Mazda 3 MPS

Introduction

Road tax is now 'green' tax; ministers are gathering in Copenhagen to try and figure out how to stop countries being engulfed by melted icecaps; the car industry is seeking alternatives to internal combustion. Yet, the amount of horsepower available to the common person is reaching levels once reserved for the supercar buying elite.

It's a fantastic trend, but one that can't continue at the current pace. The Mazda3 MPS is a perfect example of why - but the reason's not environmental. The Focus RS might have a sensational 301bhp going through the front wheels, but that's because Ford spent a fortune engineering trick suspension - then passed on the cost to the buyer. The Mazda is dirt cheap by comparison, which is great, but its engineers resorted to rather more cost effective engineering to harness its horsepower. The result is a lesson in why power isn't everything...

What are its rivals?

If we could draw a graph for you it would be a useful tool in demonstrating the vast and varied spread that makes up the hot hatch segment today. Imagine a horizontal axis with prices between £20,000 and £30,000 running across it, and a vertical power axis, spreading from 170- to 330bhp. Cars like the Golf R, Focus RS and Subaru Impreza WRX STI are at the top right of that graph, with prices to match their big outputs. At the bottom left are the warm diesel hatches like the SEAT Leon FR TDI and the Skoda Octavia vRS, which offer economical thrills at a reasonable price.

And, as you'd imagine, the graph plots nicely on an upward slope between the two. Mostly. The Golf GTI is around the middle, as is SEAT's hotter petrol-powered stuff, with the Renaultsport Mégane 250 a bit further up on the power line. However, stuck right up in the top left corner of that graph, all by itself, is this Mazda. That's because, with 256bhp and a £22,000 list price - and every single option box ticked on your behalf - the Mazda's value is as fierce as its power delivery.

How does it drive?

Like putting a washing machine motor into a pencil sharpener, that's how. You might have seen where this was going from the start, but the Mazda isn't subtle, and nor is it for the feint hearted. The 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine uses a whopping turbocharger to extract 256bhp, but Mazda just hasn't been able to disguise the all-or-nothing power delivery that technique can result in. Its 280lb.ft of torque doesn't all arrive until 3,000rpm, and by 5,800rpm peak power is reached.

And when you're within that band (about 3,000- to 6,000rpm) in any gear below fourth, the front tyres simply haven't got enough bite to get all the power to the road smoothly. Plant your foot and the car takes its pick between left and right, particularly in second gear, scrabbling about and forcing you to correct things in order to stay straight. The frustration is that it otherwise feels like a hugely capable car. The chassis feels stiff, the steering is sharp and alive, the brakes strong, and the gear shift action sturdy. It's one of the few cars we've ever driven that we think could do with less power and torque.

What Mazda has done to try and tame all the engine's energy is to actually do as we've just suggested, sort of: take some of it away by placing a torque limiter on first and second gears. There's a limited slip differential too. Unfortunately, the only thing you feel working is the traction control, which kicks in almost every time you open the throttle fully between zero and 60mph.

What's impressive?

Value. We've touched on this already, but nowhere else can you get this much power and this much equipment for just under £22,000. There are no options left to tick for the MPS, which no doubt makes its 'build your own' section on the Mazda website a quick exercise in picking your colour. Kit includes part-leather sports seats, a unique styling kit, 18-inch alloys, a bass-rich Bose stereo, Bluetooth, dual-zone air conditioning, keyless start and satellite navigation. Put all that stuff in a Golf GTI and it's bye-bye Caribbean cruise. (In a Golf R it's bye-bye to university for one of the kids.)

We also love the Mazda's styling, which looks snarling like a good hot hatch should, but without being so in-your-face that you become a target.

What's not?

Mazda has really gone to town on making this feel like a powerful car, winding the suspension up so tightly that even when you're in no hurry whatsoever it feels like you are. The springs and dampers are significantly stiffer than the standard versions' - even the tyre's sidewalls are firmed up. It's not stiff like a Porsche 911 GT3, but there's very little subtlety about the way it rides residential streets, with every jut and pothole sent shimmering into the cabin. Hot hatch buyers shouldn't be nonplussed about that though - it's the trade-off for an involving driving experience.

We're not too keen on the interior styling either. The last 3 we drove, a 2.2 Sport diesel, just about managed to carry off its array of buttons without looking fussy. But there are two problems with the MPS version: firstly, adding a tacky swirly red polka dot pattern in the doors, dash and seats tips the cabin into a 1990s abyss. And second, it's not special enough. We'd like more differentiation and more class, please.

Should I buy one?

If power and on-paper speed are things you like to talk to people about, then here's a car with some serious bragging potential. 0-62mph comes in 6.1 seconds and it's limited to 155mph - the same number most AMG and BMW M cars are forced to stop at. If value's your thing it's compelling too.

But it's just so brutal and so uncivilised that we think it might get tiresome, especially when a good few rivals are better at both the twisty stuff and the daily grind. Most have its 29.4mpg and 224g/km of CO2 licked too, which might dent the appeal of its bargain price tag.

But there's one thing niggling at us. The MPS is madder than a Red Bull cocktail drank through a Pepperami Firestick, yes, but it's a unique type of excitement that it dishes out. We do wonder whether, with time, the MPS might become like a brilliant mad uncle that you love to party with because he makes you laugh, even though it's ridiculous. If you can cope with him at work too, then this is your car.

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