Mazda 3 MPS

Mazda hopes the 3 MPS will be a cult car, but with steering that leaves you feeling unconnected to the road, that's unlikely to happen, says John Simister

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Price: approximately £19,500 On sale February
Engine: 2,261cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 260bhp at 5,500rpm, 280lb ft at 3,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0-62 in 6.1 sec, 29.1mpg official average
CO : 231g/km

Mazda's European management thinks this is going to be a cult car. The Mazda 3 MPS - I can't bring myself to render it as Mazda3 despite the company's determination to logo-ise regular words in regular typefaces - will make Mazda a byword for cars targeted at keen drivers who like to bond with their machines. Zoom zoom, as the heart goes boom boody-boom. Well, goodness gracious me.

Why would a Mazda hatchback become a cult car? The MX-5 sports car I can understand, even if its purity of concept is compromised in the latest version. Maybe even the RX-8, because of its admirably strange rotary engine. But not a Mazda 3, surely.

But then... the Mazda 3 shares some of its underpinnings with the Ford Focus, a car admired by many for its driving qualities. Maybe those could make up for styling meant to be curvily dynamic but which has actually ended up a bit frumpy. And here's the clincher, at least according to the script. The Mazda 3 MPS is the most powerful front-wheel-drive hot hatchback yet created by a mainstream carmaker. It's supposed to scorch to 62mph in 6.1 seconds and reach 155mph given the chance. That should excite the enthusiasts, especially at a Golf GTI-chasing £19,000 or so.

How much power? It has 260bhp, plus 280lb ft of torque, so the power will be very accessible without having to work the engine hard. That engine is the 2.3-litre unit from the bigger Mazda 6 MPS, with direct fuel injection and a turbocharger in the modern idiom of efficiency. The bigger MPS model, though, has four-wheel drive. How can a smaller, lighter car handle all that energy through the front wheels alone?

Nor would you, by looking at it, spot the Mazda 3 MPS for the fire-breathing monster it might turn out to be. Maybe its visual discretion is part of this hoped-for "future classic" appeal. In Japan and the US, the Mazda 3 MPS looks racier, with a bigger rear spoiler, ritzier mirrors and a ride height lowered a little more, but this is deemed too brash for Euro-tastes. Another £500 will buy that look in Britain, though I think the MPS is probably better discreet.

But am I aching to own one? So far, no. Maybe redemption will come in the driving, then. I fire up the engine, note that despite its smaller centre silencer and bigger tailpipe it sounds disappointingly meek, and off we go. An exploratory prod on the accelerator pedal unleashes a satisfying surge of energy and hardly any delay in its arrival. This is a mighty powerful engine, as promised, but it's also a docile one if you're just trickling along in busy traffic.

A car designed to please its driver achieves this partly by steering exactly as the driver intends and relaying the result back to the hands that commanded it. Even tiny steering movements should have a proportionately tiny effect, and the connection with the road should feel transparent and positive. The MPS fails on all counts.

The feeling is of stiff, sticky joints in the steering system joined to the steering wheel by a column with a built-in spring. You move the steering wheel a little and nothing happens, apart from the build-up of springiness. Then you let go and the steering wheel doesn't quite return to centre. Could this stickiness be a crude ploy to isolate the driver from the antics of the overworked front wheels?

Aside from indolent steering, there are other devices to channel the forces where needed. There's a mechanical limited-slip differential which ensures the MPS doesn't spin all its power away through a slithering inside front wheel when accelerating out of a tight corner. And "Torque Management Control" acts on the throttle and the turbocharger's blow-off valve to limit engine power when too much wheelspin and steering angle are detected. But if TMC is activated too often, it will point to flaws in the whole notion of huge power in a front-wheel-drive car.

It's on the autobahn that the Mazda 3 MPS can finally perform its best party trick, albeit one largely irrelevant in the UK. All that power, plus six gears and the long-legged gearing that ample torque allows, makes for a very fast car. You can wind it up to 130mph, let some big-engined BMW, Mercedes or Audi come by, then give instant chase to the surprise of its driver. The Mazda feels entirely stable at speed, and it also sloughs off speed rapidly when required thanks to reassuring brakes.

But these autobahn antics aren't enough to win me over. The steering kills the Mazda for me. Yes, the Vauxhall Astra VXR shows how unruly a really powerful front-wheel-drive car can be if you don't rein in the front wheels' antics, and goes too far the other way, but at least you feel in touch with the road. And in a car aimed at keen drivers, that's vital.

The rivals

Vauxhall Astra VXR: £19,120

Terrific idea - handling by Lotus, 240bhp turbo engine, racy styling - but the VXR can feel too fractious on many roads, as the front wheels pull this way and that.

Ford Focus ST: From £17,795

Five-cylinder, 2.5-litre Volvo turbo engine has 225bhp and a delicious sound, but ST feels too nose-heavy compared with a lesser Focus. Excellent value.

Volkswagen Golf GTI: From £20,360

Expensive - but it matches your mood like no other. Its 200bhp turbo engine offers ample usable pace, and steering and handling draw you into the action.

THE VERDICT

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