REVIEW DATE: 29 Sep 2009
In MPS guise, the Mazda3 sets out to show just what it's capable of. Steve Walker reports.
With its monster bonnet scoop dominating that malevolently curvy front end, the Mazda3 MPS looks like it means business. The car gains instant entry to the hot hatchback elite with 256bhp and a 6.1s 0-60mph time, but putting all that power through the front wheels isn't straightforward. The value proposition is less ambiguous with a packed equipment list making the MPS look conspicuously good value.
Hot hatchbacks are supposed to be fast and desperate to let the world at large know it. The appeal of a standard family car made macho through a plethora of scoops, spoilers and skirts has been proven down the years and it's reached the stage where most everyday superminis and hatchbacks have a lunatic edition kitted out just so to top their range. When Mazda attempted to get in on the act with its original Mazda3 MPS, it got the fast part spot on but the 256bhp road rocket lacked the aggressive persona to capitalise. The latest model, based on the racier current generation Mazda3, should be better able to give the GTI crowd a run for their money.
From the word go, the MK1 Mazda3 MPS had instant kudos thanks to its hefty 256bhp power output. It wasn't anything much to look at, though, and could easily be mistaken for a standard Mazda3 by the untrained eye. That was great if you wanted to surprise rivals in a sprint away from the traffic lights but hot hatch buyers don't usually enjoy hiding their light under a bushel. With the second generation Mazda3 taking a more sporty styling direction and making moves to enhance its dynamic qualities, things immediately boded well for the MPS version and sure enough, this car is far more in tune with hot hatchback norms.
The engine in this Mazda3 MPS is unchanged from the original version. It's a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged unit that can summon up enough performance on paper to put the car alongside the leading lights in the hot hatch hierarchy. The 0-60mph sprint takes 6.1s and the top speed is 155mph. That 256bhp is achieved at 5,500rpm and maximum torque of 380Nm comes on stream at 3,000rpm.
"The original Mazda3 MPS was somewhat subdued visually: this one isn't."
The MPS is one of the most powerful front-wheel-drive cars on the market but that raises questions about how effectively so much power will be deployed. Directing nearly 260bhp at the road through the front wheels and expecting them to steer the car efficiently at the same time is asking a lot. Other models that have achieved such a feat successfully have employed various clever solutions to negate the effects of torque-steer, which is when the steering wheel is tugged from side to side as the front wheels search for grip. Manufacturers who let nature take its course have often ended up with a driving experience that's exciting for all the wrong reasons. The MPS uses a limited slip differential to maximise traction and some clever electronic aids which limit the amount of torque sent to the wheels in low gears or when lots of steering lock is being applied so they aren't overwhelmed.
The curvy lines of the Mazda3 always looked ripe for a hot hatch conversion and Mazda's design team hasn't held back in creating this MPS model. The front end is dominated by an enormous bonnet scoop that looks well capable of accepting an extra large pizza still in its box. Below, there's a thin grill and a huge grinning air-intake cut in to he bumper with huge headlamps that smear back into the car's wings. Side skirts connect the flared wheelarches and the rear as a suitable dramatic spoiler along with twin exhausts.
The MPS rides 5mm lower than a conventional Mazda3 with its fully-independent suspension benefiting from higher spring rates, upgraded anti-roll bars and high performance dampers. The power steering system provides electro-hydraulic and the front brakes are upgraded with the fitment of 320mm discs.
Following on from the exterior, the MPS cabin feels suitably extravagant. Finished predominantly in black leather and plastic, it has numerous details picked out in bright red. There are MPS graphics on the sports seats, dash and door trims plus red stitching elsewhere. In general, the Mazda3 cabin feels solidly built although some of the materials aren't up to the standard of those on the most luxurious family hatch models. The satellites navigation screen is also comically small. Rear legroom is ample, even with the MPS sports seats installed and there's a 300-litre boot.
The Mazda3 MPS sets out to compete as fiercely on price as it does on pace but you have to factor in a few things to fully understand Mazda's value proposition. The car is available only as a five-door whereas the majority of its rivals are three-door only or charge a premium for the extra entry-points. More saliently, the MPS leaves virtually no options to the buyer's discretion because it's all thrown in as standard. The equipment list includes a BOSE 10-speaker stereo, satellite navigation, xenon headlamps, Bluetooth hands free technology, half leather trim, parking sensors and a full package of safety features.
Going head to head with the top hot hatchbacks on the market is not an easy task but the Mazda3 MPS will be looking for its impressive equipment levels to give it an edge. Specifying the likes of Ford's Focus ST, Volkswagen's Golf's GTI and Renault's Renaultsport Megane to this level would not be a cheap exercise and the Mazda's straight-line speed will also give it an edge against its key competitors.
Running a 256bhp hatchback is never going to be cheap but there should be enough people willing to shoulder the costs in exchange for the fun that's on offer. Fuel economy is measured at 29mpg but expect that to head south if you're in posession of a heavy right foot. The CO2 emissions are 224g/km so tax will also be on the expensive side. It's worth noting that MPS runs on Dunlop tyres that were specially developed for the car. With that much power going through the front wheels, it's likely to have a strong appetite for rubber and these tyres might be tricky to come by in a few years time.
The original Mazda3 MPS was somewhat subdued visually: this one isn't. Based on the latest Mazda3, this 256bhp performance model does little to disguise its intent with bodywork drenched in aggression. It might be a little over the top for some tastes, as might the moody cabin, but if you like your hot hatchbacks with extra attitude, the MPS will hold definite appeal.
Channelling all that power through the front wheels does raise issues but you can't argue with the car's straight line speed and neither can you ignore its value proposition. The price might look on the high side but factor in the extremely generous specification of the MPS and it starts to look like a bit of a bargain.
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