IT’S the same with every generation. No sooner does VW launch its latest GTI than other manufacturers release their own hot hatches in an attempt to at least keep pace with, let alone overtake, the pace-setter. However, unlike the past, this time competition isn’t coming from the likes of traditional rivals such as Opel. The newest challenger comes from the Land of the Rising Sun, in this case a hot Mazda3. The Mazda3 has helped rejuvenate the Japanese brand and is already into its second generation. Much like AMG is to Mercedes- Benz, Mazda has its own range of high performance models referred to as MPS – for Mazda Performance Series. The halo model in the Mazda3 range is a tar-burner of note and, even though it was not top dog in its first iteration, Mazda has stuck with the formula. The question is can the new MPS model defeat the Golf 6 GTI?
DESIGN & PACKAGING
VW Golf: 17/20
The Mazda3 boasts a real stand-out design. The company’s styling ethos as expounded by various show and concept cars is being translated quite directly into production reality. There are swooping swage lines and a very bold facade. The MPS model is made even more inyour- face by virtue of the gaping air-scoop in the bonnet, which is large enough to make even a Subaru WRX feel shy. It seemingly has the desired effect for a performance car though, as slower drivers clear a path pretty quickly when they view the large “nostril” in their rear-view mirrors. There are 18-inch alloys and a lower ride height to create a squat, hunkered down appearance. At the rear there is a double- level roof spoiler atop the hatch, and housed below each corner of the bumper is a chrome exhaust tip. It’s a package that really does turn heads, if purely by being a bit showy and not least because of the striking metallic painwork.
By comparison, the GTI is rather restrained and generic in appearance. We, however, tend to like the new look, which is a very subtle upgrade on cooking variety Golfs. There are several cues to differentiate the rangetopper from its siblings: a body kit, 18-inch alloy wheels and bespoke bumpers. Seeing the two protagonists side by side, the Mazda stands out if only because its overall appearance screams boy racer. One tiewearing tester summed it up well when he said that you may feel over-dressed when driving the MPS but you’ll never feel out of place behind the wheel of the GTI, whether it’s in a coat and tie or even tekkies and jeans for that matter.
The two contenders are pretty much on a par in terms of passenger and luggage room. The Mazda pips the Golf for rear passenger space, but the VW has the much larger load area, at 312 dm3 versus 232.
COMFORT & FEATURES
VW Golf: 17/20
Like its exterior, the Mazda’s cabin treatment is also quite extrovert. There is a graduated, dotted red motif that covers bits of the facia, door trim and the cloth inserts on all seats. The facia hangdown carries all ventilation and audio controls. The main dials are deep-set items that feature orange lettering on black faces. A handy addition is the electronic boost gauge between the dials.
As these are both range-leading models they are almost fully laden in terms of modern conveniences. Dual-zone climate control, all-electric windows, MP3/CD players and more are all there as standard fare. The MPS offers a six-CD in-dash changer as opposed to the GTI’s single CD item, and has a multifunction steering wheel as standard, whereas a similar unit is only available as an optional fitment on the VW.
From a comfort point of view, both cars offer fully adjustable driver’s seats as well as rake and reach adjustable steering columns. In the Golf the lumbar support is controlled by an electric switch, a function performed by a lever in the Mazda. The MPS front seats do a very good job of keeping passengers in place when cornering hard – and they are quite comfortable at the same time.
The GTI’s upholstery is all leather and support during enthusiastic driving is top notch.
If it really matters, the seat in the MPS drops a bit lower down than that in the GTI.
Depending on your attitude to the red interior highlight treatment of the Mazda, its cabin offers good ergonomics and comfort levels. As on the outside, the VW’s interior is restrained in execution. And it does seem to have the higher level of fit and finish. So the Golf nets this category, just.
RIDE, HANDLING & BRAKING
VW Golf: 18/20
If these two models have been running a close race till now, matters are about to change. At low speed the Mazda has the meatier, more communicative steering feel – even if it is electrically assisted – though one feels that assistance is far more necessary in this car than in the Golf. The MPS displays a fair deal of torque steer, as one would expect with near-on 400 N.m on tap. Like a Jack Russell, it sniffs out every camber, ridge or tramline in the road and tries to chase it, which means you have to be very alert at the wheel to keep the front end in line. Under power and at higher speeds the Golf’s steering weights-up reassuringly whereas the Mazda3’s wheel tends to feel too light. But both cars have precise helms that allow for accurate vehicle placement.
Similar suspension set-ups are used in both cases. Controlling the front wheels are MacPherson struts and at the rear are multilink arrangements, but it’s how each utilises its respective set-up that makes all the difference. As both cars ride on 18-inch wheels with 40 profile rubber, ride quality is not expected to be exemplary. At low speeds the Mazda is liveable and does not feel dissimilar to the Golf. The VW deals with sharp ridges and pockmarked tar in a more forgiving manner, with less intrusion – actual and audible – into the cabin, a trait the 3 does not deal with in the same manner.
However, when the pace is upped, the MPS is left floundering. It displays a fair deal of body roll and the mid- to highspeed body control is nowhere near as good as that of the GTI. Apart from displaying more roll through the corners, the Mazda3 appears to have less grip than the Golf and, as a result, the VW inspires much more confidence – drivers are likely to exploit more of the GTI’s capability than that of the MPS. It is also much easier to develop a rhythm with the Golf when driving fast, which will probably make it less tiring over long distances.
