The 2011 MazdaSpeed3 was one of the last cars we drove in 2010, but it easily made our list as the best all-around car for the college graduate or young family.
Priced under $27,000, it has four doors, seats five and still can pack 42 cubic feet of cargo through the hatch (with the rear seats folded).
The bonus: It has enough power and handling capability to be an excellent track car, which in our book means it is also safe to drive on the street. The six-speed manual transmission and high-revving engine accentuate the racy feeling of the car.
And did we mention it’s stylish as well? The exterior has a nice aerodynamic look (with that slightly goofy Mazda grin on the front), and the interior is attractive (patterned upholstery echoing the carbon-fiber look of the hard trim).
We really put this car through the paces, making a Costco run for supplies before driving 350 miles round trip to Willows for two days of high-performance driving instruction at Thunderhill Raceway Park. In all applications, the car was fun and comfortable to drive. We had two driving coaches check it out and decide this Mazda was going to be their next family car because of its all-around capabilities.
What we liked: Performance and handling top the list, with the car’s terrierlike eagerness to please, but comfort and cost come a close second. Fuel efficiency is excellent – we averaged 24 mpg the week we drove it.
What we didn’t like: Front-wheel drive takes a little practice to get used to, and the car wouldn’t be good for winter Tahoe trips, but the limited-slip differential overcomes torque steer problems.
Overall: With the MazdaSpeed 3, you can keep within a budget without giving up the fun of driving.