Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda6 - MPS sedan
7 Oct 2005
FRESH from launching an all-new MX-5 and with the RX-8 rotary still firing strongly, the Mazda6 MPS provides both sports sedan buyers and Mazda itself with a whole new dimension. As well as reintroducing all-wheel drive to the Mazda range after more than 15 years and continuing the turbo power now abandoned by MX-5, MPS represents Mazda’s first direct-injection engine.
While the result, in performance terms, is truly invigorating, an effective AWD system combines with accomplished Mazda6 foundations to deliver even better than expected handling dynamics. Throw in keen pricing and Mazda6 MPS is one of the stand-out performance car releases this year.
RARELY does a new model, much less a performance offering, live up to the oh-so-sugary marketing promises that invariably accompany its release.
But the Mazda6 MPS is one of those rare vehicles - despite the unusually high number of expectation-raising superlatives that have been used to describe Mazda's first direct-injection (and turbocharged, in this case) engine and new all-wheel drive system.
No, Mazda's first MPS model is not a rival for Subaru's Impreza WRX or STi rally rockets.
Instead, it's one of the most exhilarating, refined and confidence-inspiring mid-sized performance sedans ever released in Australia.
And with its only direct rival - Subaru's turbocharged Liberty GT - due to bow out in December because it doesn't meet next year's more stringent emissions regulations, it will be unique in the marketplace.
That said, people considering Ford's rapid and refined XR6 Turbo - and even those shopping for Commdore SS and Falcon XR8 V8s - may be swayed by the ability of Mazda's smaller, but no less exciting, sedan.
Unlike those vehicles, the MPS has the advantage of being built on an accomplished new model that played an integral role in rejuvenating the medium car segment.
Based on the Mazda6 sedan - the strongest of the three Mazda6 bodystyles - the MPS is given an even greater head-start by being based on the recently facelifted, and genuinely improved, version of the Mazda6.
Add the convincing performance of Mazda's turbocharged, direct-injection 2.3-litre four-cylinder, bigger brakes and wheels, 50 per cent greater body rigidity and all-wheel drive, and MPS takes the already-brilliant Mazda6 to a completely new level.
Matching its subtle but effectively differentiated bodykit's performance promise is the MZR 2.3 DISI Turbo engine that's smooth, refined, reasonably quiet and super-responsive.
Performance is not what's you describe as muscular right off idle - and there is a level of on/off-throttle snatchiness that makes smooth progress at low speeds difficult - but power delivery becomes very useful from 2500rpm.
From 3000rpm, however, there's enough torque to squash you forcefully into the hip-hugging sports seats and, in the upper gears, to reach seriously fast speeds with deceptive ease.
Turbo lag is almost undiscernible, and with 100km/h coming up at 2500rpm in sixth gear, effortless open-road overtaking is a brush of the right pedal away.
Dropping back to fifth gear in the superbly gated, short-throw manual transmission delivers even more instant results.
A 400km drive loop combining some of Tasmania's best Targa stages proved Mazda's new turbo mill to be just as effective on twisting tarmac, with steep inclines and second-gear switchbacks failing to find the MPS in the wrong gear.
Although MPS redlines at 6500rpm, rapid acceleration drops off around 5000rpm, but while the speedo's 280km/h top speed seems a little ambitious, Mazda's claimed 6.6-second 0-100km/h figure feels a little conservative.
MPS feels like it's quicker than that, and its tweaked Mazda6 chassis and all-wheel drivetrain is a perfect accompaniment to it - even if it does add more than 200kg.
Offering a whole new league of grip via an effective AWD system and offering an ever-present feeling of quality and solidity, the MPS easily deals with its relentless reserves of extra torque - while retaining all of the balance and neutrality that makes the standard Mazda6 so sweet to drive.
Indeed, any reservations we had about Mazda's new AWD system are now forgotten - despite its ability to direct a maximum of just 50 per cent of torque rearwards.
It's similar in concept to the front-biased AWD systems that grace many new SUVs, but works quickly, intelligently and effectively enough to stamp the MPS a real driver's car.
No, MPS won't do donuts like a rear-drive V8 and, no, opposite-lock power-on oversteer is not available.
But MPS will get taily on loose surfaces during full-power take-offs and can be "steered on the throttle" like a real performance car can, making it eminently rewarding on the right road.
And it does all this quietly, comfortably and safely, with switchable stability control working unobtrusively if one oversteps the limits of its considerable traction envelope.
Of course, like all modern cars, the MPS chassis is tuned to deliver mild understeer at the limit of its adhesion, but it takes some confidence to reach that limit and on the way there's not a hint of the steering rack rattle or bump steer that effects many vehicles that drive through their front wheels.
In fact, lightish (but communicative and highly responsive) steering and some tyre roar on coarse-chip surfaces are the only blights on a chassis that's beautifully balanced, firmly sprung without returning a bone-jarring ride, and stopped by progressive and powerful new brakes.
Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, MPS offers all the creature comforts expected at this price, plus an appealing but functional interior, accessed by four doors, with a huge range of seating and steering wheel adjustment.
Civilised, refined and practical, but with a mean streak that's highly accessible yet eminently rewarding, MPS is undoubtedly a performance car for grown-ups.
It might not be as big as a Falcon or Commodore, nor as brutal off the line, but first-class refinement, equipment and safety features, plus a fun-factor to match the best of them, makes MPS one of this year's sports sedan bargains.
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