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First Drive: 2020 Mazda3 Turbo

First Drive: 2020 Mazda3 Turbo
Autos
Way back when the Earth was cooling, I was the proud owner of a Mini. It was a dog that boasted 39 horsepower, 52 pound-feet of torque and took 20 seconds to meander its way to 100 kilometres an hour. Regardless, I loved the “queen of slow” and the fact is, it was an absolute hoot to drive. Shortly after acquiring it, I dropped in a blue-printed 1,071 cc Cooper S engine with a Weber carb — this bumped the output about 90 hp, which shaved the run to 100 km/h to 10.3 seconds.

So, why the preamble about a car that has long since rusted its way into oblivion? The answer is the Mazda3. It can be viewed as that Mini’s spiritual successor, as it brings a truly entertaining drive that never fails to put a big grin on the driver’s face. When the fourth-generation model arrived in 2019, it received positive reviews for its bold style and interior execution, but fans wanted something else — more power.

The answer is found in the 2021 Mazda3 Turbo, which is offered in both sedan and hatchback (Sport) models. As it was with that Mini, the latest Mazda3 has been “blue-printed” by adding a 2.5-litre turbo-four. This transforms it into a speedster reminiscent of the bygone Mazdaspeed3, albeit one with appreciably more civility.

The key is the 2.5L turbo-four has an air-to-water intercooler to keeps things cool and a trick wastegate that uses small ports to improve low-end punch and large ports to ensure it delivers in the mid-range. This strategy allows an earlier ramp-up of the turbo’s boost pressure. The result is 250 hp and 320 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,500 rpm when burning premium gasoline — using regular drops the numbers to 227 hp and 310 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,000 rpm. Frankly, regular gas is all most will need to enjoy the fruits of the blown performance.

As the torque turns up early, thanks to the turbo and its 17.5 psi boost pressure, it all but banishes turbo lag. This sees the Mazda3 leap off the line and pull hard and fast through the mid-range. The work also brings an engine that is ultimately both very responsive to a stab at the gas and remarkably civilized when the throttle is not wide open.

At long last, the 2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI has arrived

The Turbo works with a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters and Mazda’s i-Activ all-wheel-drive system (AWD), something the Mazdaspeed3 was sorely lacking. The combination works to maximize performance and it manages to get the power down without torque steer. Normally, firing this much power through the front wheels would see the car tug at the steering wheel and pull left or right as the tires worked to find grip. That is not the case here. The Turbo pulls straight and true even as maximum power comes on line.

The reason is the i-Activ system is predictive and proactive. It monitors everything from driver input and individual wheel speeds to the forces acting on the car and studies this information to arrive at the best power split. This predictive ability allows it to seamlessly shuttle power to the rear wheels whenever needed — in the case of the Turbo more power goes rearward than with other i-Activ-equipped models. The key is that the torque split is variable and changes according to what the driver is doing. When AWD is not needed, it powers the front wheels to improve fuel economy.

This predictive ability is layered with Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control (GVC Plus). It’s a simple, but highly effective system. Heading into a corner it momentarily backs out of the gas, which loads up the front tires and brings a crisper turn-in response. At the exit, it dabs the outside front brake to straighten the car up and get it pointed down the road in a smoother manner. In practice, all the thinking that goes on in the background means the Mazda3 hooks up seamlessly. The added traction afforded by driving all four wheels saw it handle a delightfully twisty road without missing a beat.

2020 Mazda3 Turbo Graeme Fletcher

Throw in a sorted steering set-up that’s keen without feeling twitchy and a reworked suspension with stiffer front springs and damper settings, and it controls unwanted body roll without being too taut when the road deteriorates. In the end, the setup delivers remarkably agile handling.

There is also a Sport mode. It changes the shift points and ensures the shifts come at the right time — when braking heading into a corner it downshifts to the right gear, however, it is smart enough that it will not initiate an upshift mid-corner, which would be the wrong thing to do. It also makes the GVC Plus a little more aggressive, which makes the steering feel a little firmer on initial turn-in. It is a subtle change, but one that helps when the driver is pushing on down a serpentine road.

What goes unsaid is the extra power and performance comes with a surprisingly small penalty — the Mazda3 Sport with the naturally-aspirated 2.5L four, six-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive is rated at 9.5 litre per 100 kilometres city and 7.4 L/100 km highway. The Turbo engine ups those numbers by 0.6 and 0.1 L/100 km, respectively.

2020 Mazda3 Turbo Graeme Fletcher

As the top model, the Turbo arrives loaded to the nines — the cabin comes with top-notch materials, a smart infotainment system that supports the needed apps along with a submersive 12-speaker Bose sound system and all the latest safety equipment. This aspect has grown to include the available Traffic Jam Assistant. It enhances the adaptive cruise control function by adding a steering function at speeds below 65 km/h.

The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo is a delightful car. It handles remarkably well; it is fast when needed and civilized when not. All of this makes it a serious contender in the hot-hatch sweepstakes.

The 2021 Mazda3 Turbo is available in Canada with a starting price of $32,900; the Sport hatchback starts at $33,900. The range-topping 100th Anniversary Editions come in at $36,100 and $37,100, respectively.
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