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Road Test: Habanero Hatch

December 13, 2009

The new 2010 Mazdaspeed Axela (Mazda 3 MPS as it’s known in foreign markets) is the type of car that enjoys getting up in public and telling everyone in its roughest voice that it enjoys eating kittens. For breakfast.

Now that it has your undivided attention with what is anything other than politically correct, it needs to be said that this type of outburst is actually a befitting diatribe for what is undoubtedly one of the best value for money performance cars of 2010. The Mazda Axelas’ outlandish, hairy-chested demeanor and arresting visuals will set you back little more than 2,700,000 yen which for all intents and purposes is a relative bargain. Some will look at the Mazdaspeed Axela and wonder what on earth is wrong with it. Truth is, there’s little wrong with it and a whole lot right. A solid day up and down the back side of a winding country road will prove that to you, beyond all reasonable doubt.

Sure, there are a number of issues with the car that will become obvious soon enough; its interior for example is unconvincing and designed with a materials selection process that screams “40% off” at you but seriously, who cares? With a chassis, suspension and brakes package this obedient and an engine this compelling, it’s terribly hard not to enjoy yourself immensely. The brakes are always right there, firmly pulling you up every time you stand on them. Brake fade? What fade? You can work them harder than a volunteer at an S and M party and they flatly refuse to give in. The suspension is also very good, stiff enough to give you one, but sporting a compliant and taut ride, not overly harsh and with damping that soaks up bumps and directional changes with a firm step.

Looking back a little harder though, the most disappointing aspect of this car was undoubtedly its 6 speed manual gearbox. Hard and cold to the touch, rubbery and vague in delivery, this particular gate lacks the ether to make an essential connection with the driver. The 6-speed is too widely spaced between throws, the throw itself too long and devoid of any implicit sensation. Finding reverse was trying enough but the shift from second to third produced a number of curse word moments. At times, third gear was proving harder to find than Nemo.

Enclosed within the bulbous front end of the Axela, a virtually unchanged 2.3 liter DISI turbocharged and intercooled 4 cylinder engine breathes plenty of fire when asked and yet surprisingly, returns good fuel economy, no doubt in part thanks to its direct injection technology. We logged an average of 8.9 kilometers to the liter even when pushed hard. Make no mistake; this engine is the testosterone that gives the Axela its ripped performance. By unleashing a full 194 kilowatts of power and 380 Nm of twist to the front wheels via a torque sensing limited slip differential, the Axela can be made to smoke its 18 inch Dunlop SP Sport clad rims on its way to a torque steering 0-100kph time of 5.6 seconds. 400 meters is then dealt with in a rapid 14.1 seconds with the little red chili carrying on to a top speed of a heady 260kph.

Acoustically, the initially civilized 2.3liter takes on a raspy whine at high revs, coming across as and sounding a little breathless at the limit of its power band. It does indeed hit the wall at just after 5500rpm where it finally runs out of steam. With its peak pool of torque being spent at 3000rpm, it frantically reaches for the 6000rpm redline completely out of wind. Shift short of its 5500rpm peak and savor the way the engine falls back into the fat of its torque band, delivering another instant response in the next gear. Predictably, the Axela’s clutch deals with the rigors of these ordeals adequately but the “on/off switch” like nature to its take up is something that does need to be addressed.

Wait. Forget everything I have just said. Did I mention how good the chassis is? This chassis is absolutely fantastic. You can really fling the car into corners at high speeds and it simply refuses to come unglued. You will literally have to be Hannibal Lector violent with this car for it to become disturbed. Not even heavy lifting off mid corner unsettles it – that’s how good it is. It’s as planted as an oak tree through corners of any severity or bias and stable enough to give you consistent doses of confidence.

It’s an inspiring car to drive right on the point of its nose. Yes, it likes to torque steer but it’s linear and progressively delivered and unloading either front wheel into an off camber bend and back the other way delivers a solid rush as the wheels find traction and pull you through the next crest. One thing I do think it would benefit from is a little more stiffness in the rear. At times, you notice a slight disconnection with the way the front communicates with the rear as if it were a little slower to respond.

Inside the Axela things are modern enough but it is clear that Mazda took money out of the interior materials budget to focus more on the performance and engineering of the car. You get leather seats that are comfortable and supportive but while the driver gets an electrically adjustable pew, the passenger has to make do with manual controls. Where the interior fails in material selection though it makes up for in comfort and music delivery; made possible through the outstanding ( 200,000 Yen option ) 10 speaker Bose sound system. Coupled with the Clarion derived navigation system complete with Blue tooth compatibility, IPhone or iPod connectivity is only a minute away. Mid to high range sound is crisp and full with low frequency thump being delivered by the boot mounted sub woofer; curiously located where the spare tire would usually be. I was glad I didn’t get a puncture.

Oh and before I forget. Leave the DSC switch off. Permanently. Anything else simply spoils the remarkable connection you can establish with this wondrously compliant and voluble chassis. DSC switched on is merely an annoyance and useless in all but the most atrocious conditions. While I’m on the subject of computers, owners of this car will undoubtedly notice the car developing a “flat spot” in its power delivery in first and second gears from time to time, specifically when pulling out of corners at a decent clip. This has turned out to be something engineered into the Axela: a safety mechanism for the sake of smooth power delivery. It did nothing but annoy the hell out of me and made me think the car had something wrong with it. There wasn’t. Ultimately, for the Axela to succeed, it needs to remain as visceral and razor edged as possible and that means a bare minimum of driver aids; anything more is like taking a K1 fighter and putting a pink bowtie on him.

Mazda’s official company line is that torque steer is all part of the appeal of a car like this and I wholeheartedly agree. Owning a Mazdaspeed Axela does indeed put hair on your chest. I should know. I didn’t have any before they lent it to me.

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