A Q-car is a rare thing these days. Referring to vehicles that look fairly humdrum, and which consequently fly below the radar, these cars do, however, pack a serious, and surprising performance punch.
For some the appeal of pulling up next to an overtly sporty machine with a windgat driver behind the wheel in something completely inconspicuous, with the knowledge that a victory in the ensuing robot-to-robot grand prix is a given, is massively appealing. But in these days of bling, shiny alloys and big wings, where do you go shopping if you crave a stealthy "hot" hatch?
Distinctive features inside and outJapanese brand Mazda has launched a 2.3-litre version of its "3" hatchback. Visually, the newcomer has benefitted, as all Mazda3's have, from a recent facelift that has brought a revised grille, smoked light clusters and a few other tweaks.
Although the wheels on this model are big 17-inch items that fill the wheelarches nicely, and although there's a small spoiler affixed to the tailgate, there aren't really any clues to this car's surprising performance potential.
Inside, it's also pretty much standard fare. There are no racy aluminium trim or red upholstery inserts to be found. That's not to say it's not sporty... The seats have substantial side bolstering. The instrumentation is particularly attractive, boasting three deep-set dials that remind strongly of sports cars of old. The steering wheel is also a nice size, and the thick rim is pleasant to grip.
There have been minor improvements to the overall trim quality - a frequent point of criticism when the car was first launched - but perhaps the most noticeable change on this model is the leather-trimmed gear knob. Fit and finish is good, but the overall "perceived" quality of the cabin won't yet trouble a Golf, even though the levels of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) have indeed improved.
The cabin is spacious, with the boot being similarly sized to the Golf's, but comfort levels are not quite as good. The Mazda3 Sport 2.3 Individual feels like a "firmer" car all-round, including the padding of the seats. Still, it doesn't lack in standard specification. Included in the price are six airbags, climate control, rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlamps among the other usual items. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Mazda has not fitted any driver aids... not even traction control, which proved to be somewhat of a problem.
Lots of powerYou see, the Mazda3 is a surprisingly eager performer... Put your foot down in first, let go of the clutch, and you're likely to spin away quite a lot of expensive rubber in the process. In the wet, the car easily scrabbles for grip, especially when applying too much throttle out of a corner. That said, the 3 is not really unruly, but it demands some concentration to drive without looking like a hooligan.
The power is surprising because the specification doesn't really give any warning. Yes, 115 kW is good in this segment, but the Golf 2.0 FSI has only 5 kW less and feels far less energetic. Similarly, the torque figure is only slightly better than the competition. The secret is a combination of weight and gearing. The Mazda3 is slightly less bulky than its competitors, and Mazda's chosen gear ratios certainly emphasise acceleration from rest, as a class-best 0-100 km/h sprint time of below 9 seconds clearly illustrate.
The 2.3-litre engine is also nicely tractable at higher speeds, delivering good overtaking. When needed, shifting down a gear or two is no hardship seeing as the six-speed gearbox is slick and accurate. Another surprise is the fuel economy - large-capacity petrol engines are usually quite thirsty, but the Mazda's fuel consumption is comparable to its 2.0-litre rivals.
The Mazda3 has always boasted good agility, and this model makes full use of that talent. Multi-link suspension is used at the rear, which is always a good sign, as are anti-roll bars at both ends. The steering, though not overtly communicative, is precise and fairly quick, with the car's nose following inputs obediently and generally sticking to the chosen line as long as you are not overly abusive of the throttle pedal.
Body control is good, too, and the surge of power on corner exits is addictive. What we have here, then, is a hot hatch that doesn't look like one, nor is marketed as such. It will give many an overtly sporty hatchback a serious fright, and that's very appealing.
VerdictA very high-performance version of the Mazda3 arrives soon in the shape of the bold MPS edition. It's likely to be significantly more expensive, as well as being a more traditional hot hatch in the sense that it will shout its credentials via look-at-me exterior trim changes etc.
For those individuals who like to keep a low profile, but still want to drive something that delivers entertaining performance and handling, this Mazda3 Sport 2.3 Individual may very well fit the bill. It offers unmatched performance among its peers and rates as one of the surprise packages of this year.
Build quality improvements
We don't like:
No traction control
Engine: 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
Power: 115 kW @ 6 500 rpm
Torque: 203 Nm @ 4 500 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Top speed: 203 km/h
0-100 km/h: N/A seconds
Fuel economy: N/A litres/100 km
A formidable rival that carries a lot of appeal due simply to the VW badge on the grille. It can't match the Mazda's performance, but then again it is a more refined overall package that is a delight to drive. Good resale, too.
A model that is largely ignored in South Africa, and quite unfairly so. Yes, it's more expensive, but then it also offers a lot more power and a very good standard specification package. If performance is a priority, this is a must drive.
An odd-ball choice, but this limited-edition RunX certainly offers lots of bang for the buck. But it lacks the refinement of the other offerings listed here and also comes up short on safety and luxury features.