We've already had a go in Mazda's new hot 3, the MPS, but that was on smooth German autobahn, where it impressed us greatly. Now we get to try it a bit closer to home – specifically, on the quiet, twisty bitumen of the Scottish Highlands.
If you missed our first report, this is what you need to know about Mazda's answer to the Ford Focus ST. It's coming to the UK market next February, it'll cost at £18,650, and it's got 256bhp and a generous 280 lb ft of torque. That means it offers you more in-gear performance than an Audi S3, but it'll cost you less than an Astra VXR, and it's capable of 155mph and dispatching the 0-60mph sprint in a shade under six seconds. Has that whetted your appetite?
What's it like?
The MPS shares a floorpan and many chassis components with the Ford Focus, but it’s also kitted out with tauter suspension and 18-inch wheels, plus a roof spoiler, huge frontal air intake and drainpipe exhaust. Combine this with the 2.3-litre, direct-injection turbo from the Mazda 6 MPS and you get an impressive, sporty car, even with four doors and a hatchback.
Not that it looks much like one, on the inside or outside. Mazda has deliberately gone for stealthy sports styling here which will appeal to the kind of people who like to keep a low profile, but might not have enough attitude for the more traditional hot hatch buyer. We quite like it, but also we did mistake it for an ordinary Mazda 3 on more than one occasion.
On the inside, the downplayed treatment continues. There are part leather seats and a few discreet MPS badges here and there, but not much else to set this car apart from its peers.
The MPS' power reaches its front wheels via a manual six-speed gearbox, an electronic limited slip differential and traction control. What's odd is that it doesn't seem to be the kind of limited slip diff that so dominates the driving experience of cars like the Focus RS and Renaultsport Megane R26. On the slippery roads of northern Scotland, we expected this car to lunge for apexes and throttle steer like both of those cars; what it actually did was behave like a more civilised, yet still fast motorway car.
It's not sprung for comfort, that's for sure. The Mazda 3 MPS' ride is much firmer than that of the Ford Focus ST, and it doesn't strike such an engaging balance between body control and bump absorption. Instead, this Mazda 3 holds its body stubbornly upright around even the tightest corner, rebuts the kind of bumps and pockmarks than an ST would simply glide over at a certain speed, and as a result of both, it just doesn't find the kind of traction on a challenging road that you'd expect of the very best hot hatches.
It's certainly quick though, and its performance isn't as dominated by turbo lag as is that of a few of its rivals. This car has colossal mid-range shove; from 2000 to 4000 rpm, few comparable cars pull this hard, and it overtakes with as much swiftness and authority as many 350bhp sports cars we could mention. Thrust above 100mph is prodigious too, although it does tail off at the higher reaches of the rev range.
Should I buy one?
If bhp per pound is the criteria by which you measure a hot hatch, then certainly. We like the Mazda 3 MPS' engine for its torque, even if it lacks a bit of character in other respects, but were disappointed by the notchy gearchange and the unnecessarily stiff chassis. It will be interesting to see how it copes when we group test it against the Focus ST, a car with more street cred and a better chassis, but ultimately less pace.