Feisty, fun, and a little confused

Ryan Borroff
THE Mazda3 MPS was once the most powerful front-wheel-drive hot hatch you could buy, an accolade that now belongs to Ford’s Focus RS. Even so, it’s quite possible you may not even be aware of its existence because the model before this one was so understated there was literally nothing about the way it looked that gave a hint of its feisty performance.

The same cannot be said for this one. There is nothing discreet about the looks of this Mazda3 MPS. It looks, erm, distinctive to say the least. Its face is as manic as its performance, with its insane grin and huge scoop on the bonnet presumably designed to harvest the roadkill thrown up from the wheels. Sporty 18-inch alloys plus the usual body kit extras complete the hot hatch look.

MPS stands for Mazda Performance Series and the car has been tweaked to live up to its title. Under the bonnet is Mazda’s 2.3-litre four cylinder engine offering 256bhp. In practice this means acceleration – from 0-62mph – is just 6.1 seconds. Accelerating hard the car felt a little flighty – a sensation not dissimilar to riding a mechanical bull – and it felt like you were wrestling with the steering wheel, as if the car had the potential to be a real handful. All this power translates into modest fuel economy, just 29.4mpg combined, and outrageous emissions of 224g/km.

Yet it is undoubtedly fun. With a lowered sports suspension and a stiffer chassis – so that the car is stable at higher speeds – it is good on the motorway, but around town it’s a bit of a hard ride, especially when confronted with Highbury’s potholes. But the car has good grip – it needs one with so much power going to the front wheels – and a short-shifting gearbox felt good too.

Inside the car was the usual familiar Mazda in terms of layout. It’s a predominantly plastic affair combined with some quite pleasing sporty scarlet trim elements, including contrast red stitching. The cockpit is driving-orientated and there’s a swoop on the dash which has an info display in red and a miniscule navigation screen inset – a quite satisfying alternative to the usual large, ugly screens in the centre of the dash in other cars. But then the problems begin. There is a quite mind-boggling array of switches on the dash and the layout didn’t seem particularly intuitive either. It’s the kind of high volume visual information that requires operation from a generation of people that have evolved to use their thumbs rather than their index fingers. Though quite how your average 17-year-old could afford the insurance is anyone’s guess. The steering wheel had no less than 18 buttons on it for controlling audio, telephone, navigation system, cruise control and so on. Really? 18 buttons? It felt ludicrous – I have no idea how long it would take to learn their operation without looking for them first while driving. So I didn’t bother to try. That said, using a thumb input for the navigation system actually worked very well.

All in all, Mazda has built a competent hatchback that’s fiery enough – it’s certainly very powerful – but its personality is hard to define.