Used car review: Mazda 3 MPS 2006-08 (2023)

Thanks to the success of performance heroes such as Subaru's Impreza WRX, a modern, sporty small car is nothing without the essential packaging of a turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive.

Which is fair enough, as modern turbo motors are terrific things and AWD is a great way to create more grip than you might have thought possible.

If you haven't driven a car of the WRX's ilk, you should try it. It could change the way you feel about four-wheel performance.

But there will always be cars that tread their own path, even if they're battling for the same buyers' money.

A great example of a car that bucked this recent trend is Mazda's firebrand 3 MPS.

Well, perhaps it only half bucks the trend, because while it may have lacked all-paw grip, it did have a turbocharged engine under the bonnet.

For the MPS, it's a four-cylinder unit displacing 2.3 litres. In essence, it's the bottom end of the engine fitted to Mazda's warm hatch, the SP23, but instead of that car's 115kW of power and 203Nm of torque, adding the turbocharger liberates 190kW and a stupendous 380Nm.

That's a torque figure that would rank as impressive for a 4.0-litre family car.

But what makes the Mazda a standout — and why it bucks the trend of other small sports cars — is that it's still a front-wheel-drive car.

Rather than fit the AWD system from the MPS' big brother, the 6 MPS, Mazda decided the red-hot 3 could cope with just the front wheels doing the driving.

It's difficult to agree with that thinking, especially once you've experienced the savagery of a 3 MPS with a full head of steam up. While the engine is certainly a firecracker of the highest order, the rest of the car seems to get left behind.

Under full throttle, the 3 wants to twitch its nose and change lanes without the driver's consent.

And when it's not making the steering wheel squirm, it's wheel-spinning and turning its front tyres into atoms.

Yes, it's great fun for the first 10 minutes but after a day or two, the wayward front end can start to become tiring.

You soon learn to be gentle with the throttle to avoid the MPS' torque-steering antics and to be super conservative away from the traffic lights to avoid the unwanted attention that comes with spinning the wheels.

On the flip side, the 3 MPS is one heck of an exciting car to drive. For those who find modern cars all a bit too sanitised, it will be a breath of fresh air.

The rest of the package is, perhaps, less remarkable than what's under the bonnet.

The ride is quite good by hot-hatch standards and, headstrong front end at full boost aside, the car feels stable and planted under most conditions.

Inside, you get the 3's classy layout and quality materials. Standard equipment runs to climate-control air-conditioning, 18-inch alloy wheels, power mirrors and windows, a decent stereo, leather-clad steering wheel, sports seats and a body kit.

Taming all that horsepower is a suite of active safety gear, although thanks to the binding nature of the laws of physics, the MPS can still be a bit of a liability in the wrong hands.

But you do get anti-lock brakes and stability control. And trust us, this is one car that needs its stability control switched on.

On the passive-safety front, you're looking at a high standard with dual front, side-front and head airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners.

As a relatively new car — and a well-built one at that — the 3 MPS hasn't yet emerged with any real endemic problems.

Suffice to say, however, that the loads placed on the driveline by that monster engine can take their toll if the vehicle is not serviced correctly.

Specifically, the savage loads placed on the car by all that horsepower can wear mountings and bushes, which would otherwise have lasted much longer.

For this very reason, Mazda recalled a small number of cars built in mid-2007 to inspect a mounting bolt that secured the engine to the gearbox.

It was feared that in some cases the bolt could work loose and fall out, allowing the engine and gearbox to fall apart and disengage one of the driveshafts, stranding the car. Most affected vehicles would have been checked by now and fixed if necessary.

Any knocking noises when the engine is started, idling or shut down suggest wear in one or more of the engine mounts around the car and, while they're fairly simple to replace, tracking down the dud one can be time-consuming.

Rattling from the rear of the car, particularly on rough roads, is usually traceable to worn linkages in the rear stabiliser bar.

The 3 also seems to have had its share of power-steering problems.

The first symptom is a car that needs more muscle to turn it than it should. In that case, it's usually low power-steering fluid that's the culprit.

It's easy to fix but the bigger question is where the fluid went in the first place.

In some cases, the power-steering system has some rough edges on its reservoir, which can cause a leak in the hoses.

A clean-up and a new hose will usually sort the problem.

On some cars, the power windows can stop working for no apparent reason.

Rather than a hardware problem, it's usually just a software glitch.

The solution, in most cases, is to hold the window button down for as long as it takes to get the windows active again.

This in effect resets the car's body computer and should return the windows to normal operation. If it doesn't, there's a bigger problem but 99 per cent of the time this little trick will work.

If the car in question can't be locked with the remote button on the ignition key, you're probably looking at a defective ignition switch in the car, rather than the key itself.

A secondary symptom can be the key reminder continuing to chime even though the key has been removed. A new ignition switch is the usual fix for this.

Judging how kind the previous owner has been is a good trick with a 3 MPS.

For a start, you want an up-to-date service book but it's also nice to think the previous custodian was also mechanically sympathetic towards the car.

You can judge some of that by looking at the condition of the tyres.

If they're feathered at the edges and scrubbed, chances are the car has been driven hard.

The same goes for a car with modifications. Essentially, we'd be wary of a Mazda3 MPS that's been altered for even more performance.


  • Awesome power and huge torque give the MPS true hot-hatch performance
  • Looks good inside and out
  • Well made from quality bits and pieces<
  • Good size inside and hatchback versatility


  • Relentless acceleration is fun for a while but unruly front end can become tiring
  • Destroys tyres and brake pads if driven hard
  • Insurance costs can be high
  • revious owners might have used the car hard

Need to know

  • Rattles at idle, start-up and shut-down suggest worn engine mounts
  • Hard steering could mean a leak in the system somewhere
  • There are enough out there with full service records that you really don't want one without
  • Check tyres and brakes for wear

The competitors

Renault Megane Sport

The last Megane Sport with the clever front differential is the pick of them but even an early car is great fun. Ripper engine and distinctive looks. Rating: 3.5/5

Ford Focus XR5 Turbo

A bit softer in the way it performs, the five-cylinder Focus XR5 Turbo is, however, a well-balanced car. Looks good, too. Only the lack of cruise control spoils the picture. Rating: 4/5

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The class benchmark. The GTI is a cult car and deservedly so. Great balance, entertaining chassis and a tremendous engine with the option of the excellent dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Rating: 4.5/5

What to pay

David Morley


Morley is a long-time senior contributor to Drive, and our regular used-car expert. As an avid car collector and tinkerer, he knows what to look for - and look out for - when buying a new car.

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