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

Our Opinion

We like
Showy styling, balanced chassis, cabin presentation, turbo performance, slick manual gearbox, value proposition, reduced torque steer
Room for improvement
Remaining torque steer, road noise, lack of complete dynamic fluency of the best hot hatches

Mazda logo17 Nov 2009

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

THE working-class hot hatch is back, and it does not wear GTI, WRX, RS or XR5 Turbo badges.

Welcome to the reinvented Mazda3 MPS, the recently independent Japanese car-maker’s second tilt at the boyracer Golf, Impreza, Megane and Focus fraternity after the wayward gen-one version.

Up goes the volume on visual titivation and driver satisfaction, while road noise, fuel consumption and – especially – torque steer go down, or so Mazda claims.

No longer will the tiller tug so violently to one side under acceleration, the promise goes, thanks to steering and suspension mods – as well as some electronics recalibrations – that tame the one-time raging bull whose front wheels could barely contain a 380 Newton-metre cocktail of torque.

The original MPS was like a crazed Mazda3 on crystal meth, particularly on slippery surfaces.

The new one, though, is different, and much better.

Visually we reckon it works better than any other new-gen Mazda3 it’s as if the MPS was sketched first, and then ex-chief designer Laurens van den Acker diluted the design to fit the lesser models, to the point where the base Neo’s skin sags over the small wheels.

Speaking of which, the MPS’s wheels are sufficiently striking to get Carrie Bradshaw in a twist, while her Sex And The City co-star Samantha would be sighing at the sight of the Mazda’s bonnet bulge a damn-sight more than she ever would have in a Nissan Tiida.

But the real Mr Big is the carryover 2.3-litre direct-injection four-pot/six-speed manual combo, complete with a top-mounted intercooler (hence the scoop) to kick out an unchanged 190kW of power at 5500rpm and 380Nm of torque from 3000rpm.

Push the button and depress the clutch to fire it up, and the DISI unit sounds nowhere near as fruitful as the styling (sorry to say) but it makes a better noise than other Mazda3s.

It goes a whole lot harder too, even from low revs, with instant and effortless performance from the outset. 6.1 seconds is the official 0-100km/h figure, but the MPS feels faster from the seat of your pants. You can take off in second gear, no worries, potter around in top from about 60km/h, and row that light but decisive lever without a second thought.

At highway cruising speeds we managed a remarkable 7.2L/100km, rising to a more consistent 8.2 throwing in some urban roads, while the city grind got that up to about 9.8. The fuel consumption average is 9.9, by the way.

So how has that wild torque steer been tamed?

Mazda says a stiffer body boasting better suspension bracing, stronger driveshafts, improved air intake and boost-pressure control, fatter anti-roll bars, softer front springs, wider tyres (Dunlop 225/40 R18s), and sturdier and less vibration-prone steering gear bushings make the difference.

On warm, dry roads, you can now rev the engine past its 6500rpm redline, drop the clutch, and the Mazda won’t spear off to the side like a refracted ray of light quite so readily.

It still torque steers a lot, and that can be quite a handful for the uninitiated, but the whole darting to one side thing occurs in a far more delayed manner, while the power-cutting electronic nannies intervene more readily yet not as intrusively as previously.

Better still, there’s no front-wheel axle tramp, even on rougher roads, heralding a level of smoothness hitherto missing from the old MPS.

Barrelling along on loose gravel the Mazda continues to feel in control, tracking nicely and pulling up strongly on heavy braking. But we were also glad for the stability and traction control safety net too, since they will stamp their authority more forcefully on the more slippery stuff.

Unlike many other testers, we believe that a bit of contained steering fight isn’t so bad in a hot hatch if you are an experienced driver it’s like winning an arm wrestle with a boxer, gaining control and taming a strong and very obviously muscular force.

In the MPS, it also enlivens an otherwise muted steering experience – a somewhat disappointing outcome if raw, undiluted feedback is your cup of tea.

While the MPS tips into corners with conviction, grips tenaciously and feels well-planted to the road, it still feels too much like a regular Mazda3 to beat the best from Ford, Renault and VW. What it lacks is ultimate tactility and fluency – there’s a slightly detached feeling between driver and car.

But as we said, the MPS is agile, holding the road gamely. It generally won’t bump-steer off a given course despite a rather firm ride quality, gliding through wide turns with roadholding confidence, pulled along by that hurricane-force heart of an engine.

Black is back inside, but with a strange reptilian twist.

Snake-print style trim swathes the dash, seats and door trims, and there are MPS-specific red and blue instrumentation (with turbo-boost indicator), as well as a leather stitched steering wheel and sports buckets, but otherwise the interior is pretty much standard up-spec Mazda3.

We enjoyed the superior sound quality from the BOSE stereo, revelled in the simplicity of the small but intelligently placed satellite navigation system/trip computer display which is controlled via switches on one of the steering wheel spokes, and appreciated the sumptuous support from the MPS Luxury’s front seats.

Like all Mazda3s, the driving position is excellent, backed up by the improved placement of the gear lever, which is a pleasantly notchy six-speed item.

We also like the rubberised feel of the upper dash cover, as well as the elegant design of the audio and climate controls below on the centre console. But the plastics near the handbrake look and feel brittle and cheap – OK in a base Mazda3 Neo but roundly embarrassed by any Golf in this $45,000 flagship version.

Everything else is standard Mazda3 fare – from the strong air-con unit which aids the ample ventilation system (although rear-seat outlets would be appreciated) to the plentiful storage solutions provided by the (leather-faced) storage box that acts as an armrest between driver and front passenger, as well as the deep glovebox, large door slots and lidded bins fore and aft of the gear lever.

Parking sensors should be standard at this price level, since the fat pillars and rising shoulder line do nothing to instil confidence into nervous reversers, but we did discover that collapsing the rear seats does reveal the rear window’s plunging V-line, that helps backing up big time – certainly more than those huge Mickey Mouse ear wing mirrors.

But doing that means that there’s more road noise to be heard up front, since there’s a layer of sound barrier removed. And everybody knows that all modern Mazdas suffer from too much road rumble intrusion.

Nevertheless, this does not seem so much of an issue in the MPS, since nobody expects Lexus levels of refinement in a hot hatch. So, Mazda, you’re off the hook again!

On the subject of the back seat, the doors are oddly small so getting in and out isn’t much fun for taller folk. But the rear windows fully retract, there are bottle holders in each door, and the centre armrest contains cupholders.

However, despite the fitment of a comfortable backrest, coupled with space for two adults and an occasional third-seat spot for a (thin) child, Mazda’s ongoing fascination with black interiors, coupled with the high waistline and small glass area, can make the back quarters a tad claustrophobic for some people.

Being a Mazda3, the hatch opens wide to reveal a low loading lip and deep boot floor (thanks to the space-saver spare wheel complete with the MPS Luxury’s BOSE audio gear living underneath), while the split backrest folds to facilitate larger loads – like every other hatchback in the world does today.

Thankfully, the MPS is not like any other hot hatch on offer today.

It’s a massive step forwards from the scrappy old model, and puts up a fight against the class-best Golf GTI.

Yes, the Mazda isn’t as refined, dynamic or complete, but its combination of style, speed, strength, virility and value puts the MPS in the same category as a good friend who can get moderately jolly after a round – as opposed to the rolling drunk that the defined the previous MPS.

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