The MPS employs 320 mm ventilated discs up front and 280 mm solid rotors on the rear wheels. Corresponding items on the GTI measure 312 and 282 mm. In both cases, ABS with EBD and brake assist modulate the braking action. Considering the hardware and similar test mass, it is unsurprising that braking times are almost identical. The GTI recorded an average time from 100 km/h to standstill of 2,84 seconds, fractionally better than the MPS’s 2,85. Both earn an excellent rating, but even more notable is the fact that neither car suffered brake fade during the arduous testing, or long pedal travel thereafter. But, when it comes to wieldiness, the GTI is a much better proposition – in fact, it is head and shoulders above the MPS in this category.
VW Golf: 16/20
Forced induction seems to pervade the hot hatch sector these days. Mazda has retained the same engine type as the previous MPS model, its transverse four-pot displacing 2 261 cm3 and using direct injection and a turbocharger to develop 190 kW at 5 500 r/min and 380 N.m of torque at 3 000. If the on-board gauge is to be believed, boost drops off rapidly after peak power is developed. Drive is transferred to the road via a six-speed gearbox that also houses a limited slip differential.
As anyone who has ever driven a powerful front-driver will attest, there is a sane limit to the amount of power one can force through the steered wheels. Mazda engineers are fl irting with this fi gure in the MPS.
One aspect that did cause our team concern was the stiffness of the Mazda’s clutch action. Unsurprising really, when you consider the loads this component has to deal with. It made driving the car in traffic a very tiring and uncomfortable prospect. By comparison, the VW’s left pedal was as easy as any “normal” Golf’s.
The GTI uses a similar set of powertrain ingredients to the MPS, but with a smaller capacity engine that displaces just 1 984 cm3. Peak power is 35 kW less than that of the Mazda, its 155 kW developed from 5 300 to 6 200 r/min. Maximum torque of 280 N.m is a good 100 N.m down on the Japanese car, but delivered on a plateau from just above idle – ie from 1 700 – to 5 200 r/min.
Out on our test strip the Mazda could not translate its on-paper advantage into a signifi cant performance edge. Launching any turbocharged front-driver is a balancing act between too many revs, which results in lots of expensive smoke, or too few revs and too little boost pressure. Even when we hit the sweet spot, the best time achieved was 6,96 seconds from standstill to 100 km/h. Though a sub-seven seconds fi gure might seem impressive, our fi gure was some way off the manufacturer’s claim of 6,1. Top speed is limited to 250 km/h, making this the fastest front-wheel drive hatch available in South Africa.
On the road, the comparatively high engine speed at which the MPS produces peak torque translates to a power delivery that is akin to a bungee cord; wind it up (while the lag dissipates) and let it go (as full boost is developed). By contrast, the GTI feels normally aspirated. It uses the benefits of turbocharging without displaying any of the drawbacks. Compare the ingear acceleration fi gures and you will see how much more flexible the GTI is.
The GTI’s benchmark zeroto- 100 acceleration time is 7,06 seconds. While this is slightly slower than the Mazda, times in this range are extracted with a lot less effort and concentration, so the Golf is obviously making better use of the power at its disposal. Top speed is 240 km/h. On straight figures, the MPS claims the performance category but the GTI runs it close.
VW Golf: 16/20
The MPS has a larger capacity engine and produces more power so it is inevitable that it will consume more fuel than the GTI. Our calculated fuel index for the Mazda is a not insignifi – cant 11,52 litres/100 km versus just 8,76 for the VW. Naturally this translates to a longer range for the Golf. Even though it has the smaller tank – at 55 litres – you can expect over 620 km between stops. The 3 manages just 521 km on a full tank even though it has a 60-litre capacity. VW wins this one hands down.
VALUE FOR MONEY
VW Golf: 16/20
On paper there is very little to separate the two models. The Mazda, at R310 000, is R7 000 more expensive than the VW, but the difference in basic list price will hardly have an impact on monthly repayments. Near identical warranties and service plans are standard. The Mazda’s shorter service intervals mean that owners will, in all likelihood, eke out a few more services from the standard plan. But we believe a relatively low resale value will hurt when/if one decides to dispose of one’s MPS. The Golf’s superior fuel consumption is likely to play into owners’ hands, too.
VW Golf: 17/20
A few years ago a Mazda with the credentials to challenge a VW GTI for hot hatch honours was an unthinkable scenario. However, the resurgence in the Japanese brand has made that a reality. Generation two of the Mazda3 MPS is an improvement over its predecessor but is still not quite in the league of the heavy hitters in this class. Even with its exceptional power output, the MPS did not manage to win over the hearts of any of our test panel. It seems to lack that fi nal element, that little bit of polish – and refi ning the driving dynamics would have to be part of that process. What’s that trite adage about power and control?
The Golf 6 GTI is not the most powerful, quickest or fastest in its group, but it does everything really well and has levels of refi nement that none of its rivals can yet match. It remains the most balanced and – for now – the best car in its class. If we were forking out our hardearned cash for a hot hatch to drive – and live with every day – the GTI would easily win our vote.