Enthusiasts are wrong, reviving the Mazda 3 MPS could cripple Mazda’s future
Daniel · Nov 12, 2020 02:46 PM
For months Mazda enthusiasts have been holding their breath in eager anticipation for the Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo. Mazda’s sexiest hatch with its biggest engine sounds enticing by itself. But enthusiasts were more hopeful that it would feature the Mazdaspeed or MPS designation.
Alas, that wasn't to be when the 3 2.5 Turbo made its debut in North America.
But my head says “brilliant!” A new Mazda 3 MPS won’t guarantee success. Instead, it could be a disastrous move for little gain.
Premium before performance
Mazda rationalises its decision by saying that it wants to “focus more on moving into a more premium space that’s more mature and upscale”.
In doing so, Mazda is essentially “moving away from that Mazdaspeed branding”.
The follow-up justification sounds ludicrous. Mazdaspeed’s first four-door model, the 6 MPS, was an elegant turbocharged AWD sleeper. A restrained family muscle car for folks who fancy an Impreza WRX but don’t dye their hair.
Mazdaspeed was the original Japanese performance player to do understated performance cars. And I don’t think premium and performance are mutually exclusive. Mercedes-AMG seems very successful at plastering their “mature” models with a silly amount of stickers and carbon-fibre.
So, what is Mazda really saying? Buried in every PR speak lies a legitimate underlying message when framed correctly. Usually, I would steer clear of engaging in a discussion when the words “premium space” is used. It is a subjective marketing term, and doesn’t mean much besides a “feel good tax”.
All that sounds very exciting. It also sounds like a recipe for going very broke very fast. Not only will a performance division accelerate a financial decline, but it may ultimately impede its efforts to move upmarket.
The business of performance
Considering how BMW rose to prominence thanks to the antics of its M Division, having a performance brand being a bad thing sounds counter-intuitive. But the 1980s was a different time. Expectations weren’t as high, and the competition wasn’t as numerous.
Imagine if the 3 Turbo comes out as a true 2020 Mazda 3 MPS, it would have to face-off against the likes of the Honda Civic Type R, Renault Megane RS, and the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Cars that have built up a massive following and set an extremely high bar for both track and road performance.
The Civic Type R held a Nürburgring record and sports a body kit that generates actual downforce. The Megane RS continues a long line of some of the most highly rated hot hatches of all time. Whereas the Golf GTI needs no introduction as the de facto hot hatch choice.
As for Mazdaspeed’s track record, the last 3 MPS was a nose-heavy understeering bulldozer with more torque than an understanding of physics. Nice hood scoop though, but not an illustrious ancestry to build on.
That’s not to say that Mazda can’t pull a “Godzilla GT-R” and completely shock the opposition. Hyundai managed to do it with the i30 N. However, that is an unfair comparison.
Hyundai is one of the world’s largest carmakers, wielding financial resources Mazda could only dream of. It also helps that Hyundai’s N performance arm has a former BMW M Division chief at its helm.
Too much to lose
Expectations of a hot hatch are so high these days that it would take immense amounts of resources and development time to deliver something satisfactory.
Even a decent hot hatch from a highly regarded name like the BMW M135i gets chewed out by reviewers because it couldn’t hold a candle to its AMG competitor.
BMW can stomach the criticisms on the M135i due to its built-up reputation. Emergent brands like Mazda cannot afford a knock to its credibility. Especially in a segment of the market that has some of the most vocal and critical buyers.
The Mazda 3 is a great steer, but it is more of an all-rounder than being a focused sporty hatch. Turning it into a Mazdaspeed means having to tweak it significantly to meet today’s hot hatch expectations.
That in turn, demands extra resources to hone the chassis, maybe redevelop its G-vectoring, and code better electronic control systems.
See where this is going? Money, money, money. A luxury that will not guarantee that the end product will satisfy the critics either. And therein lies a compelling risk.
No Mazdaspeed? No problem
An underwhelming challenger to the likes of the Civic Type R would make the vocal minority critical of Mazda’s cars. In turn, this will hinder the company’s efforts to move into BMW’s domain.
That is why not slapping the Mazdaspeed branding on the 3 Turbo is an ingenious move. Mazda can fly its flagship hatch under the scrutinising gaze of performance enthusiasts and pundits. Critics might even hail it as an “underrated hot hatch hero”, edifying it instead.
All the while, it will appeal to Mazda’s target demographic of buyers who don’t care about lap times or “performance aesthetics”. You know, the buyers with more money than demands.
Due to Mazda’s current position, avoiding criticism, accumulating prestige, and acquiring money, is a sound strategy. And I accept that.
I’m sure every enthusiast can hold off their desire for a Mazdaspeed model or an MPS variant for another time. So long as Mazda itself comes out stronger from this transitionary period.
After a life of growing up with Malaysia bustling streets, Daniel set out to experience Australia open roads and ute culture for himself but ended up missing destination:makan morning drives and teh-tarik sessions. Our often-peculiar love of cars served as the inspiration for his musings at The Motor Muse.