Mazda New Zealand seems to be embedding itself in environmental relevance. After years of having some of the thirstiest cars in their respective segments, the Japanese brand has gone all green with the introduction of SkyActiv technology.
First came the reduced-friction, high-compression engine and slick transmission in the Mazda3 GSE, and this month the whole SkyActiv package (engine plus lightweight chassis) arrives in the CX-5 crossover.
Change is a scary thing. So it's reassuring that Mazda continues with an old-school hot hatch like the $49,195 Mazda3 MPS. The 2.3-litre direct-injection turbocharged engine is from the gone-but-not-forgotten Mazda6 MPS. It goes extremely fast (0-100km/h in 6.1 seconds) and uses quite a lot of fuel, with combined consumption of 9.9 litres per 100km (on a good day). Demands premium unleaded, too.
I'm not sure how much power you can push through the front wheels, but it'll be slightly less than the Mazda's 190kW. The MPS engine has a delightfully linear character that fools you into thinking you can use all of the grunt, all of the time. Which you can't, because despite a limited-slip differential and an engine management system that limits torque output in lower gears, the MPS can still be a wild ride of turbo whoosh and torque-steer. The chassis is tied down tight: fantastic on smooth tarmac but worryingly interactive on undulating surfaces.
The Mazda3 MPS gives you performance anxiety and, for that reason, I've always loved it. Hot hatches on the whole have become more sophisticated and less interesting in the past decade, but the Mazda proves it's OK to go crazy now and then.
A Volkswagen Golf GTI (155kW, 0-100km/h 6.9sec, 7.4 l/100km) looks positively sensible by comparison. It's also $9305 more expensive than the Mazda and has a two-pedal DSG pseudo-automatic transmission. The MPS has a proper six-speed manual gearbox (that's three pedals, people) and I embrace it for that reason alone.
The MPS probably benefited least from last year's Mazda3 facelift, but it still looks leery. At least on the outside, where it wears a curvaceous spoiler kit (including a big wing on the roof), imposing 18-inch alloys and a big MPS-badge on the grille.
On the inside? Not so much. There are trim changes and you get red illumination for the instruments, which is about as searing on the eyes as the acceleration is on your neck. The MPS also gets half-leather sports seats, a Bose 10-speaker audio system and bi-xenon headlights. All further ammo for the value-for-money argument of the MPS compared with its rivals. As is the three-year/100,000km warranty and free servicing programme.
Lest that's too rational, the MPS is like hot hatches used to be: exhilarating, occasionally erratic and a bit annoying when you're not in the mood. It's available in white, silver, black or red. But not green.
The bottom line:
They do make them like they used to: Mazda3 MPS is a throwback to the time when hot hatches were fast, furious and just a little bit feral.
Citroen DS4 Sport Chic $48,990
Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart $51,990
Subaru Impreza WRX $45,990
Renault RS 250 Cup $51,990
Volkswagen Golf GTI $58,500