We don’t always get the car we want. Let’s get the car we deserve.
In 2007, reviewers from Car and Driver headed to Virginia International Raceway in Danville to determine the fastest cars for that year. An auspicious pick among them was the newly released Mazda Mazdaspeed3. It put 263 hp and 280 lb/ft to the ground through just the front wheels, giving it such legendary torque steer that to this day it’s used to demonstrate the effect on YouTube.
This hot 3 was offered for six years, the entire time with only five doors — and with only three pedals. A raucous ride, 0–60 times were all over the map, though a low of 5.4s was possible. Giant brake discs filled the 18" wheel rims, staving off heat fade and stopping the ride in 167 feet from 70 mph. Skidpad numbers of 0.87g on the tires of the time plus a sub-$23k base price added up to a 10Best pick by C&D in that year. (And in 2008. And in 2010.)
The reviewers from C&D hustled the five-door MS3 around the track in just 3:16.0. Edged out that year by the RWD, supercharged Pontiac Solstice GXP coupe, it’s no surprise that the MS3 handily beat the VW GTI, Mini Cooper S, and even the MX-5 that year. Later years would see it keep ahead of track scalpels like the WRX, RX-8 R3, and the modern Fiat 124 Abarth, as well as track hammers like the Challenger SRT8 and even a Tesla Model S P85D.
No, what’s surprising is not that the little MS3 did so well. What’s surprising is that, twelve years on, C&D has never been able to flog a production Mazda around the VIR any faster¹.
The 2007 Mazdaspeed 3 was the best it ever got.
Mazda is a special car company. It’s not allied to any larger partners, and it lacks the R&D budget of its multi-brand competitors, yet it has brought a number of impressive advancements to market. It dared to give us the rotary engine. Its Skyactiv technology makes motors so efficient that engine braking doesn’t work. They practically re-invented the torsion beam suspension and then worked an AWD system around it. And they’ve cracked the code on gasoline compression ignition.
Mazda punches way above its weight, and yet in a time of driver disengagement, they continue to make practical vehicles for people who actually enjoy driving. This is why I love my MS3. It has the steering feel of a BMW with sport suspension. I’ve gotten 37 mpg in it, more than once. I’ve slept comfortably in the back with my wife and we are still married. I’ve loaded the inside with 8-foot 2x4s from Home Depot with the windows up. It doesn’t ask for $800 window regulators or walnut blasting for the intake valves or new suspension struts every 40k miles. It just wants to skitter around the pavement like a six-month old Rottweiler on a hardwood floor.
So then why is it that there hasn’t been a faster or more powerful Mazda since the MS3? This playful car would later get dismissed as “childish” by the head of Mazda North America, but it seems Mazda has really been focussing on keeping it’s head above water. It’s been pumping out the cars that sell, specifically the CX-5 that outsold all other Mazda models combined in the US for 2018. This is what pays for that R&D we talked about earlier.
In the mean time, Mazda has been growing up. The driving experience has grown more refined, the materials more upscale, the designs more attractive. The interiors have grown quieter, the engines have gotten smoother, and even the fonts have gotten classier. Mazda continues to punch up, looking past Acura and Subaru and Volvo to take aim at competitors like Audi and BMW. They look like they just might pull it off, but some thing is missing. And that’s power.
To go after the throne, in this game you need 300 hp. You need to hit 60 in five flat. And nothing Mazda has pushed out has touched those numbers, maybe ever. They’ve managed to make cars that aren’t all that fast yet are fun to drive. The MX-5 is a perennial example of this, but even the CX-series gets praise from reviewers who weren’t even expecting to drive them². But the rest of the world is getting faster, and it’s time for Mazda to double down on the zoom.
But there’s a catch. This is an era in which auto makers have been trending toward automation, toward driver disengagement, and manufacturers have been shedding manuals. They relegate them to the base models that enthusiasts skip and then say no one wants them. They would have you believe no one has a passion for the road anymore, but I’d argue different. It’s simply a bifurcation in the market: some would rather swipe at digital fruit as life slips by, while others want to be engaged in the moment and be a part of the experience. For some, driving still matters. And that can be Mazda’s market.
This is why the new hot new five-door must be offered with a manual. Power is being ripped from our human hands. Airplanes are tragically running themselves into the ground, trying to outsmart their pilots. Elon Musk is trying to get the rich off the planet before the robots take over. How much more time do we have? We need three pedals, and we need them now.
We, the Mazda faithful, the practical enthusiasts who can only have one car and need five doors but want three pedals — we have been biding our time. We have been waiting for that S3 killer, that Golf R hunter, that cure for the STI. We have been waiting for the stick and the hatch and the boost. And this time we want power put down at all corners.
It’s time to go to VIR and beat that old time from 2007, and to do it in a five door. It’s time to get in, and it’s time to be moved again.
 The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Cup Car did perform better at VIR in C&D testing, however it is not a street-legal vehicle.
 I know I read this somewhere but I cannot find the reference. I’ll add it if I come across it again.