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

Launch Story

Mazda logo11 Jul 2006

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

HOT hatchbacks, like diesels, are the flavour of the month. No less than six have been released since the beginning of 2005 – and not all are petrol-powered either. But none have gone as far – or go as fast – as Mazda’s new 3 MPS. With a thrilling 190kW of power under the bonnet, and a sub-$40,000 starting price to put the words "performance bargain" in a new perspective, the Japanese understand that – as in F1 racing – coming second-best among this lot is just not good enough.

We like:
Phenomenal speed, outstanding value for money, comfy and practical Mazda3 hatchback packaging, engine refinement

We don't like:
Steering not ultimate hot-hatch sharp or sensitive, relatively subdued looks for performance on offer, intrusive road noise

MAZDA’S forced entry, so to speak, into the hot-hatch club is like a Hollywood-style shoulder butting crashing down of a door, complete with startled onlookers.

Of course those inside should be worried as well, since as nothing – not the 165kW/320Nm Ford Focus XR5 Turbo, not the 184kW/300Nm Alfa 147 GTA, and certainly not the 147kW/280Nm Volkswagen Golf GTI – can touch the intruding Mazda3 MPS for sheer power and torque.

Delivering 190kW at 5500rpm and 380Nm at 3000rpm respectively, this Mazda3 has a seriously irresistible party trick up its sleeve, resulting in a resetting of all hot hatch performance parameters.

Drive is delivered to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox tied to a 2.3-litre twin-cam 16-valve turbo-charged four-cylinder direct-injection engine. It’s also found in the all-wheel drive Mazda6 MPS sedan.

Even BMW’s 195kW/315Nm 130i Sport surrenders to the MPS, despite its 736cc and two-cylinder advantage over the Japanese hatchback. And that costs over a Mazda3 Neo more.

Now enthusiasts and Saab 9-3 Viggen owners will know exactly what channelling torrents of torque through the front wheels can do – and the latter only had to manage 350Nm.

Yet the Mazda3 MPS doesn’t suffer from excessive torque steer. On the admittedly dry country bitumen, but also on a section of curvy unsealed road, you were barely aware that it is there.

In concert with the limited-slip differential and stability and traction control systems, the MPS uses secret new technology to reduce the amount of drive going through the front wheels according to the tightness and approach speed of an impending turn, or when punching the throttle down in first and second gear.

Mazda’s press puff puts it nicely: "... (the MPS) employs boost pressure control to suppress sudden torque peaks, assuring smooth, linear torque delivery (While) torque characteristics in first and second gears are optimised to deliver appropriate power..."

Subsequently, on fast mountainous roads, there is ample power underfoot to pull you through quick corners cleanly while maintaining a high turn of speed, with little turbo at below 2500rpm.

Commendably, with all the anti-torque technology at play just beyond your fingertips, the MPS doesn’t feel weird or artificial in the way the torque and power deliveries are varied as the car progresses through a bend.

However you do become conscious of the fact that the full strength brew is somewhat diluted in the name of calm and refinement.

Also lacking is the absolute ten-tenths poise and body control of the equivalent fast Focus and Golf, as there still a surprising amount of understeer despite the electronic quellers and thorough suspension modifications Mazda has carried out.

The steering, too, simply does not have the same level of feedback and communication of the aforementioned rivals, even though it is certainly responsive, linear and progressively weighted enough to still inform and entertain.

Though the differences are probably only measurable in degrees, achieving a synaptic level of steering interface is the Holy Grail for many a hot-hatch devotee. Nevertheless, the tirelessly grippy Mazda is not disgraced.

The upside is a lack of nervousness at speed and a resistance for road irregularities to throw the MPS off line when racing through bends, resulting in a solidly planted and reassuringly confident – but never razor-edged - handler.

Please remember though that this is all on dry conditions with the stability control switched on. Wet and slippery roads eluded us.

More importantly, also please remember to occasionally glance at the speedometer once in a while, because – away from the hurdles and limitations of snaky roads – the MPS’ turn of speed will absolutely and positively astound you. This car is a licence loser.

You can crash your way through the gearbox from standstill (the weighty gearshift feels strong and well-defined), dropping the equally agreeable clutch and lurching off at incredible speed as you race up the ratios. Here, in this situation, the Mazda feels fabulously fast.

Yet nothing will quite prepare you for the Electrolux-like roar of the exhaust past 4000rpm, as a sort of second lift-off occurs once you belt past 100km/h, with 160km/h and then 200km/h looming fast before you even know it.

With full turbo-boost kicking in as the engine soars past 3000rpm, the Mazda3 MPS, simply, goes into warp speed. This is a seriously speedy machine, in a way that all the others are merely very rapid.

All the usual signs to tell you that you are going too fast in a jumped-up hatchback – wavering stability, straining engine, light steering – are absent in this absolute corker of a grand tourer.

Pleasingly the ride is on the supple side of firm, with an impressive amount of isolation from a whole variety of surfaces, bumps and humps.

However, like every new Mazda we have experienced lately, road-noise intrusion is an issue, droning on like an unwelcome whingeing in-law at a dinner party. Also, our co-driver was not as enamoured with the tuned high-speed exhaust note as GoAuto was, referring to it as a “vacuum cleaner sound”.

You know what though? The MPS seems slightly quieter on the road-noise front than lower-spec Mazda3s and 6s recently sampled. Maybe Mazda needs to add the same big turbo to the noise-quelling team’s efforts as it has here.

The bull-nosed (and bloody heavy) bonnet and grille treatment, along with the lovely alloy wheels and new rear diffuser, add a convincingly menacing attitude to the distinctive Mazda3 hatchback’s looks.

Perhaps, for some however, maybe Mazda hasn’t gone far enough with the visual titivations while for others the car’s basic design is muscular enough to begin with.

The interior, benefiting from the usual Mazda3 virtues of smart design and excellent practicality, also offers grippy and accommodating front seats, neat metallic-accented trim and nicely illuminated instruments – with a speedo calibrated to 280km/h – and high levels of standard features, including cruise control (are you listening Ford?).

Road noise intrusion aside, our only gripe inside is that, like the exterior, the effect may be too sober for a car as lairy as this.

What an outstanding performance bargain this trumped-up shopping basket (and basket case) is. In one stroke Mazda becomes the new life of a raging hot-hatch party that it has so brazenly crashed.

It may not be quite as communicative to steer or dynamically sublime as some, but with bullet-train performance and grand touring abilities, the 3 MPS is just simply too compelling.

If you ignore it then you just aren’t up to speed.

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