What Torque Steer?

The '07 Mazdaspeed3 is an emotional car, but its essence can be summed up with a few cold, hard, numbers: 263 hp, 155 mph (250 km/h) and $23,000.

The '07 Mazdaspeed3 is an emotional car, but its essence can be summed up with a few cold, hard, numbers: 263 hp, 155 mph (250 km/h) and $23,000.

Cars that can accelerate to 60 mph (97 km/h) in under six seconds and that have electronically limited top speeds of 155 mph are not rare in the U.S. What puts this specially tuned version of Mazda's hot-selling Mazda3 compact in its own special universe is the fact that to now, cars capable of 155 mph typically were not front-wheel drive — and definitely could not be purchased for $23,000.

Mazda Motor Corp. takes its highly regarded turbocharged and intercooled 2.3L DISI (direct injection spark ignition) DOHC I-4, which currently powers the 3,929-lb. (1,782 kg) CX-7 cross/utility vehicle and 3,589-lb. (1,628 kg) Mazdaspeed6 sedan, and wedges it into the much smaller and lighter Mazda3 5-door hatchback.

The combination, which Mazda developers happily refer to as their “wild child,” results in a 3,153-lb. (1,430 kg), affordably priced “pocket rocket” that will compete with the likes of the far less-powerful Honda Civic Si, Volkswagen GTI, Dodge Caliber SRT-4 and Chevy Cobalt SS, most of which are in the 200-hp range.

But many performance buffs are skeptical of funneling 263 hp and 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) of torque only through a car's front wheels because it could create so much wheelspin and torque steer that the car could effectively be impossible to control. Surprisingly, Mazda engineers have succeeded in keeping the power reasonably in check while at the same time avoiding the sensation the torque is being overly “managed.”

Besides electronically parceling horsepower, a lot of effort was expended to minimize torque steer and wheelspin, starting with equal-length hardened driveshafts and an efficient limited-slip differential. Under the influence of the engine's electronic control module, the turbocharger wastegate provides full boost only in third through sixth gears. Torque control also is linked to steering angle, limiting power delivery when the front wheels are excessively angled.

“We didn't want to tame the beast, we just wanted to make it driveable,” says Mazda product development engineer Rubin Archilla.

On the downside, Mazda engineers worked hard to develop a new exhaust system that generates a throaty, full-bodied exhaust note. The engine indeed sounds great during hard acceleration, but it is overly loud and “boomy” during everyday cruising; it gave us a headache after a half-day of driving in the Monterey area.

We'll also quibble with the 6-speed gearbox. It is smooth yet imprecise, and gears are difficult to locate.

Outside, widened fenders and 18-in. 10-spoke aluminum wheels give the car a tasteful, authoritative look. Thankfully, designers did not give in to the urge to add garish fender skirts, an oversize spoiler or other stylistic devices that make some cars in this class look juvenile.

Given a starting price of $22,835 including destination, the popularity of the standard Mazda3 and the equity the Mazdaspeed brand has in performance circles, the Mazdaspeed3 should be yet another in a growing lineup of recent hits from Mazda.

In fact, Mazda may have done too well the job of making truly serious performance so accessible to everyday — and potentially quite young — consumers.

It is a myth the celebrated muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s died simply because of high fuel prices. In fact, a series of tragic and highly publicized crashes led to a public outcry, soaring insurance rates and legislation that did as much as OPEC to undo the muscle-car era. Hopefully corporate one-upmanship will not conspire with the resourcefulness of today's engineers to the point history repeats itself.

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