Mazda 3 MPS
It was in at the deep end for our new Mazda 3 MPS, with a trip to Europe's top race track. So is the car a winner?
Joining the Auto Express fleet as a replacement for our much loved MX-5 roadster, the Mazda 3 MPS has a tough act to follow. But with 256bhp, it's the most powerful front-wheel-drive hot hatch money can buy - and on top of that, the five-door body shape means practicality is high on the agenda, too.
It's this combination of space and pace that brought a smile to consumer editor Kim Adams' face when he got hold of the keys to the new hatchback.
However, after I had taken up an invitation from Mazda to drive the special Sports Aero Kit 3 MPS around the Nordschleife section of the Nürburgring track in Germany - as part of a team attempting to set a new hot hatch lap record for the 12-mile circuit - I thought the journey to the Continent would be perfectly suited to our standard MPS long-termer.
The track is located 55 miles south-west of Cologne, and once I had crossed the border into Germany, the Mazda felt really at home - largely because the car's power makes it so fast in a straight line. This meant it could sit comfortably on the autobahn at well over the UK motorway limit.
Having arrived at the track, the 3's excellent body control and impressive levels of grip were equally welcome. Even though our hatch didn't have the 15mm lower ride height and uprated Eibach dampers of the Sports Aero Kit model (which costs £500 extra), it proved very capable around the hallowed Nordschleife tarmac.
With a return trip to the UK ahead of us, we didn't push our Mazda hard - certainly not as hard as race driver Mark Ticehurst, who lapped in an impressive eight minutes 39 seconds in one of the 3s specially prepared for the event. But the pace of our car still surprised a few of the other drivers on the circuit, which is open to the public.
This was no doubt down to its subtle styling; the Mazda doesn't exactly shout about its performance, with the discreet bodykit the only real clue. It isn't particularly sporty inside, either - although Kim has told me how delighted he is with the 3's ability to swallow all his product test kit, so it scores in terms of practicality.
Yet that's not to say it's perfect. A number of niggles have afflicted our MPS - most notably the engine warning light, which keeps coming on. Our dealer has repeatedly told us it's a false alarm, but we don't want to ignore the alert in case something is actually wrong.
The front number plate has a habit of falling off, too, so we've used some sticky pads to fix it in place temporarily.
But the fact you get so much for your money compensates for these gripes. The MPS costs less than £19,000, yet gets a CD changer and xenon lights, plus climate and stability control, as standard. Add that pace, and it's a great package. The question is, will we still think so after a few more months' use?