How the refined new Mazda 3 Turbo is pivotal to Mazda's push to compete with the likes of Audi and Mercedes

Kristen LeeThe 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo.
  • Spiritually, the new turbocharged Mazda 3 is similar to the hot-hatch Mazdaspeed 3, an enthusiast favorite from 2007 to 2013.
  • But the new 3 Turbo is missing a lot of the flair from the sporty Mazdaspeed 3, like front-wheel drive, a manual transmission, and a hood scoop.
  • This new take on a turbocharged Mazda 3 represents the upmarket push that Mazda’s been aiming for — one that it hopes will put it in entry-level Mercedes and Audi territory.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Not since the hotted-up Mazdaspeed 3 – last on the market in 2013 – has there been a turbocharged Mazda 3. But don’t call the new 2021 Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo a Mazdaspeed 3, because it’s not. 

The 2013 Mazdaspeed 3 was a hot hatch done proper. It produced a claimed 263 horsepower and 127kg-feet of torque. It was rowdy, with all of its power going to the front wheels and resulting in some uncouth torque steer. It was offered exclusively with a manual transmission. It had a functional hood scoop – big enough that you could slide a whole pizza into it – to channel air into its top-mounted intercooler. 

MazdaThe 2010 speed 3 was a true hot hatch.

The new Mazda 3 Turbo, despite coming from the factory with even more torque (Mazda quotes output to be 250 horsepower and 145kg-feet), is not the successor to the beloved, rockety hot hatch of yore. Those tricks are for kids. 

Don’t call it a Mazdaspeed 

Mazda, instead, wants you to see the new 3 Turbo as the latest piece in its upmarket push to the premium space. The turbocharged engine is present, but there’s also standard all-wheel drive, a quality interior, and – I’m sorry to report this – no option for a manual transmission. Zilch. The only transmission you get is the six-speed automatic. 

Those who prefer rowing their own gears will have to look elsewhere; specifically, downmarket and at the non-turbocharged versions of the Mazda 3. They’re lower on power, but they can come with a clutch pedal if you want one.

“The Mazdaspeed 3 was a pure enthusiast’s car,” Dave Coleman, Mazda’s vehicle dynamics engineer, told Business Insider during a roundtable interview. “There were a lot of sacrifices in [noise, vibration, and harshness] and livability. And that was what that brand was about.”

MazdaThe mid-2000s speed 3 started it all.

All grown up

The new 3 Turbo has grown up – and with it, Mazda imagines its buyers have as well.

“This is positioned as [the Mazdaspeed 3] grown up with a job and some responsibility – much like our customers,” Coleman went on. “It still has a lot of the fundamental capabilities but it doesn’t wear it on its sleeve so obviously. 

“The ‘Mazdaspeed’ name brings some expectation that this car does not deliver. We do not want to sow confusion with the name and thought that the purpose of this car is much higher volume than with another Mazdaspeed 3.”

Coleman has a point. By being manual-only with scoops, wings, and flairs, the Mazdaspeed 3 likely alienated non-enthusiast buyers for the very things car enthusiasts loved about it. Just recently, someone on Twitter called the Mazdaspeed 3 “corny.”

Kristen LeeThis is what Mazda’s idea of upmarket looks like.

The Mazdaspeed 3 was great for brand perception, but its niche market perhaps didn’t necessarily translate to healthy sales.

Plus, had Mazda called the new, more subtle 3 Turbo a “Mazdaspeed 3,” it would have caught a lot of enthusiast grief – which, if you’ve spent any time at all on the internet or on forums, is some of the loudest grief there is.

‘Zoom-Zoom’ no more

A racy Mazda 3 doesn’t really fit with the image Mazda is going for anymore, nor does the iconic and scrappy “Zoom-Zoom” tagline Mazda used for much of its 2000s marketing campaigns. As Automotive News pointed out in 2019, “Zoom-Zoom” has been replaced with “what it calls Mazda Premium under the latest ‘Feel Alive’ slogan.”

Premium, by Mazda’s definition, means the time for unruly hot hatches is over. It means fun but refined performance that doesn’t go shouting about it from the outside. It means finally being able to compete against entry-level luxury heavyweights like Mercedes and Audi.

So the 3 Turbo’s certainly got the hardware. But the public awareness? Maybe not so much.

Established premium brands such as Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Lexus have it easy. Buyers already associate them with luxury. Mazda still has work to do before the public automatically considers it in the same sentence as the others, if at all.

Kristen LeeThe interior of the new Mazda 3 Turbo is real nice.

Part of the challenge lies in Mazda’s approach, according to Drew Cary, Mazda’s North American brand communications senior manager. He said Mazda’s method is to build a car around driver experience rather than “marketing to a spec sheet” like its competitors do.There’s some truth to this, as press releases from Mercedes-Benz and BMW all typically include 0 to 60 times and top speed estimates. Numbers, numbers, numbers. It’s much easier to pit numbers against each other. It’s harder to quantify something that’s “fun” on paper, but that’s the hard sell Mazda – a much smaller company – is up against.

“Typical marketing tactics don’t work,” Cary said. “We’re not able to spend as much as the big brands on marketing.” 

So what’s left to do?

A hard sell 

First, Mazda is working on improving its dealership experience – which, for many people, is critical to establishing loyalty. A bad first impression at a dealer can ruin a buyer’s perception of the brand. 

Kristen LeeHow do you translate ‘fun to drive’ onto paper?

And second, the automaker is relying heavily on earned marketing. That is, third parties (such as owners) acting as advocates who can talk about Mazda and its products. On this front, it’s especially important that Mazda alienates no one and engages as many people as it can.In 2019, Mazda North America sold 50,741 3s, its second-best seller behind the popular CX-5. In all, the Japanese automaker sold 278,552 cars total, which means that the Mazda 3 accounted for 18% of all sales. 

It’s not an insignificant figure. It would be in Mazda’s best interest to try to appeal to a broader buying pool – but now one that appreciates premium features, wants power but with subtlety, and is willing to pay a bit more for it.

Maybe one day soon, a customer will have second thoughts before mindlessly buying a Mercedes when they see they can get a fully loaded Mazda 3 instead. Maybe.

Enthusiasts will have to deal

For car enthusiasts, though, it truly seems like a new Mazdaspeed 3 isn’t happening anytime soon, if ever. In 2016, Mazda told the Australian publication Motoring that it was too “mature” for such Mazdaspeed shenanigans anymore. 

“As a brand we are trying to elevate again a little bit more, because execution of Mazda MPS or Mazdaspeed 3 or whatever you call it was a little bit – I am not afraid to say it – childish,” Masahiro Moro, Mazda’s chairman and CEO of North American operations, said. 

We all must grow up eventually, I suppose.

MazdaGoodnight, sweet prince.

In the roundtable, Mazda obviously wouldn’t give a straight answer on whether this new push to premium spelled the end for Mazdaspeed. But so as to not back themselves into corners, brands never give journalists a simple “yes” or “no.”

“We’re open to the market, but there’s nothing in the pipeline, either,” Coleman said. “But regardless of what happens with Mazdaspeed, we will always focus on driving dynamics.”

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