for only offering the Speed 3 with a manual transmission, the tranny itself does have a couple flaws. While running the engine at higher RPM on the highway is great for keeping the turbo in play, it doesn’t do much for fuel economy. And sixth gear is located awkwardly far down and to the right; several times I tried to upshift from fifth gear only to be shunted back into fourth. A firm hand is required to enable top gear.

As for the car’s handling, the suspension and tires don’t let the promise of that ballsy engine down. The Speed 3 romps around corners with glee; from the first turn you take, it’s apparent the car wants to be driven hard. Steering feel is a bit heavy at lower speeds; however, it loosens up as velocity increases, and while it may not be the most communicative steering rack out there, it’s not really complaint-worthy, either.

Thankfully, Mazda managed to find a pleasant balance between sporty and ridiculous in the car’s styling. While some automakers tend to slap all sorts of gaudy accoutrements on their sporty low-priced models, Mazda was content to leave the already wild-looking 3 more or less alone. The biggest difference can be seen up front, where the Speed 3 boasts a deep hood scoop and a gill-like guard on the front air intake that only plays up the regular 3’s marine life resemblance.

In addition, the Speed 3 only comes in 5-door hatchback form, which prevents it from suffering from the odd-looking pinched rear common to the sedan version of the 3. Be it in regular or speedy form, the hatch is by far the more coherently styled of the Mazda3 lineup.

Inside, things remain pretty similar to the conventional 3. The seats, while cloth instead of leather, are just as comfortable as the bovine thrones in the Grand Touring edition we tested several months ago. The only real differences are a handful of little touches – red trim on the seats and shifter, and a small electronic boost gauge between the tach and speedometer to tell you how much exhaust the turbo is forcing back into the engine.

As for options, the Speed 3 forgoes many of the fancy options hoisted on our last high-end tester – and is little the worse for wear. My tester was equipped with the only big-ticket item on the options list: the $1,895 Tech Package, which adds a 10-speaker Bose stereo with 6-disc CD changer and satellite radio, a keyless entry system allowing the driver to lock, unlock or start the car without removing the key from his or her pocket, and a navigation system.

About that navigation system…well, it’s not the greatest factory guidance system out there. The screen is conveniently mounted high on the dash, close to the driver’s eyeline; however, it’s about the size of a Triscuit. The only way to control the system is via small buttons on the steering wheel, meaning the driver can’t delegate programming duties to a passenger. Plus, while the computer claimed to automatically dim the screen at night, it failed to do so in my car – forcing me to drive around with a blindingly bright square of light in my eyeline. Ultimately, I had to pull over and manually switch it over to night mode – and switch it back and forth every twelve hours or so.

Still, for all its faults, the navigation system did seem as though it had been put together for people who love to drive. While heading back to New York City from Pennylvania’s Bucks County late one night, the system pointed me down a series of increasingly smaller and windier rural New Jersey roads instead of sending me straight to the four-lane highway I’d taken on the way down. I don’t think the back roads were any quicker – but they were certainly more fun.

The Bottom Line:

Even in this day and age, when automakers are making 550-horsepower sport-utilities and muscle cars roam the streets once more, the Mazdaspeed 3’s combination of performance, frugality and usability stands out. For less than $24,000, Mazda has created a car that can seat four adults or carry a good amount of cargo while performing like an honest-to-God sports car.

This is the kind of car that reminds people who love to drive where that love comes from. It was in pursuit of cars like this that led me to start College Cars Online – affordable, fun cars suited for young people. If we awarded a College Cars Online Car Of The Year (we’re not – but stay tuned for next year), the Mazdaspeed 3 would be at the head of the pack.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $23,945/$25,840

0-60: 5.8 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18 city/25 highway (EPA estimate)

Competitors: Subaru Impreza WRX, Volkswagen GTI, Honda Civic Si

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Review – 2008 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS

The Good: Smooth styling, solid powertrain, does everything asked of it pretty well…

The Bad: …so long as you only need to chauffeur one person.

The Verdict: A poor man’s GT car.

For most of the 20th century, Mitsubishi registered on the radar screens of America’s car buyers about as well as a B-2 stealth bomber. While an economic powerhouse in its native Japan, owning everything from nuclear power plants to banks, it languished as a second-rate foreign manufacturer in the States, sucking on Toyota and Honda’s exhaust fumes. Rice-rocket nerds drooled over Japanese-market Evolutions they couldn’t get, but otherwise, nobody really cared in the states.

