| Week at the Wheel | Mazda3 MPS |
Inside & Out:
We like the way the angularly detailed 3 looks in normal clothing
. It follows that we enjoy this special one even more. Mazda hasn't gone too overbearing with the body kit, but the addition of tail spoiler, MPS badges, twin pipes and a lower set of skirts combine to make this a killer looking hot hatch, just on the right side of tasteful.
The cabin less so. All that really differentiates the MPS from its lesser brethren is the swirling red dot trim that adorns the seat fabric (with leather bolstering), the dash and door card inserts. And the pair of small, idiosyncratic dash displays placed side-by-side - one in full colour, the other an orange LCD - are a particular lowlight (and sadly found elsewhere in Mazda's range). Alongside the vast array of buttons, toggles and dials, the cabin ambience is all very 'Japanese', in the pejorative sense that we classy 'Europeans' can use that word.
Predictably, though, the build quality is top notch; it's just a shame that it'll date long, long before it perishes.
Engine & Transmission:
Let's start with the gears, because there's nothing much wrong with the 'box. It snaps through ratios one to six with the sort of positive, if slightly notch-like, action you'd want from a manual in a power-laden hatch. No complaints. We really need to focus our attention on the engine though...
A figure of 256bhp isn't really that much any more - even when it's going exclusively through the front wheels - what with the torque steer quaffing suspension miracles that makers are pulling from their hats now. Sadly, Mazda's pulled a limp hamster out of its trilby. The four-pot engine has 280lb.ft of peak torque at 3,000rpm, but it shows all the hallmarks of old school aftermarket turbocharging, producing a massive swell of twist once the turbo spools up, and not a great deal beforehand. That translates into to comical torque steer, despite a front limited-slip differential and a torque limiter on the first two gears - the latter seemingly a twee way of engineering out self-steering in the Revo-knuckle age, and one that, as it happens, hasn't worked anyway.
When the turbo is spinning it's a relentless engine though, which despite an all-or-nothing character still feels fortified and solid, in the way the rest of the car does. It's loud too, if uncultured, and the exhaust bangs during changes, which is always pleasant when you're in the mood for fun.
Ride & Handling:
When we first drove the MPS back in September
we hedged our bets on a conclusion because, for some reason, Mazda thought it a good idea to concoct a test route that was mostly motorway with a bit of housing estate thrown in. Call us cynical, but now we think we might know why...
The MPS doesn't lack involvement. But usually when you say that, it's because some facet of a car's personality - the steering feel, power delivery, chassis setup or whatever - makes it positively engaging. Driving this bad boy, on the other hand, is like being centre stage at a bullfight. That's exacerbated by the sheer state of the UK road network at the moment, but in any gear lower than fourth, this car cannot put its power down without asking you to fight with the wheel like you're chasing a carrier bag down the street on a windy day; an abject lesson in the perils of too much power through the front wheels.
Plant the fast pedal and there's a 50/50 chance the car will simply ignore the steering wheel's existence; it can change lanes all by itself. Plus the rack is so quick that the smallest input equals quite a sharp turn-in, which means enthusiastic corrections will have you fishtailing about like a big angry fish.
And what was already a stiff setup in the standard car is stiffened even further, with the suspension getting a significant plump up, and the tyre's sidewalls hardened before being wrapped around 18-inch rims. It's not unbearable, and it does mercifully improve communication between road and backside, but cushioning it isn't.
If you're expecting this berating to lead into a J-Lo redemption (a big but), there isn't one. However (because we can't quite leave it at that), there's a definite risk and reward thing here: when you do win the fight, when you do smooth out your throttle bashing and judge the expeditious steering correctly, there's a massive sense of achievement. This car, driven with deference to its insanity, is absolutely rapid, completely bonkers, and thus at times capable of being deeply gratifying.
Equipment, Economy & Value for Money:
It's five stars for value for money and equipment, but with a footnote about economy and emissions. The former pair really is the saving grace of the MPS, unless you're a glutton for punishment, in which case they're merely a massive bonus. It's as though Mazda settled on the engine (not difficult, given it's a carry over from the last MPS) then had a planning meeting:
"Right, lads, I've had a word with the guys in chassis development and they reckon it's going to cost a gazillion Yen to sort the torque steer out properly... so I had a word with finance, and they said if we just leave the development work alone, we can fill the car with stuff and still only charge about £22k for it. Will I make the call?"
Eddie's your uncle, you get a car with masses of power, masses of kit and a price tag that, at a stroke, makes the car difficult to resist for power hungry mentalists. To save space, it's easier just to say that there's so much kit in this thing that you can't actually specify anything else. However, it goes through fuel at a combined 29.4mpg and pushes out a lofty 224g/km, as well as being in insurance group 17. You and your lead boots will get nowhere near that mpg number (we didn't) and the premiums will be sky high, but 22 grand for all that leather, Bose stereo Bluetooth, air con, satnav and, of course, power, is cheap as potato wedges, and you should expect high fuel, tax and insurance costs for your 6.1-second 0-62 time. So five stars it is.
There are two extremes of person that will get their kicks from this car: those for whom 'power' just means making the loudest noise and having the right stats to spout out in Starbucks, and those who want a challenge of Jack Bauer proportions every time they hit an empty road. The Mazda3 MPS will appease both extremes, but is probably not the car for everyone in the middle. We expect there's a unique reward in getting to know this car over a good length of time - separating its quirks from its deficiencies - but alongside the Golf Rs
and Renaultsport Méganes
of this hot hatch epoch, the Mazda3 MPS is an anachronism.