The Mazda 3 MPS is a quick, comfortable and reliable hot hatch with more power than a VW Golf R32, yet few people even know it exists
30 April 2017

Mention the Mazda 3 of 2003-2013 and most people will struggle to recall it.

Regale them with tales of the 256bhp MPS variant launched in 2006, and they’ll write you off as ‘a person to avoid’. The fact is, the Mazda Performance Series is a hot hatch known only to car junkies who nod approvingly at a power output that exceeded the 247bhp of the Mk5 Volkswagen Golf R32 and was only 5bhp shy of the Audi S3.

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And therein lies the reason the 3 MPS is so invisible. Whereas the R32 and S3 were both four-wheel drive, the Mazda was two-wheel drive, and those driven wheels were the fronts.

True, there’s a mechanical limited-slip diff and a steering-anglesensitive throttle damping system that aims to rein in power when you turn the wheel but, even so, torque steer remains a problem that leaves the car feeling unresolved.

Our Verdict

Mazda 3
The SkyActiv platform used in the 3 features more high and ultra-high-strength steel, offering greater strength and less weight

Mazda's SkyActiv revolution hits the family hatchback class with a desirable blend of brisk performance and energetic handling

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Still, one purist’s overcooked orphan is another’s overlooked bargain. Prices begin at about £2000 for high-mileage, private-sale 2006 cars before accelerating as quickly as the car itself (5.9sec to 60mph, for the record) to around £4500 for tidy 2007 cars with full history, before speeding north beyond £8000 (nice 2010 cars) to as much as £12,000 for the last 2012 and 2013 examples.

If you didn’t know that Ford once owned a third of Mazda shares, you might be surprised to hear the 3 MPS shares its platform with the Ford Focus. However, where Ford’s hot hatch, the ST, had a blown 2.5-litre five-cylinder Volvo engine to grind its beans, the 3 MPS used a homegrown Mazda 2.3-litre four, again with forced induction. It’s a nice twist and shows just how single-minded Mazda can be – a trait that has, at various times, rewarded it richly and cost it dearly.

The engine, called DISI, or Direct Injection Spark Ignition, is notable for squirting the fuel straight into the combustion chamber and, when it’s in there, increasing the air pressure to boost power and torque. Economy was supposed to be a beneficiary, too, but you’ll struggle to best 30mpg. Road tax for 2006-2008 cars is £500, but £295 for 2009-2013 cars.

The car’s performance wasn’t the only thing going for it. It boasted a genuinely roomy five-door cabin, impressive overall refinement and good reliability. Mazda showered the 3 MPS with kit, including a Bose sound system, part-leather sports seats and climate control.

The second-generation 3 MPS arrived in 2009 and came with even more kit, including an eye-catching bonnet scoop, a smarter dashboard, Bluetooth connectivity, heated seats, keyless entry and start, a sat-nav and a blindspot warning system. It also brought that reduction in road tax.

If you want to cut the mustard, look for a first-gen car with the Sports Aero Kit (SAK). It’s an unfortunate acronym but a decent improvement, since the £500 option brought Eibach springs for a lower ride height, a larger rear spoiler and sculpted two-spoke door mirrors. Now you’re talking. 

An expert’s view...

FRAZER GERAGHTY, MAZCARE

“We’ve been a Mazda specialist for more than 15 years and have sold a few MPSs. They’re terrific cars — extremely fast but very comfortable, too. Being a Mazda, they’re extremely reliable. The turbo doesn’t give any trouble and we’ve never known any timing chain issues. We’ve got two cars, both in black, for sale at the moment: a 2006 Mk1 with the aero kit and 70,000 miles for £6495, and a 2010 Mk2 with 48,000 miles for £10,995.”

Mazda 3 MPS problems...

ENGINE

Listen for the VVT actuator rattling or a loud ticking immediately after engine start-up. Failure could affect the timing chain. If the chain rattles at 2000rpm, have it inspected. Check for worn turbo seals by allowing the engine to idle for 15 minutes before booting the loud pedal and looking for smoke. If the engine is tuned, the credibility of the company that did the work is more important than the claimed power gain. Check the oil was changed every 9000 or so miles and if the initial 3000-mile service was done.

TRANSMISSION

Watch for a notchy change from first to second, and a rumbling diff on full lock. It could need fresh gearbox oil. Check the car was recalled for a potentially loose engine mounting bolt that can cause the driveshaft to detach.

STEERING AND TYRES

Tyres can wear badly on the inside edge, even with the tracking set up correctly. Rare 215/45 R18 size means new tyres aren’t cheap. Some owners move to cheaper 225/40 R18 wheels. It is not unusual to hear suspension noises from tired drop links, anti-roll bushes and suspension top mounts.

BODY

Low-mounted front foglights chip and crack on first-gen cars. Check for rust behind the bumpers, in wheel arches and around the tailgate.

INTERIOR

Generally tough but half-leather seats can crack if neglected.Also worth knowing Many engine remapping companies will boost your MPS’s power by 45bhp or 70bhp, and torque by 52lb ft or 74lb ft. Some also offer rev limiter removal. But before you spend from £300 or so, just consider the effect on the car’s already lively torque steer…

Mazda 3 MPS prices...

£2000-£3995

Early 2006-2007 private and dealer cars with 100k-plus miles in good condition, with full service history.

£4000-£4995

Lower-mileage (around 70k) 2006- 2007 cars with full history.

£5000-£5995

Cherished 60k-mile 2008-2009 cars.

£6000-£6995

Strongly priced 2007-2009 cars, some with very low miles (around 40k).

£7000-£8495

One or two main dealer 2009 cars with around 50k miles, but strongly priced higher-mileage trade cars, too.

£8500-£10,495

Very tidy 2010-reg cars, especially around £9500.

£10,500 AND ABOVE

Very low-mileage 2010 cars, with 2012s around £11,500.

John Evans

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