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Mazda3 2009 review

EXPERT RATING
7.7
The hot-hatch brigade is a relatively exclusive club. There are plenty of pretenders but few actually make the grade with the right combination of performance, handling and equipment.

The hot-hatch brigade is a relatively exclusive club. There are plenty of pretenders but few actually make the grade with the right combination of performance, handling and equipment.

Real enthusiasts expect distinctive visual cues and a decent engine under the bonnet that lets people know their hatch is not a bread-and-butter budget special. Turbocharging as well as add-ons like spoilers and smarter looking alloys are a given.

The cabin must also be fleshed out in a way that lets occupants know they are riding in something special. Hip-hugging sports seats, a splash of leather and better gauges usually complete the visual treats. Mazda's latest MPS ticks all the right boxes to gain entry into the hot-hatch fraternity.

It picks up all the stylish cues of the Mazda3, throws together some nice touches like the wheels and bodykit, and slides a powerful turbocharged 2.3-litre four cylinder under the bonnet.

It slots into a segment around the $40,000 mark that includes the likes of the Ford Focus XR5, Mitsubishi Ralliart Lancer, Subaru WRX, Volkswagen Golf GTi, Mini Cooper S, Honda Civic Type R and to a lesser extend the niche Renault Megane Sport 225 and outgoing Holden Astra SRi turbo.

The MPS carries over the same suspension and engine as the previous model, but the smart new body is both stronger and safer. Power remains the same too, with 190kW/380Nm on tap.

This time around though, the MPS looks more purposeful with a bonnet-mounted turbo air intake for the intercooler that is more efficient but also lifts the car's visual appeal. Like the previous version, Mazda builds the MPS in two grades, an ‘entry' model at $39,690 and Luxury version, which sells for $43,290.

The newcomer benefits from all the improvements on the other Mazda3 models, including a quieter interior thanks to the stronger body and better insulating materials. The MPS is slightly longer and wider than the old car and 5mm lower. And Mazda - being Mazda - has had a closer look at every aspect of its performance hatch.

A gearshift has been redesigned and is closer to the driver, which allows shifting without having to lift the arm from the armrest. The gearshift is also 60mm higher and slanted towards the driver. Even the pedals have been rearranged to make driving smoother and easier for those with bigger shoe sizes.

Apart from sticking with the same engine, the MPS carries over the 3's proven MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear end, shared with the Ford Focus. However, the dynamic package has been upgraded to make sure the powerful front-driver goes, handles and stops as expected.

By reworking the suspension spring rates, dampers and steering Mazda has improved the car's on-road abilities while the steering is direct with just 2.7 turns from lock to lock. As well the suspension is firmer, the stabiliser bars thicker, there is stronger steering gear and even more rigid body that uses more high-strength steel.

The torque sensing limited slip differential helps rein in torque steer while wider Dunlop tyres deliver better grip. As expect the MPS has plenty of bang for your buck. There is the suite of safety gear, a navigation system, electric driver's seat, Bluetooth, trip computer, LED tail-lights, body kit, 18-inch alloys, dual zone climate control. Metallic or mica paint is also a no-cost option.

The LED turbo boost gauge is a neat touch and the push-button keyless start lifts the appeal too. For the extra $3600, Luxury buyers get an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, a high-end 10-speaker Bose sound system and rain-sensing wipers. Mazda Australia expects 60 per cent of MPS buyers to opt for the Luxury model.

Driving

The original MPS was a feisty little jigger. Too feisty for most, and not nearly nice enough in the class, despite the obvious attraction of its performance potential. Driven on a wet road, the front-wheel drive MPS showed its shortcomings against cars like the all-paw Subaru WRX, which is likely to be on the same sort of shopping lists. It was fun, but . . .

This time around the new MPS still makes great numbers, but the car has been matured and gifted the all-round engineering improvements in the new Mazda3. The result is more composure, more enjoyment when you don't want to drive quickly, and a car which looks better and feels a little classier.

It's still not a Golf GTi-beater, but it is better than it was and a much better deal for someone who wants a performance package at a reasonable price. It is well-priced, but not a standout with the WRX hovering at $39,990. The new MPS makes its 190kW with some smart technology on the fuel-injection front, and better turbo tuning, which gives a fatter response from around 2000 revs.

It will still push smartly to the redline, but the real enjoyment comes with easier overtaking and crisper response in the middle gears in the six-speed manual. Mazda says the change is a little sharper but I had no complaints in the previous car.

The new one is fine in the shifting and also has good brakes and electronic stability control to ensure the car does not turn unruly on slippery surfaces. The cabin package and boot is the same as the regular 3, apart from extra support in the front buckets, which means it's just fine. Not as luxurious as the Golf, but more fun than something like a Ford Focus and more likely to be trouble-free than a Renault Megane.

Mazda is only aiming to sell 70 cars a month with the MPS package, which is a tiny number against the ongoing showroom success of the regular Mazda3. It should be an easy job. The bottom line: Torque steer still a worry

Pricing guides

$9,000
Based on 351 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$3,990
Highest Price
$14,995

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
Diesel 2.0L, Diesel, 6 SP MAN $3,900 – 6,270 2009 Mazda 3 2009 Diesel Pricing and Specs
Maxx 2.0L, ULP, 5 SP AUTO $4,000 – 6,490 2009 Mazda 3 2009 Maxx Pricing and Specs
Maxx Sport 2.0L, ULP, 6 SP MAN $3,700 – 6,050 2009 Mazda 3 2009 Maxx Sport Pricing and Specs
MPS 2.3L, PULP, 6 SP MAN $6,300 – 9,790 2009 Mazda 3 2009 MPS Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
7.7