Trendsetter Mazda has combined turbo-charging and direct fuel injection to produce its most powerful car yet - and it has the credentials to woo buyers from Audi and BMW. We drive the Mazda6 MPS.
Sophisticated is, in fact, the best way to describe this all-wheel drive turbo newcomer from the people who refined the rotary engine. It's smooth, it's quiet - it's power and poise wrapped up in a velvet glove.
Built in the same stylish bodywork as other Mazda6 models, the MPS - an acronym for Mazda Performance Series - takes Mazda into a whole new market segment, with a car well equipped to take on the likes of the Audi A4 3.2 FSI quattro, and the BMW 330i, as well as niche contenders such as the Subaru Impreza WRX and the Mitsubishi Evo IX.
The Mazda6 MPS certainly has the quality to compete with the German contenders - as well as more than enough power - and it has the handling and sheer on-road competence to give the hot Japanese road rockets more than a good go.
On top of that it has ride perfection only the BMW among the above collection can match, while shaming them all when it comes to price and what you get for your money.
Converted into cash, the Audi costs R363 000, while falling short on a few features and some kW; the BMW costs R375 000 while also lagging a tad on power and also with only rear-wheel drive; the Lancer costs R399 000 and dishes out a bit more power than the Mazda - but it's a stripped-out special that's as rough as the proverbial bear's bottom to drive and to live with.
Not as sophisticated
Which leaves the Impreza - at this stage cheaper than the Mazda, but down on power and certainly down on features and sophistication. And if looks could kill!
To put it into perspective the Mazda, fully loaded with all the trimmings including an electric glass sunroof and leather trim, comes in at R319 900.
There are two main facets that make this new Mazda stand out.
The first is the heart of any car, its engine.
The Mazda has the same capacity four-cylinder engine as other Mazda6 stablemates, at 2.3-litres, but in the case of the MPS this is dramatically uprated using what Mazda terms DISA (Direct Injection Spark Ignition) plus turbo-charging and intercooling to get a dramatic boost in power, from 122 kW to 191 kW, coupled with superb fuel economy and massive torque of 380 Nm delivered at a relatively low 3 000 r/min.
Then to make sure the power is delivered to the road with the minimum of fuss, Mazda adds a six-speed manual transmission and a high-tech Active Torque-Split All-Wheel Drive system.
Throw in bigger brake discs - 320 mm front and 314 mm rear - an uprated suspension with thicker anti-roll bars back and front, fat 18 inch alloy wheels with 215/45 R18 tyres, and it all starts to come together.
On top of that there's a new body kit comprising a new bumper with a deeper air dam and bigger air intake, a bulge on the bonnet to accommodate the intercooler, integrated front foglamps, and new rear bumper treatment designed to look like an F1 diffuser, and with twin tailpipes, plus a bootlid spoiler, and the car certainly looks the part. Not rough and ready - still sophisticated.
The net result is a 0-100 km/h time of 6.6 seconds, allied to a top speed limited to 240 km/h, but bonus on bonus, average fuel consumption of 9.8 litres/100 km - not bad for a high performance five-seater sedan.
Other figures include 0-160 km/h in 16.4 seconds and the standing km in 26.9 seconds.
The car gets special treatment on the inside, too.
Special interior design features include a speedometer scaled to 280km/h, a three-spoke leather steering wheel, semi-bucket front seats (the driver's electrically operated), a leather shift knob and aluminium pedals with rubber nubs, and leather upholstery.
There's a six-speaker BOSE audio system featuring a six-disc CD changer and subwoofer, standard xenon headlights and an electric sunroof, as well as climate controlled air con, electric windows and mirrors, cruise control - as I said, it's stacked.
Naturally there's ABS braking with EBD and brake assist, as well as dual front, side and curtain airbags. Dynamic stability control is also standard, and owners get a free Advanced Driver Training course courtesy of Mazda South Africa and Yokohama Driving Dynamics.
Plus a three-year/100 000 km warranty, a five-year/100 000 km Mazda Motion Maintenance Plan with servicing required every 10 000 km, and Mazda Motion Roadside Assistance for three years.
On the road
Our journey started in Knysna, which put us almost straight onto fast sweeping roads that allowed us to get the feel of the car's prodigious power while also enjoying the ability to chat at absolutely normal speaking levels with no wind noise, no engine sound, and only a bit of rumble from the road.
Later we were able to enjoy the fantastic passes in the area, including Bloukrans, where we found you could dive deep, deep, deep into those tight corners then just flick the car around and power out, without changing out of third gear.
Lots of torque, bags and bags of it - and lots of grip, too.
On the open road it was simply a matter of leaving the car in sixth gear and driving like you would an automatic. There's so much useable torque that we hardly needed to change gear at all, even when overtaking.
Later, at the Plettenberg Airfield, we were able to play some more without having to worry about other road users, and I enjoyed putting the car into a lurid opposite lock slide as I planted my foot deep into the carpets after a 180 degree turn - with the traction control off.
Very spectacular, but also very controllable too - though you know my stance on traction control. Unless the conditions are very special, such as trying to get traction in snow or mud, you leave it ON!
All in all, a very impressive motor car. Mazda has shown with the Mazda6, the smaller Mazda3, and certainly with the RX8, that it can design cars which have great style.
Now it has come up with a car which combines the style into a package so desirable that it could challenge some accepted norms.
Oh, and it's going to be pretty exclusive - general manager Jacques Brent is targeting a relatively low 70 a month, possibly levelling out at 35 a month.
That is, of course, unless more people than he expects actually go out and test drive the car.
In which case it could be a lot more!