Mazda 3 MPS

Mazda also have a reputation for putting powerful engines in small cars - but can the MPS match the charisma of the Renault and the SEAT?

Renault isn’t the only brand with a strong tradition for creating popular driver’s cars. Mazda has scored over the years with its legendary MX-5 roadster and quirky RX-8 coupé, while even the entry-level 2 supermini serves up addictive fun from behind the wheel.

So, the thought of a Mazda-badged hot hatch should have keen drivers licking their lips in anticipation. The original 3 MPS debuted in 2006, and had huge performance potential. But it was let down by uninspiring looks, while its powerful engine overwhelmed the chassis.

When bosses pulled the wraps off the second-generation MPS last year, they claimed all these faults had been fixed. The newcomer has a strong recipe for success, with a punchy 256bhp 2.3-litre engine and similar underpinnings to the sharp-handling Ford Focus.

In the flesh, the Mazda is less convincing. While it shares the attractive lines of the standard 3, it can’t match the other cars for immediate visual impact. Apart from the gaping air scoop in the bonnet, a large rear spoiler and 18-inch alloys, the MPS could easily be mistaken for lesser models in the line-up.

It’s a similar story inside, where any sporting cues are so subtle that they are almost invisible. Look closely, and you’ll see low-key red stitching on the steering wheel, gearlever gaiter and half-leather seats, while there’s also a small LCD turbo boost gauge between the speedo and rev counter.

Elsewhere, the cabin is near-identical to the standard model’s, which means excellent fit and finish, together with a neatly styled and well organised dash. Better still, the MPS has kit to rival a luxury car. Standard spec includes sat-nav, xenon lights, heated seats and a blind spot monitor.

The five-door layout and spacious cabin aid practicality, although the shallow 300-litre boot is the smallest here. Floor the throttle and you’re left in no doubt about the 3’s hot hatch credentials. The 2.3-litre isn’t as vocal as rivals’ units, but it delivers an addictive rush of acceleration as the revs rise – so the car nearly matches the Mégane for mid-range pace.

Sadly, the MPS’s blistering straight-line speed comes at a price. On anything other than smooth tarmac, it suffers from unruly torque steer, causing the wheel to kick and shake in your hands. This makes it hard to place the car accurately on bumpy back roads, discouraging you from making the most of the otherwise balanced and grippy chassis.

It does have a joker card to play, in the shape of a tempting £22,595 price – a healthy £2,610 cheaper than the SEAT. Factor in its impressive standard kit list, and the MPS begins to look like a high-performance bargain.

Details

Chart position: 3WHY: Why? The muscular Mazda is a real value-for-money champ. However, it’s also fast and could cause a major upset.

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