Then in 2003, with one simple ad, Mitsubishi went from “those guys who make crappy cars, right?” to “those guys with the really cool car commercial.” All it took was a few bars of a Dirty Vegas song, some blurry nighttime photography, and a coupe with pretty decent looks, and suddenly, people were talking Mitsubishi.

With all of the cool of a modern-day Miami Vice (and none of the Colin Farrell mullets), the ad not only launched Dirty Vegas into Chumbawumba-esque realms of one-hit wonderland, but started pulling pop-and-locking young people into showrooms. Suddenly, it was…almost…cool…to have one.

Of course, by then the Eclipse was already three years old, and it wouldn’t be long before a new model came along – so in 2006, the new Eclipse rolled onto American shores for the first time.

And it was hot.

If the old model was Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix, this new Eclipse was Gisele Bundchen in her birthday suit. People took notice of the car, not the background music of the ads.

And two years later, the Eclipse still looks good. In the flesh, it looks like a curvier version of the Civic coupe (and who doesn’t like curves?). Even if the side mirrors look kind of oddly placed from the outside of the car, they work fine from within.

The inside of the car, while unlikely to be confused with an Audi anytime soon, is also well-designed, with smooth forms and clean lines dominating inside. The front seats in my GS tester were very supportive and comfy; however, don’t even consider putting anyone legally taller than “midget” in those back seats, especially if the driver is close to six feet high. Those back seats are probably more useful for groceries and other loose cargo one doesn’t want rolling around the wide-but-shallow expanse beneath the glass hatch.

Inside, controls fall conveniently to hand; in a world of ever-increasingly complex automotive audio systems, the Eclipse’s stereo is simple and easy – though I think if I was in charge of Mitsubishi, I’d mark up the price of the car $20 in order to buy a display that doesn’t look like the face of a Chinatown Casio. And if the screen itself weren’t distractingly crappy enough, the blemish it’s mounted into – which raises up on the dash like a shield volcano – certainly is.

On the road, the 2.4 liter inline-four’s 162 horsepower motivates the car with gusto, if not heavy-duty excitement. If you’re looking to increase your stoplight-drag cred, the 263-horsepower V6 is probably for you; good luck matching the EPA’s 20 city/28 highway fuel mileage estimates for the four-cylinder, however. 

But for average buyers, the four-cylinder is probably all the engine needed. Despite being a little on the loud side, it never seemed thrashy or unsuited to its duty. Even pulling away from a stop, it seemed to have enough torque to keep you from having to row the gears too much to keep up with traffic.

Handling, too, seemed perfectly adequate on the loops and curves I threw it over. I’ve driven a BMW 335xi sedan on the same road, and while the Bimmer is obviously in a different class of vehicle than the four-cylinder Eclipse, the Mitsu didn’t really show any more body roll than the 3-series – an admirable trait.

Finally, I shouldn’t leave without taking a moment to remark on the paint color of my tester. Mitsubishi calls it “sunset pearlescent,” because apparently they’re too cool to just call it “copper,” but whatever it’s called, it’s beautiful. My pictures, taken beneath overcast skies, can’t do it justice. The Mitsubishi guys know it, too; they charge an extra $130 for it, but if I were buying an Eclipse, I’d find a way to spring for it. 

Other than the paint, my Eclipse GS was pretty much stock; equipped with a five-speed manual transmission and coming standard with 17″ wheels, keyless entry and cruise control, it retailed for $20, 129. Skip the copper coat, and you can have a 2008 Eclipse rolling out the door for less than 20 grand (before they add on destination charges and taxes, but hey, you can tell your folks you bought a car for less than 20 grand without lying). Mitsubishi has bumped up the price $100 for the 2009 models, but in my opinion, they don’t look as nice – they’ve got a basking shark mouth-esque front that clearly is trying to ape the new styling of the Audi line. 

Too bad. Apart from that new maw, it’s a decent little car – with a very nice wrapper.

GRADE: B

Thanks to Joel Gelinas and Burlington Mitsubishi for their help with this report.

  

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