Mazda introduced the latest addition to their Mazda Performance Series (MPS) line up last week, the souped-up, turbo-charged Mazda3 MPS. The compact performer instantly brings to mind Mazda's historic 323 'DOHC Turbo' GTX performance hatchback. A vehicle that powered Neil Allport to titles in the New Zealand Rallying Championship in 1989 and 1992, and remains an object of desire among performance car enthusiasts today.
In addition to the injection of MPS zoom zoom, the rest of the Mazda3 range receives a facelift, which has focused on remedying the perceived weak points with the first generation.
Not that there were many, the Mazda3 was a critically acclaimed success for the Japanese carmaker, whom at the time of the 3's 2004 launch was in serious need of more exciting vehicles. In New Zealand, despite initial supply shortages for the first year, the immensely popular small car has averaged commendable sales of 130 units a month. Placing it in the top ten of most popular vehicles for 2005.
External changes are discreet, so as to just subtly enhance the 3's popular form. Black head and tail lamp bezels, as seen on the Mazda6 facelift offer slightly menacing looks, the round fog lamps of the predecessor have given way to more angular items, new 16-inch and 17-inch alloys, revised front and rear bumpers and a host of new evolution colours make up the changes in naturally aspirated 2.0 litre and 2.3 litre models.
The MPS houses 18-inch, 10 spoke alloys under more wildly flared arches, a scalloped bonnet, side skirts, Xenon headlamps, unique rear bumper and a roof spoiler.
Functional and interior changes across the range include a more user-friendly and spacious 340 litre boot space, higher quality interior plastics, a MP3 compatible audio system and auxiliary plug for the i-pod generation, improved noise suppression and revised instrumentation for easier viewing in direct sunlight.
Always the competent handler, Mazda's 3 range feels even better than before, benefiting from some tweaking to suspension geometry and dampening. Even the non-turbo variants delivered us to our destination with praise-worthy precision and agility during the vehicle's press drive.
The MPS raised the bar however over it's less sporting siblings. A more rigid chassis further tightens the feel of the car and it turns-in precisely with excellent steering feel. While mashing the go pedal around the backside of a corner produces barely any torque steer, despite transferring a massive 190kW through only the front wheels. The predictable and fun handling will certainly appeal to the driving enthusiast, with firmer suspension that stays flat mid-corner, even when hugging the tightening apexes of Taupo raceway.
The 2.0 litre and 2.3 litre powerplants carry over from the previous 3 range, but now benefit from sequential valve timing and electronic throttle control, a 5.5 and 5.8% increase in fuel economy respectively is claimed.
Slight power and torque gains have been made in the 2.0 GLX and GSX versions, now developing 108 @ 5600 rpm and 182Nm @ 4500 rpm. The choice either a five-speed manual or four-speed activematic auto remains for the base models.
Mazda3 MPSNo increase in power for the larger capacity SP23 selections, but performance is improved through additional driveline ratios, the 115kW @ 6500 rpm and 203Nm @ 4500 rpm power unit is now mated to a crisp six speed manual or five-speed activematic transmission. Up and down shifting in the auto can be commanded by thumb tip buttoning on the steering wheel
In contrast, the force fed and direct injected 2.3 litre of the MPS belts out 190Kw @ 5500 and 380Nm @ 3000 rpm. It's the same engine found under the hood of the Mazda6 MPS released late last year, but detuned slightly for the front drive configuration of the 3
It's an expensive but very strong engine, making power from a smaller, more advanced core unit rather than one of larger capacity. To put this into perspective, the Mazda3 produces 84kW per Litre of capacity. A target not often matched in the performance category; high-end hot hatch supremo the VW R32 for instance, seems rather unproductive with a meagre 57kW/Litre.
To all but eliminate torque steer, Mazda's engineers have given the axles equal stiffness left and right, and the engine employs a torque management map in its electronic control software. A dampened flywheel and fine control over the throttle and turbo wastegate irons out torque peaks, delivering torque in smooth, limited doses.
Final drive comes by way of a MPS specific six-speed manual, (no auto is available) and a torque sensing LSD.
The combination of a high-tech, high output engine in the Mazda3's lightweight body (1403kg) makes for one rapid hot hatch, 0-100 comes in 6.1 seconds, faster than any other vehicle in Mazda's current line-up. Yes, even the RX-8.
No need to snatch a lower gear when overtaking in this pint-sized dynamo, it surges past slower traffic with ease in the top ratios.
Dual front airbags are standard across the range, with all but the base GLX models receiving front, side and curtain airbags. A seatbelt warning system warns absent minded motorists in both front and rear seating positions, and a redesigned steering wheel adjustment lever and collapsible pedals reduce the likelihood of lower leg injuries. Traction Control and Dynamic Stability Control are reserved for the top-level SP23 and MPS, for additional safety the MPS hides oversized brake discs behind its attractive rims.
Mazda can't really lose with the new Mazda3 range, it retains much of its looks that have proved popular in the past, but it now offers improved practicality and drivability, and now a hero model that will remain desirable for years to come.
Pricing starts at $29,595 for the 2.0 GLX Hatch, and ranges to $41,995 for the SP23 Hatch with leather; automatics add $1750, regardless of four or five speeds.
Only one specification is available for the MPS, it is priced $45,995.