First Drive: Mazda 3 MPS
This is Mazda's latest incarnation of one of the fastest hot hatches available on the market, the Mazda3 MPS. Sitting under the bonnet remains Mazda's 2.3-litre four cylinder unit from the previous model, offering 256bhp with just a few minor modifications to ensure it meets all the relevant Euro 5 emissions requirements.
On paper it might sound some way off the 300bhp of the Focus RS, but the MPS is still seriously rapid. And it feels all the more potent as this new version is lighter than its predecessor at just 1385kg. The sprint to 62mph takes 6.1 seconds from standstill - that's just 0.2 seconds slower than the RS - and Mazda has stiffened the chassis to give the MPS greater stability at higher speeds making it a very quick motorway cruiser.
From the outside the Mazda3 MPS looks the part, and has been given the quintessential hot hatch treatment including side skirts, rear spoiler, twin tailpipes and large bonnet scoop. The interior lends is more sophisticated with a simple yet modern dash layout and comfortable sports seats rather than racing-style bucket seats. While they aren't the most supportive options when cornering quickly, they are very comfortable on longer journeys, further boosting the MPS's case as a rapid tourer.
The MPS is not without its share of niggles though. The ride struggles on a less than perfect surface, with the car crashing around over any larger lumps and potholes and any change to the road surface through a corner can unbalance the car too which can be a little unnerving.
At lower speeds the MPS can feel a little jerky; certainly any attempt at pulling off smoothly around town takes a bit of practice. Plant your foot firmly into the bulkhead instead though, and the MPS then struggles with torque steer - a disappointing side effect of sending so much power through the front wheels without any of Ford's fancy Revoknuckle technology. It does have an electronic Torque Management Control which senses the amount of input on the steering wheel and adjusts the amount of torque to the driven wheels accordingly, but this doesn't avoid the need to wrestle with the steering wheel occasionally when accelerating hard.
Overall the Mazda3 MPS is an interesting and quick alternative to the likes of the Golf GTI and Focus ST, but can't really be considered in the same league as the Focus RS as it just doesn't have the same level of control when it comes to getting that power down.
That said, it is fun to drive and is still one of the quickest hot hatches around. Add in decent build quality, a raft of standard equipment, and the fact that it genuinely looks a bit different and it doesn't make a bad case for itself.