These days it seems as though every automaker, no matter how small, has a performance division on hand to offer up the occasional heart-pounding model variant to be coveted by enthusiasts. However, it only seems that way. Many brands have to go without.
Despite once branding itself as the everyday performance brand, Mazda hasn’t delivered a new Mazdaspeed vehicle since 2010. This left us wondering if the brand’s performance division would ever return. We even asked the company to weigh in on the situation back in 2017, with Mazda suggesting that all of its models are performance oriented (before saying it couldn’t comment on future products or any associated speculation). Subsequent inquiries were met with nearly interchangeable explanations.
Similarly dissatisfied, the folks at Road & Track adjusted their line of questioning in the hopes of prying more information out of Mazda. Rather than asking what’s happening with Mazdaspeed, they asked what it would take to see it produce another automobile. Unfortunately, the answers aren’t particularly encouraging.
“There are certainly a lot of us that still want to do something like that,” explained Dave Coleman, Development Vehicle Engineer at Mazda’s R&D center. “But the more we get the regular cars to where we want them, the less gap there is to what we would want to do with a Mazdaspeed car.”
One of the issues involves Mazda’s role as a relatively small automaker. While it moves a lot of metal as a singular brand (around 1.5 million vehicles annually), it doesn’t have the deep pockets of Volkswagen Group or General Motors. Since dissolving its partnership with Ford in 2015, Mazda has struck out on its own, being very careful with its money. It doesn’t want a performance project to go off half cocked due to financial constraints and it doesn’t seem convinced that any of the models currently on offer would be suitable for the Mazdaspeed touch.
“To do a [Mazdaspeed] car, you really have to do it right. And we can’t develop a new engine for that, we can’t do all the stuff with the core hardware at our scale, and with the ambitious stuff we’re trying to do with our small team. If we had an engine on the shelf that would fit that properly, then we could talk,” Coleman continued. “So far, nothing’s quite speaking the right language to be able to put something like that together and have it be as good as it needs to be … So we’ll just continue to focus on trying to bring everything up to where you don’t feel the need for [a Mazdaspeed version].”
While the engineer confessed that Mazda would green light all kinds of projects if money were no object (what automaker wouldn’t), he was also under the impression that times have changed. Mazda is a different kind of company now, with an emphasis on building itself into an upscale brand. While fun is still part of the equation, it’s not the entire focus anymore. Like the customers it seeks, Mazda has grown up.
When asked if the market has changed since the last Mazdaspeed 3 rolled off the line, Coleman said he believes so. “There was a groundswell of young enthusiasts in my generation,” the 47-year-old engineer said. “That is much smaller in new generations. And so for the large part, it’s my generation that’s looking for those cars. And we’re a little older. Also, Mazda as a brand is becoming more mature. Trying to be a little bit more premium, a bit more polished.”
“Even the Mazdaspeed 3, in its last iteration, came out as raw as it did due to the constraints,” he continued. “We only had so many things we could do with it. And we were down to the point where we had to compromise as far as, we can have this much torque steer, or we can have less torque.”
Ultimately, the manufacturer decided to go more hardcore with the Mazdaspeed 3. While this author can attest to the 2010 model year playing host to some of the most extreme torque steer ever encountered, it always felt like a fair trade in exchange for its lightning-fast reflexes and upgraded powertrain. Maybe it wasn’t something you wanted to live with, but it was something you could cope with while having barrels of fun. Coleman doesn’t agree.
“What you think you want is rawness,” he told Road & Track. “What you really want is responsiveness and directness. We’re used to paying a price for those things, and so we’re willing to pay that price because we want this direct response. If we can get those things without paying that price, nobody’s going to complain. We used to make excuses about how noisy our cars were because that’s what it took to make it as light, direct and responsive as we could. As we figured out how to make them quieter, nobody’s complaining that the car’s too quiet, that they don’t have that connection to the road surface anymore. Because we haven’t made compromises. We haven’t made the car dull and boring to drive as we made it quiet. ‘I had this car that was really fun and it was really painful.’ That doesn’t mean you want a painful car. You want the fun part.”
Speaking broadly, he might be correct. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a subset of shoppers who don’t mind a roughing it a little to have a good time. Still, those might not be the kind of customers the company is interested in anymore. When was the last time anyone saw a new Zoom-Zoom ad?