Recently on my trip to Portland, OR I rented a 2009 Mazda Mazdaspeed3 from Turo and had a fun time driving it around and checking out a new place that I had never been. Going into this rental, I knew there would be a direct comparison apparent between the Mazda and my STi sitting at home. There are a few notable differences on paper; a solid 37 hp advantage to the Subaru, FWD vs AWD, hatch vs sedan, and 65,000 miles vs 175,000 miles.
But in real world street usage, they are pretty much on the same exact level and feel quite similar. To best compare the two I am just going to put together a list of features and indicate which car does it better.
- Interior - Mazda wins here by a longshot. Just much better materials and overall better construction. While I love the blue interior of the STi and think that could make it win on color alone, I have to be objective here and realize how night and day the material quality was.
- Exterior - The Subaru wins here just because of the much more aggressive lines and accents overall. The Mazda definitely fights hard here though with being a nice looking hatch and being very sleeper-ish since it looks the same as the standard Mazda3. This was nearly a tie just because of how much I like hatchbacks but again, objective.
- Steering - This is a landslide victory to the Subaru, probably the most notable thing that bothered me about the Mazda. It just felt way too loose/light with its economy car feel. The Subaru feels about the same as my Miata which is what I wish the Speed3 had done as well. I havent driven an NC miata so I am unsure if Mazda went this way with all of their later racks. The FWD aspect of this car may have played a role here too though.
- Handling - I think this may be a win to the Mazda. It was definitely an area where I didnt push the car hard enough but it cornered flat and felt like it had grip for days. But just in general it felt more composed than the Subaru although 100,000 fewer miles might have had something to do with it as well.
- Power - In terms of just raw power, the Subaru wins. There is just more of the “pin you to the seat” with that car. Perhaps the turbo lag here helps since there is just more of a surge of power. The Mazda felt more linear which might actually make it just as fast in the real world but it doesnt make it feel faster. And for me the feel of power is more important than numbers/on paper.
- Shifter/Gearing - Easily a win here for the Mazda. Of course Mazda knows how to create a quality shifter that just feels perfect. And Subaru, well they dont. I dont really have any complaints about the STi shifter (it does the job) but when you compare it to a Mazda or Honda, it makes it seem like a joke. And then gearing on the highway is just so much better in the Mazda. It definitely would achieve 30mpg on the highway if you babied it whereas I am lucky to get 24-25 with the Subie with cruise control set to about 75 for the whole tank.
- Overall - There is quite a bit of equality here where one car excels in one area, the other in another area, and then they are about equal in the other areas. Here I have given interior and shifting handily to the Mazda. And I have given steering and power to the Subaru. Everything else is definitely a toss up on preferences and I could really be happy with either. I really liked the aftermarket intake and the exhaust on the Mazda, it made it sound how a turbo car should sound. But I do have concerns over reliability based on stories from other owners at autocross and track days. The torque steer was definitely also a thing and these are somewhat harder to find in decent condition. So the edge goes to the Subaru for me still just because it has proven so reliable even with all of the miles on it. But man if I ignored those concerns, I would be so damn happy with that Mazda just the same.