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Japanese First Drive: Mazdaspeed 3/Axela MPS
The quickest hot hatch ever

By Peter Lyon
Inside Line

(Photo courtesy of Yoshitada Moro)
The car has buckets of power, great handling, superb brakes, a tight six-speed gearbox with tasty short throws, good ride and comfort levels, and for a front-wheel-drive hatchback, accelerates and corners better than anything in its class.

(Photo courtesy of Yoshitada Moro)
In Japan, the Mazdaspeed 3's turbocharged 2.3-liter inline four pumps out 264 hp (JIS — the Japanese horsepower standard). For the U.S. version, Mazda assures us that the engine will produce "more than 250 hp." That's SAE horsepower — the U.S. standard — and promises to be very, very competitive.

If Mazda ever needed a successful volume-selling car to ensure its survival, then the Mazda 3 is it. In just under three years, the popular hatch has sold more than 920,000 units worldwide and rates as one of the most competitive and best-handling hatches on the market.

But in the hot-hatch segment, Mazda lacked presence. Until now, that is. The new Mazdaspeed 3 lands in the U.S. in mid-September and has just gone on sale in Japan as the Mazda Axela MPS. Inside Line was first in line to check it out. Simply put, this car will cause many headaches for the segment's heavy hitters. It's sensational. Targeted directly at the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST and Alfa Romeo 147 GTA, the new kid on the block has the credentials to really throw some fireworks into this hotly contested genre.

Advantage: Mazda
At our test-drive near Mount Fuji, Chief Engineer Tatsuo Maeda pulled no punches when he said that his team's benchmark during the Axela MPS's development was the GTI, but with the intent to take the total package to the next level. The MPS's 18-inch rims and subtle yet sporty aeropart upgrades around the grille, bumpers and rear roof spoiler give the car the aggressive look it must have, while its two-tone interior trim, red stitching and polished-aluminum pedals make it all feel very, well, European.

But while the extent of cosmetic surgery parallels the GTI vs. the standard Golf, the hot 3's on-road performance makes this four-door the quickest hot hatch on the market. Tipping the scales at a mere 3,060 pounds, the MPS is 154 pounds lighter than the GTI, and boasts a 64-horsepower and a whopping 74 pound-feet of torque power advantage over its German rival.

The quest for firepower
Employing the same 2.3-liter turbo four as the Mazdaspeed 6, but with retuned intake and exhaust systems, and a modified ECU that reduces torque levels in 1st through 3rd gears, this super-Mazda generates 264 hp (JIS) at 5,500 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. That translates into a rather quick 0-60-mph time of 6.1 seconds, according to Maeda.

That 264 hp is delivered through a clean-clicking six-speed manual gearbox with short throws and a firm touch. Power comes online from 2,500 rpm and stays hot all the way up to the 6,800-rpm redline, with its linear torque response more akin to a gutsy V6 than a four-cylinder turbo. But while the turbo's "phoooar" resonates loudly inside the cabin when pushed hard from 4,000 rpm, we feel the 3 could do with some extra exhaust note tweaking befitting the car's character.

Fearless, flawless front-wheel drive
Given that this 3 inherits significant hardware from the Mazdaspeed 6, we queried why Maeda opted for front-wheel drive over the 6's 4WD. "To retain the 3's hatch-like feel, keep weight and cost down, and to clearly differentiate it from the Mazdaspeed 6," came back instantly, obviously a question he'd had before.

And after just five minutes in the car, any doubts we had about dubious traction levels under power or torque-steer problems dissolved instantly. As a top priority on the R&D team's list, engineers have not only reinforced the driveshaft, but have also fitted a specially tuned torque-sensing super limited-slip differential. And when called on to control overzealous right boots, Mazda's Dynamic Stability Control intervenes without interfering in the fun.

Handle this
In addition to extra reinforcement around the floor and center tunnel and across the strut towers, beefier spring rates and thicker stabilizers allow the Mazdaspeed to corner faster and flatter than anything in its class. Initially, steering is heavy on turn-in, but then progressive and always perfectly weighted. You get all the feedback you need and none of the understeer you dread.

Whether in tight low-speed corners or high-speed bends, the Mazdaspeed 3 is effortlessly composed. With 18-inch sticky Bridgestone RE050As on the job, the rear end behaves nicely, following the line made by the front. And when called upon, the over-spec brake package — employing calipers and rotors from the Volvo S60 but retuned by Mazda — washes off speed quicker than any Mazda before it.

Honed in Germany, this suspension and chassis package has been tested up to the car's top speed of 155 mph, and despite the 18-inch rubber and sport suspension, the ride and noise levels at speed are surprisingly good.

Welcome to hatchback heaven
Inside, the car is quiet and comfortable thanks to contoured sport seats with "just-right" cushioning, a fact that Mazda has become known for recently. And with red-stitched black-and-gray trim, leather-bound steering wheel and gearshifter, and the Mazdaspeed logo adorning the seats and speedo, the mood is set.

Boasting more power and a better handling package for just 2.41 million yen (about $21,000), the Mazdaspeed 3 trumps the opposition, hands down. The only issue remaining is brand image. Can the Mazda muster sufficient street cred to draw buyers into showrooms? Because the numbers are in, and the Mazdaspeed 3 is the new king of the hot-hatch hill in Japan.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

(Photo courtesy of Yoshitada Moro)
With its sportier grille, bolder bumpers and roof spoiler, and those 18-inch wheels, the Mazdaspeed 3/Axela MPS's subtle cosmetic surgery looks the business. Nothing is over the top.

(Photo courtesy of Yoshitada Moro)
Honed in Germany, the car's suspension and chassis package has been tested up to its top speed of 155 mph.

(Photo courtesy of Yoshitada Moro)
Inside, the car is quiet and comfortable thanks to contoured sport seats with "just-right" cushioning.

(Photo courtesy of Yoshitada Moro)
A thick-rimmed steering wheel, bold center tach and polished-aluminum pedals all make the Mazdaspeed 3 interior feel very European.

(Photo courtesy of Yoshitada Moro)
Black and gray leather with red stitching sets the mood in the interior.

(Photo courtesy of Yoshitada Moro)
The MPS's 18-inch, 10-spoke wheels play into the car's subtle yet spirited personality.
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