MONTEREY, CA – The ’07 MazdaSpeed3 is an emotional car, but its essence can be summed up with a few cold, hard, numbers: 263 hp, 155 mph (250 km/h) and $23,000.

Cars that can accelerate to 60 mph (97 km/h) in under six seconds and that have electronically limited top speeds of 155 mph are not rare in the U.S. What puts this specially tuned version of Mazda’s hot-selling Mazda3 compact in its own special universe is the fact that to now, cars capable of 155 mph typically were not front-wheel drive – and definitely could not be purchased for $23,000.

Hopefully corporate one-upmanship will not conspire with the resourcefulness of today’s engineers to the point history repeats itself.

The strategy is simple. Mazda Motor Corp. is taking its highly regarded turbocharged and intercooled 2.3L DISI (direct injection spark ignition) DOHC I-4, which currently powers the 3,929-lb. (1,782-kg) CX-7 cross/utility vehicle and 3,589-lb. (1,628-kg) MazdaSpeed6 sedan, and wedging it into the much smaller and lighter Mazda3 5-door hatchback.

The combination, which Mazda developers happily refer to as their “wild child,” results in a 3,153-lb. (1,430 kg), affordably priced “pocket rocket” that will compete with the likes of the far less powerful Honda Civic Si, VW GTI, Dodge Caliber SRT-4 and Chevy Cobalt SS, most of which are in the 200-hp range.

The engine was named one of Ward’s 10-Best engines for 2006 in its application in the all-wheel-drive MazdaSpeed6. Add it to the Mazda3, a beautifully engineered subcompact on the fine C1 platform shared by parent Ford Motor Co. for its Volvo S40/V50 and Europe-market Focus, as well as the Mazda3, its best-selling car worldwide, and you have a strong combination.

But many performance buffs are skeptical of funneling 263 hp and 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) of torque only through a car’s front wheels because it could create so much wheelspin and torque steer that the car effectively could be almost impossible to control.

Surprisingly, Mazda engineers have succeeded in keeping the power reasonably in check while at the same time avoiding the sensation the torque is being overly “managed” by a traction control system or the engine-management system.

And, with a resourcefulness for which Mazda has become famous, engineers used a few strategically placed gussets, thicker crossmembers and steel reinforcements to create a chassis fully capable of handling race-car like cornering forces while adding only 15 lbs. (7 kg) to the basic Mazda3 hatchback body structure.

Brakes, thankfully, also have been beefed up, and both the MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension have higher spring rates and larger-diameter stabilizer bars than the standard car, raising damping forces and making the MazdaSpeed3 wonderfully tight and responsive during high-speed maneuvers at the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca and on a following road test.

In fact, Mazda may have done too well the job of making truly serious performance so accessible to everyday – and potentially quite young – consumers. More on this later.

The heart of the MazdaSpeed3 is a detuned version of the award-winning 2.3L DISI DOHC mill. Mazda engineers say the original 274-hp calibration of the all-wheel-drive MazdaSpeed6 was not manageable in the FWD-only MazdaSpeed3.

Besides electronically reducing the horsepower, a lot of effort was expended to minimize torque steer and wheelspin, starting with equal-length hardened driveshafts and an efficient limited-slip differential.

Under the control of the engine’s electronic control module, the turbocharger wastegate provides full boost only in third through sixth gears. It bleeds off excess boost to control torque spikes in first and second gear that would cause excess wheelspin. And, because the MazdaSpeed3 features an electronically controlled throttle, the ECM can control how quickly the throttle body reacts to drive inputs and smooth intake volume to further minimize torque spikes.

Torque control also is linked to steering angle, limiting power delivery when the front wheels are excessively turned. The LSD also minimizes wheelspin on the inner wheel during hard cornering for more predictable power delivery.

Stick your foot down and the steering wheel still tugs hard in first and second gear, but not disconcertingly so, even on uneven pavement or while turning.

“We didn’t want to tame the beast, we just wanted to make it driveable,” says Mazda product development engineer Rubin Archilla.

Outside, widened fenders and 18-in. 10-spoke aluminum wheels give the car a tasteful, authoritative look. Thankfully, designers did not give in to the urge to add garish fender skirts, an oversize spoiler or other stylistic devices that make some cars in this class look juvenile.

Inside, the car is mostly black, accented with red stitching on the seats, steering wheel and shift boot. Aluminum pedals and stainless steel scuff plates lend a sporty, upscale look.

On the downside, Mazda engineers worked hard to develop a new exhaust system that gives the driving enthusiast a throaty, full-bodied exhaust note. The engine indeed sounds great during hard acceleration, but it is overly loud and “boomy” during everyday cruising; it gave us a headache after a half-day of driving in the Monterey area.

We’ll also quibble with the 6-speed gearbox. It’s not smooth and buttery like some of Mazda’s or the competition’s; neither is it chunky and precise like some others, such as the Mini Cooper S’ Getrag 6-speed.

It is smooth yet imprecise, and gears are more difficult to find than we like.

Fuel economy is 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km) city and 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) highway. The target market is males in their late 20s and early 30s with median household incomes of $80,000. Mazda expects to sell 5,000 annually in the U.S. and 12,000 more in Europe and Japan.

Given a starting price of $22,835 including destination, the popularity of the standard Mazda3 and the equity the MazdaSpeed brand has in performance circles, the MazdaSpeed3 should be yet another in a growing lineup of recent hits from Mazda.

The only question that yet remains is when auto makers will decide to back away from the horsepower race and cease adding more performance simply because they can.

It is a myth the celebrated muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s died simply because of high fuel prices. In fact, a series of tragic and highly publicized crashes led to a public outcry, soaring insurance rates and legislation that did as much as OPEC to undo the muscle-car era.

dwinter@wardsauto.com