The big problem with pockets these days is they just simply aren’t deep enough if you want to enjoy an exhilarating experience on the road. Performance costs, and all too often now you have to empty not just your pockets, but also your wallet, your piggy bank and your savings account to get a sniff of a sporty drive.
Don’t despair though, because there are still a few opportunities which won’t deprive you of all your finances. I’m thinking of what’s available in the market, just up from small hot hatches, to return some good performance in a practical package.
There are several which stand out – the Ford Focus ST, the Vauxhall Astra VXR, the Renault Megane Renaultsport 265 Cup and the one which has just been updated and which I’ve always enjoyed, the Mazda3 MPS. It’s based on the standard five-door 3 hatch which is the Japanese brand’s biggest worldwide seller with more than three million taking to the road since it was launched ten years ago.
The MPS is something special and has found a committed band of followers since it arrived in 2006 as the high-performance flagship of the range. The standard engines have been replaced under the bonnet by a very handy 256 bhp turbocharged 2.3-litre power unit which propels the car from a standing start to 62 mph in just a whisker over six seconds, with a potential top speed limited to 155mph.
It’s the same engine as before and there have been no other mechanical changes, so the latest version still feels the same on the road, which you either love or hate. The biggest effect is the car’s renowned torque steer which tries to pull the wheel out of your hands, or at least in a different direction from the one you want to go in. It’s certainly an acquired taste and I actually like the feeling of working with the car to keep it under control, especially over 3,000rpm when the power kicks in and the car grows horns and a forked tail.
Added to the package is some pretty stiff suspension, so you feel every bump in the road. What you get in return is a sparkling drive and some nice burbling from the twin sports exhaust as you slip it through the slick six-speed box.
The latest changes are mainly cosmetic, with a choice of four metallic colours, some gunmetal grey 18-inch alloys, black detailing on the door mirrors and lower back bumper and a smaller rear wing. The car has a more purposeful stance than the standard model but, to the untrained eye, the only indication that this is something special are the discreet three MPS letters on the large black air intake at the front and to the side of the rear bootlid.
Inside, things are much the same as the previous model, with many MPS touches such as sporty metal pedals and red trim on the doors and hugging sports seats. I like the red dials which emphasise what you feel through the seat of your pants but apart from that and an excellent ten-speaker Bose stereo, it still has the look and somewhat plasticky feel of a traditional Japanese car. Having said that, it is crammed with standard equipment such as heated seats, cruise control, fog lights, Bluetooth and a competent sat-nav, operated by buttons on the steering wheel, although the screen is a touch on the small side.
The whole lot comes as a package which means the only choice you have to make is what colour of car you want. I’ve always liked the MPS and these subtle changes have been enough of a tweak to update it without changing its character. It may not be as technically advanced as some of its rivals but it’s good, affordable fun and a slightly easier-on-the-pocket rocket.
CAR Mazda3 2.3 5dr MPS
c02 EMISSIONS 219g/km
PERFORMANCE Max speed 155 mph; 0-62 mph 6.1 secs
FUEL CONSUMPTION (combined) 30mpg