Mazda 3 MPS

Japanese brand’s latest attempt at a hot hatch delivers an excellent blend of pace and value for money.

Given that Mazda builds the world’s best-selling sports car – the MX-5 – it’s hard to work out why the magic hasn’t rubbed off on other models in the range.

Although the likes of the rotary-engined RX-8 and storming Mazda 6 MPS have brought something new to the mainstream market, its hot hatches have rarely troubled the class leaders.

Mazda is aiming to change that with its second-generation 3 MPS. It’s based on the same Focus-derived chassis as the previous version, but the new car is a world away from its rapid but dowdy predecessor.

The first thing you notice are the looks. Mazda’s designers were clearly briefed to give the MPS more visual appeal, and the result is a car which stands out from the crowd. It isn’t the most cohesive piece of design thanks to its ungainly bulges and unconventional crease lines, but it does enough to get itself noticed – a key requirement in the hot hatch market.

Inside, there’s a curious blend of styles, and it’s not immediately obvious that you’re sitting in a turbocharged hot hatch. Apart from a set of drilled metal pedal covers and sports seats, the MPS looks just like a standard Mazda 3.

The curvy dashboard and decent driving position do a good job of making you feel comfortable, while the generous standard kit – including fully integrated sat-nav and heated seats – means you’ll never get bored.

However, the MPS doesn’t quite hit the mark in a number of areas. There’s a notable lack of sporting intent on the inside, while the vast swathes of black trim combine with tiny back windows to make the rear cabin feel very claustrophobic.

Mazda could also do with sorting out the number of buttons on display – the steering wheel alone has 16. Negotiating your way around them will no doubt become second nature, but the layout is bewildering at first.

For most MPS owners, however, there’s only one control that really matters – the accelerator.

Like its predecessor, this car is powered by one of the largest capacity four-cylinder engines in the business – a 2.3-litre turbo that delivers 256bhp. Although it gives away 45bhp to its Ford rival, the MPS is still a seriously quick car.

At the track, it sprinted from 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds and proved equally impressive in our flexibility tests, blasting from 30-50mph in fourth gear in 4.2 seconds.

The Ford was faster in every respect, though, and did the 0-60mph sprint in only 6.3 seconds. What’s more, despite the introduction of a new torque regulation system that winds back power in the first two gears, the MPS still struggles to put its power down in damp conditions.

On the plus side, the gearbox is a delight to use. It has a short shift with an MX-5-like quality, which lets you fully exploit the engine’s deep reserves of power.

On the road, the MPS serves up a competent but curiously sterile driving experience. Although it’s hard to fault any one element of the chassis – it rides and steers extremely well – there simply isn’t enough driver involvement.

Factor in the muted engine note and sombre interior, and the package comes across as efficient yet lacking in soul.

But you can’t argue with the price. At £21,500, the MPS is nearly £5,000 cheaper than the Ford, and has more kit.

You also get an unlimited mileage warranty and three years of breakdown cover. The Ford comes with only one year.

For some, that will be enough to make the value-for-money Mazda a clear winner. But in the battle for superhatch honours, does the Japanese newcomer do enough?

Details

Chart position: 2WHY: Previous MPS was one of the hottest hatches around. New standard 3 is much improved – so is flagship better, too?

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