OVER POWERING: Mazdaspeed 3's horses are too much for steering and handling
I recently left a pot of chicory-laced French Market coffee brewing too long and ended up with a drink that was too strong, bitter and lumpy.

I learned two things from this:

• I shouldn't be allowed in the kitchen without adult supervision

• Mazda left the 2007 Mazdaspeed 3 performance compact on the burner too long.

The hatchback I tested is a jumpy, over-caffeinated handful that could have been a treat if somebody had stepped in and said, "Enough. It's done."

The Mazdaspeed 3 is the hopped-up, 263-horsepower, turbocharged, direct-injection version of Mazda's wonderful 3 compact.

For my money, the Mazda 3 is the best compact car you can buy at the moment in terms of looks, value and driving pleasure. Available as either an attractive four-door sedan or a gorgeous four-door hatchback, the 3 is the embodiment of the style and performance that propelled Mazda to record U.S. sales last month, up a whopping 47.9% versus 2006.

The 3 is a wonderful package, but the Mazdaspeed is a real disappointment compared to leading sporty compacts like the Volkswagen GTI and Honda Civic Si.

Prices for the Mazdaspeed 3, which comes only as a hatchback, start at $22,240 for the Sport model, while the better-equipped Grand Touring checks in at $23,995. I tested a Mazdaspeed Grand Touring equipped with a very good optional navigation system that stickered at $25,705. All prices exclude destination charges.

Those prices compare to $20,975 for a 205-horsepower Chevrolet Cobalt SS coupe, $21,290 for a 197-horsepower Civic Si sedan, $19,900 for a 200-horsepower Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V sedan and $22,720 for a 200-horsepower VW GTI four-door hatchback.

If power equaled pleasure, the Mazdaspeed 3 would be the clear winner, but the recipe for a great front-wheel-drive sport compact is subtler than that. Unbridled horsepower can undermine steering feel and road-holding.

Mazda overcooked it. The car can fly in a straight line, but its steering feel and handling miss the mark.

The 3's powerful, free-revving four-cylinder engine simply puts out more power than the front wheels can manage. The result was that when I nailed the accelerator, I found myself more intent on keeping it aimed straight than looking for curves to carve.

The engine's 263 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque overwhelm the front wheels' ability to stay planted on the road and steer the car smoothly in spite of the Mazdaspeed 3's standard limited-slip differential and electronic stability control. I also found it took a lot of effort to steer at low speeds.

Mazda might have been well advised to dial the engine's output back to 220 horsepower or so -- more power than the competition, but not too much for the 3 to handle gracefully.

While the 3's chassis and steering struggle to harness its power, all the other mechanical systems perform very well.

Mazda upgraded the 3's brakes for heavy use, increasing the size of the discs and the master cylinder. The result is smooth, assured stopping under all conditions and good pedal feedback that makes it easy to modulate the brakes.

The six-speed manual transmission had smooth, short throws from gear to gear, and the light clutch was a pleasure to operate.

To improve high-speed handling, Mazda beefed up the 3's base suspension, equipping the Mazdaspeed with stiffer springs and shocks and bigger stabilizer bars. The resulting ride is a little stiff over bumps, but there's almost no body roll, squat or dive in fast curves and stop-and-go racing.

The addition of boy-racer trinkets like a rear spoiler, side skirts and low-hanging bumpers detract from the clean and lovely lines of the base 3 hatchback. Born of necessity, the 0.8-inch widening of the front fenders to house the 'Speed's 18-inch performance tires works well, but the two creases added to the hood seem pointless.

In contrast, changes from the 3's contemporary and comfortable interior are minimal and tasteful. The biggest change is the optional navigation screen, a large and legible display that rotates up out of the dashboard and its well-placed and unobtrusive controls located on the center console just in front of the shifter.

The comfortable leather seats feature well-designed side bolsters to hold you snug through fast corners, while the steering wheel features useful lighted controls for the 'Speed's very good Bose stereo.

The three-binnacle instrument cluster has a unique and appealing look, with clean, legible numbers and a 160-m.p.h. speedometer. The gauge's violet and red lighting creates a very pleasant ambience at night.

The best performance compacts -- the GTI and Civic Si -- balance horsepower and handling to brew up a smooth treat like a New Orleans café au lait blends coffee, chicory, hot milk and sugar.

The ingredients are there, but Mazda got the mix wrong with the 2007 Mazdaspeed 3.

Some how I really admire Mazda 8

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  1. The Car Geek June 4, 2007 at 9:52 PM  

    I guess that it was a really bad idea to make an innovation the Mazda 3 parts to Mazdaspeed 3 in terms of value, steering and driving pleasure... Mazdaspeed might have a great 263-horsepower, turbocharged and direct-injection that make steering very unstable... Which I conclude that because of too much power they overlooked the steering performance of mazda 3...