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First drive: Hot MPS is Mazda's mantle piece

On the way: The Mazda6 MPS will go on sale in Australia in mid-2005 and be priced around $55,000,

Mazda chases prestige and panache with its ballsy 6 MPS

22 Nov 2004

By BRUCE NEWTON in JAPAN

MAZDA Australia is forecasting just 80 sales per month for its ballsy new 6 MPS, a mere pittance when you consider more than 1000 examples of the Mazda6 medium range head out showroom doors monthly here.

But the turbocharged sedan’s significance goes far beyond the small contribution it will make to Mazda Australia’s record sales figures. Instead, prestige, panache and adding to the successful zoom-zoom persona are the targets for this car.

While Subaru’s Liberty GT and 3.0R-B shape as the primary rivals for the MPS, Europe’s finest are also being lined up as potential conquests for the 189kW all-wheel drive.

Six-cylinder iterations of the BMW 3 Series and the higher echelons of Audi’s A4 (but not the hyper M3 or S4, it should be emphasised) are the sort of high-priced and high-prestige imports that Mazda Australia fancies as targets for the most powerful sedan its Japanese parent has ever built.

"We would be hoping for some Europeans. We do know that amongst people who buy Mazda6 they do consider BMW, Audi and other European marques as well," Mazda Australian managing director Doug Dickson told GoAuto at the recent first international media sampling of the car at the TI Aida circuit near Hiroshima, Japan.

"There is no question that people who are intent on buying a European car will not consider a Japanese car,” he said. “But if we can offer an advanced level of performance and specification, then I think we may be able to change that mindset." Unveiled at the Paris motor show in September, the Mazda6 MPS (Mazda Performance Series) is the first in a run of hot-rod models that will be presented at the pinnacle of most Mazda mainstream model ranges, to complement the acknowledged sports models, the iconic MX-5 roadster and rotary RX-8 four-door coupe.

"When we look at the demographic that is buying RX-8 and we look at the price, and then we look also at the Mazda6 MPS, we figure there is quite a lot of untapped demand we could access with this car being stylish, four doors, four seats and significant performance," Mr Dickson said.

The 6 MPS will not go on sale in Australia until mid-2005 and will be priced around $55,000, making it the most expensive 626/6 model ever seen on these shores.

But it deserves to be considering the depth of technical change and design differentiation that’s gone into it compared to the normally-aspirated front-wheel drive donor car.

For in-depth detail on that score, check out Marton Pettendy’s Future Model story on www.goauto.com.au titled ‘Mazda6 MPS wows Paris’, which delves into the car’s unique features.

22 center image But just to briefly reprise. The Mazda6 MPS is powered by a fundamentally updated version of the MZR 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine already familiar to Australians. This one employs an Hitachi single-scroll turbocharger running at a high 15.6 psi, an air-to-air intercooler and direct injection to generate 190kW at 5500rpm on 95 RON fuel (200kW in Japan on 100 RON) and an impressive 380Nm of torque at 3000rpm.

That’s mated to a new three-shaft Aisin six-speed manual gearbox only, which in turn drives the wheels via a Haldex-style on-demand all-wheel drive system that can vary torque split from 100 per cent front-wheel drive under normal conditions to as much as 50:50 front-to-rear when the going gets speedier or slipperier. Completing the technical equation are a significantly strengthened body, firmed suspension and uprated brakes.

The styling job is subtle but effective, a large bulge in the bonnet accommodating the intercooler sitting atop the engine. That’s fed by a tube cleverly fitted into the top half of the five-point grille, while a huge RX-8-style mouth below the front bumper feeds the radiator. There’s also new 18-inch wheels and tyres and a discrete lip spoiler at the rear.

Inside, it’s very much familiar Mazda6, with the emphasis on higher quality materials rather than the more expensive option of new console designs and the like. The front buckets are more heavily contoured for lateral support.

Equipment levels for the 6 MPS in the Australian market will reflect the current top-speccer, the Luxury Sports hatchback, that includes dual front, side and head airbags, switchable dynamic stability control and ABS, climate control air-conditioning, six-stacker CD audio, cruise control and leather upholstery.

Inside and out it’s a subtle look, and the adjective constantly employed by Mazda designers during the launch program was “sophistication”. Which brings us back to that Euro feel again.

