Except for the launch of the Mazda6 MPS, the firm’s new flagship saloon, when Marbella huddled under a black, wet sky.
Sheltering under an umbrella, looking at the test route, which took in mile upon mile of tortuous switchback hairpins heading up the hill to a town called Ronda, I felt a little uneasy.
After all, 256bhp on a greasy, sodden mountain road with only small barriers to prevent a plunge hundreds of feet down into the ravine below didn’t fill me with confidence.
But as it turned out, I had one of the best drives I’ve had in the past year as the 2.3-litre turbocharged engine pushed me upwards towards Ronda.
Thanks to its four-wheel drive transmission, the MPS makes light work of putting its power down to the road. It also makes driving fast effortless.
Not that you get any clue of the MPS’s hooligan nature by from its looks.
Unless you’re a Mazda6 aficionado, you’d be hard pressed to spot the difference between it and the lesser models. Only the fat twin exhaust pipes (disappointingly, the silver pipes are just shrouds for a pair of anaemic standard exhausts), 18-inch alloy wheels and discreet boot spoiler suggest something a bit tastier under the skin.
The MPS – for Mazda Performance Series – is only available as a saloon. Options come down to two – satellite navigation and colour. The choice of colour – four shades – is as limited as the UK’s allocation of around 800 cars for 2006.
Mazda is confident that it will sell every single one, but volume isn’t this car’s raison d’etre – it’s a halo model for the rest of the Mazda6 range.
Mazda estimates that around a third of buyers will be user-choosers tempted away from less powerful premium European models.
Adam Pumfrey, Mazda’s fleet and remarketing director, said: ‘Our brand awareness in the corporate sector has been growing daily and much of that is due to the fantastic reception that the Mazda6 has had in the fleet arena.
‘The MPS will build on this and take us into a new area. User-choosers will be attracted to the MPS as a performance alternative to offerings from Audi and BMW.’
They’ll also appreciate the MPS’s value for money. Mazda has thrown all the bells and whistles on this car as standard, including an excellent Bose stereo, leather seats and climate control, for a price of just under £24,000.
Behind the wheel
THE Mazda6 has long been a favourite of ours, thanks to its spirited performance and solid handling. The new MPS takes things on a step further.
Inside it shares the simple cabin layout of the lesser models, although the MPS is fully loaded, with everything as standard.
This includes a lovely pair of front seats which are both comfortable and grippy and allied to a reach-and-rake adjustable steering wheel, which means you can soon find an ideal driving position.
Start the turbocharged 2.3-litre engine and it settles in a muted idle but once you set off it becomes much more vocal, giving a booming soundtrack as you approach the redline.
Despite the car’s sporting pretensions, you don’t always have to chase the redline in search of maximum power. Such is the nature of this engine that there’s a mountain of torque from around 3,000rpm, making fast progress easy in any gear.
However, it is really good fun letting the engine rev out before changing up a gear through the six-speed gearbox.
The ride is a good combination of sporting handling and long-distance comfort, while the handling is equally talented, offering sure-footed cornering and plenty of grip. It’s only when you really push on through twisty roads that the four-wheel drive system intervenes – when it senses front-wheel slippage, it directs 50% of the power to the rear axle, which allows tailout power slides if you’re really committed.
MAZDA has engineered the MPS to be both fast and refined – a tough task but one at which it has succeeded. The MPS offers the performance of an Evo or Impreza but without the compromises of a harsh ride and top-end power delivery.
Power (bhp/rpm): 256/5,500
Torque (lb-ft/rpm): 28 0/3,000
Max speed (mph): 150
0-62mph (secs): 6.6
Fuel consumption (mpg): 27.7
CO2 emissions (g/km): 245
On sale: Now
Price (OTR): £23,950