All roads in the Free State are straight, I've discovered. And it seems all these straight roads and farm tracks lead to Welkom, or if you're lucky, the nearest house of ill repute.
Even field of ill repute, if livestock is more your thing.
Luckily, the media contingent gathered for the launch of the very hot Mazda3 MPS didn't hang around too long to take in the scenery. We hightailed it to the Phakisa Raceway instead which has more than its fair share of kinks...
The Mazda3 MPS is the latest local addition to the range sourced from the Mazda Performance Series. Based on the good-looking Mazda3 hatchback, the MPS version was always going to be a striking hot hatch. Packing a turbocharged four-cylinder 2.3-litre unit, it's quick too.
Using Mazda's DISI (direct injection spark ignition) technology, the turbocharged powerplant produces 190 kW at 5 500 r/min and peak torque of 380 Nm at 3 000 r/min. These figures translate to a vehicle that is a very capable in the lower ranges and, as an everyday hot hatch, should go about its business without kicking up too much of a fuss.
No nannying, please
With all that power being driven to the front wheels via the standard six-speed manual gearbox, you would expect the 3 MPS to display some hooliganism on the road. Not quite. A raft of aids including TCS (torque control system), DSC, EBD and limited slip, including a "performance pack" that, along with the body's increased rigidity, supposedly ensures 60% less bodyroll.
Not that the aids are intrusive though. Excessive torque steer is never any fun and in this instance, the presence of the TCS is a definite boon. DSC in the 3 MPS also dumps the whole "nanny act' and politely intervenes at the absolute limit, just when your eyes are about to switch to saucer mode, without spoiling any of the fun. Ah, what bliss...
The track session at the challenging Phakisa showed this car to be the ultimate toy when the mood strikes it. And it doesn't take too much to make this hot hatch come out to play. All it takes is a tap of the accelerator for the torque to kick in, and away you go.
It's relaxed too, with no high revving or drift action required to achieve the ultimate grin factor.
A bit of understeer made placing the car on the rumble strips a bit tricky, but steering on the road is fairly precise. Though the car is agile and was very composed around the track, even less body roll would have been appreciated.
The reinforced McPherson strut and multi-link arrangement provides a ride that is hard yet completely comfortable and the grip levels are impressive. The high-performance braking system that is standard issue on the 3 MPS stood up to the grilling very well, making those twisty bits all the more entertaining.
But on the road, where most MPSs are likely to spend their time, the car is faultless, thanks mostly to that stellar engine. You don't have to rev it senseless to get some sort of satisfaction, and the manner in which up gobbles up the tarmac is alarming.
Quiet and comfortable
The engine is quiet, too. Without even trying, you soon find yourself doing speeds most traffic cops would encourage to get their daily quotas up. However, you always get the sense that there is more in reserve at any time. In-gear acceleration is also worth noting as the fistfuls of torque from low down make for great drivability.
In traffic, its calm demeanour shows, and the car is happy to amble along behind a truck or slower traffic.
Of course, that its appearance is so unassuming helps a lot. The visual differences from your garden variety Mazda3 hatchback are limited. From the front, a raised bonnet, revised grille section with larger air intakes, a unique front bumper with special fog lights, and fenders wider by 20 mm are the tell-tale signs.
Beefy 18-inch alloys and side skirts distinguish the car from the side, while at the rear, a spoiler with LED brake light and a rear diffuser with a gigantic 95 mm diameter tailpipe, set the MPS apart.
There are only four exterior colours to choose from, including red, black, silver and a very interesting shade called Cosmic Blue.
Familiar 3 cabin
Inside the cabin, red stitching and MPS branding throughout does much to break up the sombre black surrounds.
Partial leather semi-bucket seats for the front occupants are very comfortable (I stepped out of the car following a 300 km drive with barely a crick) while other toys, including a Bose sound system, six-CD changer and climate control should keep all occupants happy.
Aluminium pedals and stainless steel scuff plates are also provided.
The eagerly awaited Mazda3 MPS costs R259 990. Its service intervals are at 10 000 km and it is sold with a 5-year/60 000 km maintenance plan. The price also includes an Advanced Driver Training course hosted at the Wesbank Raceway. Out-of-towners will be flown to Johannesburg at Mazda's expense.