Peter Birtwhistle, the head of Mazda’s advanced studio in Frankfurt which styled the hatchback concept version that debuted in Paris two years ago, said: "When Audi and BMW do their sporting vehicles they are not too loud and that’s basically what the customers wants in Europe, because speed and fast driving is starting to get a little anti-social … So there is a little of that philosophy about Mazda6 MPS".

Not that Mr Dickson was getting too carried away with the Euro thing. He was at pains to stress the arrival of the MPS and its upmarket ambitions did not reflect across the rest of the Mazda range. While some like Subaru espouse a desire to move upmarket, Mr Dickson said Mazda was mainstream and would stay that way.

"I don’t think we see ourselves as moving upmarket," he said. "We know what we are and we are going to remain there. There is no question that we are going to move away from our roots.

"We just see the MPS as a natural extension - a performance version of one of our core products."

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

ONE look at the 6 MPS and you know this is not a Lancer Evo or WRX STi rival. There’s no bonnet scoops, no surfboard rear wing, no massive flared guards.

There’s a refinement and reserve to the look of this car which turns out to be an accurate gauge of the driving experience, or at least as accurate as we can be when driving a road car in an environment as alien as a racing circuit*.

Under these harsh conditions, brakes can quickly fade away, suspension set up for the real world seem hopelessly soft and turn-in understeer (front-end push) a constant companion.

Even engine characteristics can be difficult to judge as you tend to spend a lot more time than normal with the throttle flat to the floor and the tachometer needle hovering near the redline, rather than exploring low and mid-range grunt.

But, in this case, there was enough positives emerging to indicate that Mazda might have achieved a rare balance between everyday traffic flexibility and a performance focus.

For a start, even given the demands of a racetrack, it soon became obvious that the 6 MPS engine is a grunter rather than a revver, delivering a good spread of power between 2000 and 5000rpm, with peak torque delivered on a virtually flatline between 2500rpm and 4500rpm.

That means constant gearchanging through the admittedly excellent six-speed gearbox is unnecessary, with most of the track able to be conquered in the very tractable third gear. If it’s this workable and friendly on a racetrack, then the signs are good for the Great Ocean Road or similar challenging real world drives.

The downer is definitely the soundtrack, which is dominated by a flat, sucky, exhaust whoosh. It’s the result of a conscious decision by Mazda to avoid an induction note. There’s no hint of the turbo spinning or the wastegate dumping boost.

On the bright side, there’s no sign of turbo lag either. A very good powerplant this.


If the track work did throw up a concern it was the brakes, the front right disc rotor warping on two different cars by the final lap of a three-lap stint

The all-wheel drive chassis provides able if quite conservative support for the engine. Initial understeer was compensated for as the drive system adjusted and there was a suggestion of compliance from the suspension settings, although very difficult to judge on this smooth racetrack.

But again, like the powertrain, it was not disgraced by the environment. The steering was perhaps a tad light, but certainly heavier than the donor car and there was never much doubt what was going on underneath you.

But this car is not the drifter that Mazda would have you believe. If you want to enjoy oversteer slides then a reef on the handbrake helps (the AWD and DSC systems disable when you do that), or chuck it at the corner and lift-off for the same effect.

But all the time, the 6 MPS is fighting to straighten itself up and get its wheels pointing in the same direction. With a 50:50 split in drive at best it would ever be thus.

If the track work did throw up a concern it was the brakes, the front right disc rotor warping on two different cars by the final lap of a three-lap stint. But considering the discs are upped in size by 37mm at the front and 34mm at the rear, there should be enough meat for road use.

Driving 6 MPS you’re kept comfortably cocooned in semi-sports seats and grasp a leather-wrapped steering wheel that offers plenty of grip. Gaze around the interior and its just like a Mazda6, only classier.

Which is how it should be, because that’s what 6 MPS is, the Mazda6 writ large and impressively.

It’s the sort of car that should be equally at home negotiating the weekly grind (if you can live without an auto gearbox) as well as putting a smile on your face at the weekend.

No wings, no scoops. No need.

 The TI Aida racetrack was the venue for two Formula One grands prix back in 1994-95. Both were won by Michael Schumacher, then driving a Benetton-Ford, while the 1994 race also holds the grim honour of being the last race completed by the late great Ayrton Senna. Back then the F1 cars were lapping in around 1 minute 10 seconds.

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