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Mazda3 MPS

 

The theory of the hot hatch is pretty simple: you take a humble family hatchback (the more mainstream the better), add a very powerful engine, some uprated suspension to keep it on the straight and narrow. And go!

In practice, hot hatches have been evolving quite a bit over the last five years. Following in the wake of the incredibly popular (and highly acclaimed) Volkswagen Golf GTI, there are now many in the breed that match that extreme performance with astonishing levels of comfort and ease-of-use. Hot hatches are still fast, they're just not nearly as scary.

At least most of them are. The Mazda3 MPS is old-school, and I'd argue refreshing because of it. It has more power than its rivals with 190kW, less compliant suspension and much less tolerance for driver error. The MPS (for Mazda Performance Series) is wild and comically fast, with 0-100km/h in 6.1 seconds. But if you can't master this car, laughter could easily turn to crying. Especially if the road is wet.

Even the engine is from the past: the Mazda3 MPS uses the 2.3-litre direct-injection turbo powerplant first seen in the rather excellent Mazda6 MPS, which lived fast and died young after just two years on the market, from 2005-07. But even that car was sensible compared with this Mazda3: the Six had all-wheel drive, whereas the Three pushes that 190kW/380Nm through the front wheels. When they're not spinning madly.

Mazda has taken measures to tame the MPS, including a limited-slip differential and engine management software that limits torque in first and second gears. It all helps, but doesn't stop torque steer and tyre squeal from a standing start. The power does go down quite nicely in tight second-gear corners on the open road, though.

There's no place for drivers who aren't properly committed. No silly dual-clutch this or torque converter that in the MPS: it's a traditional six-speed manual gearbox with three pedals only, and you have to respect it for that.

The suspension probably could go down a notch, though: it's hard, which is what you'd expect. But it's hard enough to be tiring around town and a little bit scary on really bouncy bits of Kiwi backroad. Of which there are many.

If you have any doubts about the Mazda3 MPS, probably best go and buy something more badge-conscious and less overtly threatening, like a Golf GTI. However, you'll pay nearly $10k extra over the $49,195 Mazda and still won't enjoy a level of specification as high.

The MPS comes with part-leather sports seats, gas-discharge headlights and 18-inch alloy wheels. While you're feeling smug (if a bit scared) about the fact you have a genuinely rapid machine, you can tell yourself it's also the sensible choice, with Mazda's three-year free servicing schedule.

Originally, the hot hatch concept involved powering up an ordinary family car to the extent that it would engage the driver and surprise anybody in a larger performance car who dared to challenge. The MPS definitely does that.


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