Published on Sunday 8 December 2013 16:52
Ten Second Review
With its monster bonnet scoop dominating that malevolently curvy front end, today's more dynamic-looking Mazda3 MPS seems like it means business. The car gains instant entry to the hot hatchback elite with 256bhp and a 6.1s 0-60mph time, but putting all that power through the front wheels isn't straightforward. The value proposition is less ambiguous with a packed equipment list making the MPS look conspicuously good value.
Forgive the curry analogy but if you're looking for a fast hot hatch, essentially, you've the choice between Madras and Vindaloo. Madras will cost you just over £20,000 and will get you into models like Ford's Focus ST, Subaru's Impreza WRX and VW's Golf GTI. All are fine cars but all are essentially second choices to their respective pricey Vindaloo versions, the BMW M135i, the Impreza STi and the Golf R. If you could have the speed of one of these at the £20,000 price point, you'd be all set wouldn't you? The second generation Mazda3 MPS claims to deliver just that.
So did the first, but with that car, it was all too obvious that the Japanese engineers were struggling unsuccessfully with the difficult job of channelling 256 braked horses through the front wheels. The result offered anything but the subtlety promised by the rather bland styling. Undaunted, Mazda launched this MK2 model in 2010 and further updated it in the Autumn of 2012 with sharper styling. The recipe this car offers though, is much as it always was. Still the same affordable pricing. Still the same 256bhp 2.3-litre turbocharged engine. But with some ingenious technology to rein in it, plus a stiff, light bodyshell with racier looks. Is it all enough for this MPS at last to hit the mark? Let's find out.
The engine in this Mazda3 MPS is little changed from the original version. It's a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged unit that can summon up enough performance on paper to put the car alongside the leading lights in the hot hatch hierarchy. The 0-60mph sprint takes 6.1s and the top speed is 155mph. That 256bhp is achieved at 5,500rpm and maximum torque of 380Nm comes on stream at 3,000rpm.
The MPS is one of the most powerful front-wheel-drive cars on the market but that raises questions about how effectively so much power will be deployed. Directing nearly 260bhp at the road through the front wheels and expecting them to steer the car efficiently at the same time is asking a lot. Other models that have achieved such a feat successfully have employed various clever solutions to negate the effects of torque-steer, which is when the steering wheel is tugged from side to side as the front wheels search for grip. Manufacturers who let nature take its course have often ended up with a driving experience that's exciting for all the wrong reasons. The MPS uses a limited slip differential to maximise traction and some clever electronic aids which limit the amount of torque sent to the wheels in low gears or when lots of steering lock is being applied so they aren't overwhelmed - and, to coincide with the most recent style revisions to the range, the latest MPS features retuned dampers to better cope with British road conditions.
Design and Build
The curvy lines of the Mazda3 always looked ripe for a hot hatch conversion and Mazdas design team hasn't held back in creating this MPS model. Aficionados will recognise the improved MK2 model by its smarter gunmetal finish for its 18-inch alloy wheels, whilst the inner roof spoiler (beneath the unique MPS wing), door mirror housings and lower rear bumper trim are painted in sleek Black Mica.
Otherwise, all is much as before. The lines are almost organic in the way they curve around the vehicle's surfaces, while the narrowly contoured headlights and the black grin of the huge central air-intake produce a malevolent front end. That said, substantial effort has been paid to improving refinement, with added soundproofing and better underbody aerodynamics.
Although imbued with a little more (predominantly black with red accents) attitude for the MPS, the interior had always been the Mazda3's weak link. While retaining some of the aggression and sporting focus of the exterior inside with instruments housed in two heavily hooded binnacles and the dash divided in to curved tiers that mirror the lines of the bodywork, the materials quality was lacking and outright space for storage wasn't the best. Mazda has gone some way to addressing the first of these issues but many rivals still offer more practical oddments and stowage solutions. The 340-litre hatch is a decent enough size though.
Market and Model
Costing around £24,000, the Mazda3 MPS sets out to compete as fiercely on price as it does on pace but you have to factor in a few things to fully understand this car's value proposition. It's only available only as a five-door, whereas the majority of its rivals are three-door only or charge a premium for the extra entry-points. More saliently, the MPS leaves virtually no options to the buyers discretion because it's all thrown in as standard. The equipment list includes a BOSE 10-speaker stereo, satellite navigation, xenon headlamps, Bluetooth hands free technology, half leather trim, parking sensors and a full package of safety features.
Going head to head with the top hot hatchbacks on the market is not an easy task but the Mazda3 MPS will be looking for its impressive equipment levels to give it an edge. Specifying the likes of Ford's Focus ST, Volkswagen's Golf GTI and Renault's Renaultsport Megane to this level would not be a cheap exercise and the Mazda's straight-line speed will also give it an edge against its key competitors.
Cost of Ownership
Running a 256bhp hatchback is never going to be cheap but there should be enough people willing to shoulder the costs in exchange for the fun that's on offer. Fuel economy is measured at 30.1mpg but expect that to head south if you're in possession of a heavy right foot. The CO2 emissions are 219g/km so tax will also be on the expensive side. It's worth noting that MPS runs on Dunlop tyres that were specially developed for the car. With that much power going through the front wheels, its likely to have a strong appetite for rubber and these tyres might be tricky to come by in a few years time.
The original Mazda3 MPS was somewhat subdued visually: this one isn't. Based on the latest Mazda3, this 256bhp performance model does little to disguise its intent with bodywork drenched in aggression. It might be a little over the top for some tastes, as might the moody cabin, but if you like your hot hatchbacks with extra attitude, the MPS will hold definite appeal.
Channelling all that power through the front wheels does raise issues but you can't argue with the car's straight line speed and neither can you ignore its value proposition. The price might look on the high side but factor in the extremely generous specification of the MPS and it starts to look like a bit of a bargain.