While they may not have the lengthy history of roadsters or coupes the hot hatch is now a well-established vessel for automotive performance and practicality. Since the VW Golf GTI of the 1970s, hot hatches have been in the mainstream and back when I was a teenager in NZ their popularity was unmatched. In my suburban slice of the country, king of the hatchbacks was the Mazda 323 DOHC Turbo. The 323/Familia was an unrelenting angry little car with sharp styling and an appetite for budget performance modifications. A quick look in the car classifieds reveals almost no 323s of that era for sale – most have been crashed, driven to death or hidden away. Rather than a sign of poor reliability it may be the mark of a much-loved hot hatch.
A lot has changed since the mid-eighties 323 but the Kiwi thirst for the raw power of the hot hatch remains. In a recent effort to satisfy that desire Mazda has released its second generation Mazda3 MPS.
This new MPS sees no increase in power, torque or performance figures. Instead, massive effort has been put into refining and finessing almost everything else.
The previous MPS was often accused of being aesthetically dull and near indistinguishable from its lower spec Mazda3 siblings. The new car is far more aggressively styled with large chunky bumpers, low side skirts, a high rear spoiler and an Impreza-style bonnet scoop. Finished off with 18-inch rims, extensive colour coding and twin exhausts the end result is a purposeful and menacing looking machine.
Inside you get a mix of uniquely shaped dark plastics and red accents, general quality and fit is very good and it’s far more spacious than hot hatches of old. Half-leather buckets with red stitching look great and provide firm lateral support. The steering wheel is busy with control buttons and although pleasing to the touch can easily obscure the ringed instrument cluster depending on adjustment. Nighttime illumination is a bit special with some trick touches to impress passengers. Other standard equipment includes, dual zone climate control, 10-speaker Bose premium stereo with amp and subwoofer, keyless entry and start, and rain-sensing wipers. Overall the MPS interior is a pleasant place to be, switch gear and displays are functional if a touch cluttered but everything is well screwed together.
Push the go button and the beauty quickly turns to beast as the MPS sucks in its first breaths. Sitting under the curved bonnet is Mazda’s 2.3-litre direct-injection turbocharged motor. It’s no toy and puts out a thumping 190kw of power and 380Nm of torque, this unit will take the MPS from 0-100kmh in 6.1 seconds and not give up till it reaches 250km/h. The engine’s generous power is detectable from low revs but the real thrust builds from 2800rpm making eager straight-line acceleration a signature trait for the MPS.
Mated to a sharp six-speed manual box, it’s easy to keep the MPS going hard with well-sorted gear ratios that maximize available power. It may take a while to get used to the clutch and it’s guilty of being a touch jumpy when the MPS is high in the rev-range. Fuel economy is 9.9l/100km combined, a respectable figure for a performance vehicle.
While offering four-wheel-drive was part of the success of the early Mazda 323s the new Mazda3 MPS shifts power exclusively to the front wheels. So the big question is: what about torque steer?
Mazda has worked hard on minimising torque steer and this has included limiting the amount of torque delivered in the first three gears, and also when the wheels are not pointing straight ahead. It works well, you can still find some torque steer if you seek it out but in dry conditions it’s not a major concern. That said, an MPS with half-worn tyres on wintery NZ roads would make for a much truer test.
The MPS is most fun on twisting open roads where it’s well balanced, has good grip and is a rapid point-to-point driver. The steering is light but precise and provides keen communication with those busy front-wheels.
In terms of comfort, the ride is firm but no more than you’d expect with a stiff chassis and a sports handling focus. What’s impressive is how quiet the cabin is even with the engine working hard, this significantly adds to an overall feeling of refinement.
If the MPS gets out of shape a Dynamic Stability Control system with traction control and a limited slip differential is ready to pull it back straight. If that doesn’t work out a full compliment of airbags are waiting.
There’s a lot to like about the Mazda3 MPS it’s got the ultra-modern styling the raw pace and the right equipment level. It also shows that there’s a much larger dose of practicality to sports hatchbacks now and this can be achieved while making very few compromises in performance and driver appeal.
It’s easy to get caught up in figures and specifications with hot hatches and forget the most important thing — they’re meant to be fun. The MPS is definitely that, it’s not knife-edge, “I’m about to crash backwards” fun, but has still inherited much of the character of its 323 ancestors. If you’re in the market for a new performance-orientated hatchback and you don’t want to join the VW GTI driving masses, then the MPS could be the right match for you. If not, it will still be a blast test-driving it.
Click through to the next page for a list of specifications.
What we like:
- Purposeful styling
- Straight-line pace
- Refined cabin atmosphere
What we don’t like:
- Steering wheel obscures instruments
- Tight clutch pedal
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo
Mazda3 MPS (2009) – Specifcations
Type 2.3L Direct Injection Spark Ignition (DISI) Turbo-charged, In-Line 4 cylinder DOHC
Engine Capacity cc 2,261
Displacement Bore and Stroke mm 87.5 x 94.0
Maximum power (EEC) kW 190@5,500rpm
Maximum torque (EEC) Nm 380@3,000rpm
Top Speed km/hr 250
Fuel Supply Direct injection
Fuel Tank Capacity L 60
Recommended Fuel Premium unleaded 95RON
Fuel Consumption (EC)
Emissions Rating Euro Stage V
Dimensions and Weight
Overall length mm 4,505
Overall width mm 1,770
Overall height mm 1,460
Wheelbase mm 2,640
Front mm 1,535
Rear mm 1,520
Minimum turning circle m 11
Luggage Volume (VDA) L 268
Cub weight kg 1,456
Braked kg 1,200
Unbraked kg 500
Type Electro-Hydraulic Power-Assisted (EHPAS)
Driven Wheels Front
Transmission Type Multilink 6-speed Manual
Front MacPherson Struts
Rear Multi Link
Front Ventilated Discs
Rear Solid Discs
Front mm 320
Rear mm 280