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Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - MPS 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, engine flexibility, wolf in sheep’s clothing demeanour, handling, interior presentation
Room for improvement
Not quite enough visual differentiation from everyday Mazda3 stablemates, exhaust note a little restrained

Mazda logo11 Jul 2006

By CHRIS HARRIS

HOT-hatch rivalry has never been as fierce as it is today. And buyers of this segment have never been so spoilt for choice.

Just about every brand with an important hatch in its line-up already has, will soon have, or, like in Ford Fiesta’s case, should have a performance hero.

Mazda, however, has been pushing ‘pocket-rockets’ since the early days. Various 323 and Laser TX3 Turbos have been impressive and depressive over the years – with and without the adhesion of all-wheel drive. Nonetheless, the formula has remained the same: peppy performance in a small relatively affordable package.

So it comes as no surprise that Mazda has returned to this honey pot, introducing the Mazda Performance Series variant of its top-selling Mazda3 small car. What does come as a surprise, is this little car’s ability.

It may not look like a car Mad Max could have thrashed on a raging road to revenge, but if young Mel had a modern Tokyo-dwelling equivalent that needed to hide in traffic before screeching away in pursuit of bad guys, then the 3 MPS would definitely be Gibson-san’s vehicle of choice.

Unlike the all-wheel drive Mazda6 MPS launched in 2005, the 3 MPS’s power is delivered to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox and is motivated by the same 2.3-litre twin-cam 16-valve turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder direct-injection engine. According to Mazda, adding all-wheel drive would have cost more and added about 200kg to its 1403kg weight.

But with 190kW at 5500rpm, 380Nm from 3000rpm, a claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.1 seconds and, most notably, an 80-120km/h time in third gear of just 3.5 seconds, the 3 MPS is certainly capable of embarrassing some seriously fast cars. Given the same task, would you believe an Audi RS4 needs 3.4 seconds and even a Porsche 911 takes 3.6 seconds? And did we mention the 3 MPS takes the crown of the quickest Mazda in the range – 6 MPS and RX-8 included.

In terms of outright power, the 3 MPS is well ahead of the hot-hatch field too. Its Ford Focus XR5 cousin pumps out ‘just’ 166kW and 320Nm the Renault Megane RS 225 musters 165kW and 300Nm Holden’s slinky Astra SRi manages 147kW and 262Nm while the original hot-hatch, Volkswagen’s high-demand Golf GTI, trails with 147kW and 280Nm.

On the road, the 3 MPS is devastatingly quick. With 380Nm of torque, the flexible 3 is always ready to simultaneously boost up and blast off without the yawning turbo-lag wait of its predecessors. Gear changes are almost optional.

The 3 MPS takes off with the same unforgiving on/off clutch feel as the 6 MPS, requiring a fair degree of familiarity. But once mastered, just concentrate and enjoy the massive turbo thrust from 2000rpm in an unrelenting blast until about 6000rpm where power fades away in need of the next gear. By this time, you’d be eligible for hand-cuffs.

So how does this front-driver cope with so much power? Surprisingly well, actually. Along with a limited-slip front differential, switchable stability and traction control systems, the 3 MPS has a torque-limiting system for the first two gears to manage torque steer, excessive wheelspin and power-on understeer without diminishing dynamics.

Of course, if pushed too hard and too early – like turning out of an intersection in first gear or on a wet road – the 3 MPS will abruptly grab the steering wheel and refuse to go where you point. But on the move, it grips and steers with little interference.

Unlike the standard Mazda3’s electro-hydraulic steering system, the 3 MPS reverts to a hydraulic rack steering system. For press-on driving it feels a tad light, and while it is responsive and well-weighted enough to entertain, it lacks the feedback and razor sharpness of the Focus or Golf.

Nevertheless, given the task of managing massive amounts of power through the front wheels, the 3 MPS is still composed and balanced when racing through bends and B-grade roads, resulting in a solid and confident handler with plenty of grip and feel.

To accommodate the 3 MPS’s extra performance, the body, suspension and brakes have been significantly uprated over the 2.3-litre 115kW/203Nm SP23.

Higher coil spring rates, 5mm-thicker front and rear anti-roll bars and firmer dampers result in an increased roll stiffness by 60 per cent and an expectedly firm – but tolerable – everyday ride.

The 3 MPS receives beefier brakes, as shared with the Focus XR5. Measuring 320mm ventilated front discs and 280mm solid rears and aided by ABS, electronic brake-force distribution and emergency brake-assist, Mazda’s fastest model repeatedly stopped hard with little fade.

Considering the 3 MPS’s warp-speed performance and handling prowess, it is unfortunate that its acoustic experience is not quite as rewarding as you would expect. From a restrained idling note to maximum boost, the 3 MPS just doesn’t leave your ears tingling for more, like an Audi RS4, for example.

Instead you are left with the whooshing sounds of a Hoover-branded fighter jet as the turbo spins hard on full boost and forces air from the large single exhaust pipe. Many people will be happy with it others – including GoAuto – will be left wanting more.

As part of the facelifted Mazda3 range improvements, the MPS is notably quieter than previous 3s in terms of NVH levels – a long-time Mazda3 criticism.

Forget the letterbox-style bonnet scoop, vulnerable front-mounted intercooler or extroverted styling to distinguish itself from its lesser siblings, the 3 MPS has a wolf in sheep’s clothing demeanour.

Visual differences include a subtle bodykit, the same bonnet bulge as the bigger Mazda6 MPS to direct airflow into the top-mounted intercooler, 20mm-wider front guards to accommodate the 10-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels shod with noisy – but supremely grippy – Bridgestone Potenzas, a larger single exhaust pipe, a small roof-mounted rear spoiler and a few MPS-specific colours to complete the picture.

Based on an already well laid-out interior, the 3 MPS does not skimp on detail or take a cheap-and-nasty approach like other Japanese performance models.

Instead, the new performance flagship receives comfortable sports seats with red stitching (and leather inserts when opting for Sports pack), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, brushed-metallic look trim, aluminium pedals, red backlit instrumentation with a 280km/h-calibrated speedometer and MPS logos embroided on the front seats.

In addition to the aforementioned safety equipment, the 3 MPS also receives switchable stability and traction control systems, six airbags, a collapsible brake pedal set-up and a five-seat seatbelt reminder system that sings like a smoke detector.

The only missing item was a trip computer to receive accurate fuel consumption averages at a glance, instead of doing quick arithmetic.

Mazda claims a 10.0L/100km average on 95 RON premium unleaded. Enthusiastic driving around town managed nowhere near that figure – 14.5L/100km was our worst, 10.4L/100km of conservative cruising was our best. A good constant country run should easily achieve the quoted average.

Standard equipment includes cruise control, climate control air-conditioning, 18-inch alloy wheels, six-stack CD/MP3 audio with iPod connectivity, power windows and mirrors, as well as front foglights.

For an additional $3700, a Sports Pack adds a seven-speaker 222-watt Bose sound system, high intensity discharge headlights with a jet washer system, leather inserts and a high-gloss alloy wheels.

For under $40,000, the 3 MPS offer is a performance bargain without any of the budget compromises that tarnish other hardcore performance models. While it might be marginally out-manoeuvred by its rivals – and let us emphasise ‘marginally’ – the 3 MPS is definitely tougher and quicker and, in the end, possibly a more rewarding hot-hatch to drive.

Here’s hoping we will see a Mazda3 MPS featured as Gibson-san’s trusty companion on the big screen some day.

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