Instead of following in Mitsubishi and Subaru’s footsteps, Mazda – rather optimistically – hopes the £25,000 MPS6 will be seen as more of a BMW and Audi rival. Which goes some way towards explaining the company’s heavily emphasised balance between refinement and performance.
The MPS6 has no mad wings, bonnet intakes and flared wheelarches. Performance clues are subtle. They include a hump-backed bonnet, chunkier reworked bumpers, subdued body kit, stubby twin exhaust pipes and a neat rear bootlid lip. That, and rather old-fashioned looking 18in spoked alloys, completes the package. The rest is pure 6 – the wheelbase and tracks are the same, as is the ride height.
The revised head and tail lamps and new nose will feature on the facelifted 6 out next summer.
Inside, the changes are just as subtle. The electrically adjustable and leather-swathed seats are semi-buckets that grip you in all the right places.
The alloy-look centre console has been revised to further improve driver ergonomics. The major dials are now collared in chrome, and the pedals have been repositioned for sportier footwork.
It’s powered by a 2.3-litre petrol engine that breathes through an advanced direct injection system and a simple turbocharger, with an active torque split driving both axles.
Mazda claims the direct injection fuel system offers significant advantages – the stratified spray of fuel into the cylinder acts as a coolant, lowering the temperature of the combustion chamber to boost thermal efficiency and sharpen throttle response.
This also means the catalytic converter heats up quicker, reducing emission levels.
The all-alloy unit develops 250bhp at 5,500rpm and 280lb ft of torque at 3,000rpm – enough turbo-enhanced grunt to haul the 1,540kg MPS to 60mph in 6.6 seconds and on to a 150mph top speed. Fast enough for most.
That power is sent to both front and rear axles via a new, close-ratio six-speed manual transmission. The all-wheel-drive system has an active torque split system, opportioning torque to the axle with the most grip. It has three automatic switchable programmes – Snow, Normal and Performance. Excessive wheelspin activates Snow mode, shifting all the torque to the front wheels for more controllable driving. Normal mode splits the torque equally between axles for high-speed stability and best traction and Sport gives a heavy rear-wheel-drive bias for more spirited tail-happy handling.
To handle the power hike, the chassis has been dramatically stiffened.
Two large cross braces and reinforced mounting points for the uprated double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension have boosted rigidity by 51%. Great for dynamics, but it does mean the MPS will be a saloon-only model with fixed rear seats.
The MPS6 has brakes to match its performance – big 340mm discs at the front and 320mm discs out back. And as you’d expect, the suspension has also been revised to handle the hike in power and performance.
The springs and dampers in the double-wishbone front and E-shaped multilink rear suspension are now much stiffer and both front and rear anti-roll bars are now thicker to quell mid-corner wallow.
The MPS6 will be a high-profile halo model, but it’s fleet impact will be miniscule – Mazda predicts the model will rack up a modest 500 sales a year when it arrives next September, with the well-heeled user-chooser sector accounting for 100 of those sales at best.
If you are one of those company car drivers on the lookout for a blood-spitting eyeball-flattener, best you look elsewhere. But for those looking for a quick, discreet saloon that will give hot Mondeo, Vectra, Accord and Passat models a kick in the teeth, the Mazda is the one to have.
Behind the wheel
THE MPS6’s on-paper performance pales beside its real-road pace. It’s a very quick and easily driven ground-coverer that makes short work of the boring straight bits and gets a real glint in its eye come the corners.
The key to MPS6’s speed is its deep and accessible torque reservoir. No matter what gear or at what engine revs, stomping on the long-travel throttle sends the MPS6 bolting forward with real venom. Above 2,500rpm, the engine delivers a deep and rich flow of torque and the engine revs cleanly and quickly with a dry, raspy redline exhaust note. It’s the kind of effortless acceleration that can convert annoying bumper-hugging traffic into small rear-view mirror specs within seconds.
And accessing that performance is a mere wrist-flick away. The new gearbox has a slick and short action and shifting through the gears is a delight.
The brakes feel strong and progressive, easily reining in the turbocharged engine’s enthusiasm for speed.
The ride quality also deserves praise – it has a wonderfully taut, well-damped suppleness and does a fine job of sponging away intrusions.
Over aggressive and demanding roads the Mazda feels sharp, fast and terrifically composed. It’s fluid, poised and keyed in to the road, scything quickly through corners and annihilating straights. The steering, lifted unchanged from the standard 6, is keen and direct, the nose swinging sweetly and cleanly from one apex to the other.
In the dry, only extreme mid-corner provocation will unstick the rear end – the MPS6 feels pulled down on to the road with a Velcro-like grip. It simply goes where you want it to with a tail-up eagerness.
But it never feels as sharp or as aggressive as an Evo VIII or an Impreza STi, for example. For many drivers though, this slightly softer image and driving style will be welcomed – the MPS6 strikes a fine balance between fast and refined motorway cruising and more aggressive B-road driving. Decent fuel economy, a refined and intelligently configured cabin and a spot-on driving position means the hot Mazda will be just as effective on long motorway hauls as it will on more enjoyable cross-country trips.
Joe Bakaj, Mazda’s head of product engineering, said: ‘We didn’t want to do a faux rally car – we wanted some subtlety to go with the car’s power, coupled with accessibility and everyday drivability.’ It looks as if Mazda has hit its target.
MAZDA has come up with an appealing alternative to mainstream rivals. It is fast, dynamic, discreet, has plenty of character and is pretty good value for money.
It may not find many fleet homes, but those user-chooser drivers that do get behind the wheel should enjoy every mile.
Engine (cc): 2,261
Max power (bhp/rpm): 250/5,500
Max torque (lb/ft/rpm): 280/3,000
Max speed (mph): 148
Combined fuel consumption (mpg): 27.6
CO2 emissions (g/km): 243
Price: £25,000 (est)