I recently had the pleasure of attending the Mazda Performance Drive Day at Queensland Raceway here in Brisbane. Although I have always been a fan of the rotary experiment cars from Mazda (the RX series), the current MPS lineup has never really impressed me.
With that in mind, I merged onto the Ipswich highway heading towards Queensland raceway. After a gruelling hour long drive at an average speed of 50km/hr, I arrived at Queensland raceway with a few minutes to spare. I quickly realized I was one of the only people there who didn’t seem to rock up in a Mazda – oh oh.
As I pulled into the car park the boxer rumble from my car turned quite a few heads, even Dick Johnson (who was the only other person there without a Mazda) had a quick look. Oh yes, did I forget to mention? Dick Johnson was going to take me for a hot lap in a RX8 around the track.
In case you didn’t know, given DJs involvement with Ford, and Ford’s partial ownership of Mazda, and Mazda’s attempt at targeting a wider audience, DJ is the perfect man to showcase what Mazda has to offer.
After a 20 minute safety briefing, it was time to jump in the cars and go for it. I have been around QLD raceway many times before so it was a hard choice as to which car to pick first, Mazda had brought the whole brigade, the MX-5, RX8, MPS 3 and MPS 6 as well as the new CX-7. I figured I’ll start with my least favourite car and move up from there, so I jumped in the Mazda3 MPS and away I went…
Mazda MPS 3
I was really hoping the MPS 3 would change my mind about front-wheel drive turbos. Prior to jumping in the car I had a long chat with Mazda staff about the need for an all-wheel-drive system in the MPS 3, funnily enough they all agreed the car would benefit immensely from an AWD system, but mentioned cost and weight issues as drawbacks.
As I screamed out of the pits, I decided to leave the ESP on (DSC as Mazda call it) to see how much I could get away with. Honestly, the MPS 3 is not a fun car to drive. Many will disagree with me here, but it is the only performance car in the Mazda lineup that screams of compromise.
FWD fans have long argued that with all the technology keeping FWD cars stable, FWD turbos are just as good as RWD and AWDs, and whilst I found this to be true in the Volvo C30 turbo I recently drove, the MPS 3 was a different story. There is absolutely no power in first as the turbo doesn’t spool at all to avoid torque steer, the boost is also limited in 2nd.
After a few laps around the track I was starting to feel a little frustrated, there is obviously a trick to driving a FWD turbo around a track and I must have been doing something wrong since acceleration out of every corner was met with huge amounts of torque steer and steering shake, it almost felt as though the MPS 3 was trying to kill me, it must have felt my hate and repaid me as such.
Thankfully the pits were free and I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough, enough of the 3, I have made up my mind, it’s not a car for me. Once again I wondered as to which car I’d take out next, the RX8 was the easy choice, but I like to leave the best till last and the MX-5 was free, in I went.
Ah, thank God for the MX-5, there is nothing like an MX-5 to put a smile on your face. MPS 3 fans need to ask themselves one question, if FWD setups are not a compromise, why did Mazda design the MX-5 with a RWD setup? Obviously because the MX-5 is a car designed for balanced handling and enjoyable driving, while the MPS 3 was an afterthought.
I launched the MX-5 out of the pits and was quickly told to wait for the RX8 to go past. With the roof down and no helmet, going around a track is a rather scary ordeal, but not if you’re in a MX-5, my god this car is fun. Although lacking real punch, the fellow behind me in the MPS 3 was having a great deal of trouble keeping up with me around corners, all I could hear was tyre screech while I ate corners in the roadster. We eventually hit the straight and the MPS 3 caught up as expected, but where is the fun in that?
One of the day’s specific instructions was no side ways action, hence for that reason ESP was to remain on, but, between you and me, on my second lap in the MX-5, ESP was switched off. It’s not as easy as it may seem to get the MX-5 sideways, specially with another car behind me, the opportunity was only momentary but it did happen, turn 7 of QLD raceway for those that know it is one which usually catches drivers off-guard, there are many dents in the walls facing that corner, so what better corner to test the cars drifting abilities?
A flick of the wrist and foot the floor got the back of the MX-5 out for a nice 45 degree slide, seconds later a voice came on the radio to let me know to turn ESP back on, oh whoops, how did that get turned off?
Many who lack self-esteem and confidence with their sexuality label the MX-5 as a bit of a girl’s car, these overgrown men have no idea that this little roadster can put their big V8s to shame around a track. Mazda have always showcased the MX-5 as the ultimate handling machine, and after my time out on the track with this thing, I can definitely assure you, it’s no marketing ploy! I drove the MX-5 back into the pits and the MPS 6 was next…
Mazda MPS 6
This car really doesn’t excite me. Aimed at those who are too scared to drive a WRX because of the negative image but want an AWD turbo, the MPS 6 is a seriously boring car, or so I thought before I jumped in.
Unlike the other 3, I hadn’t driven the MPS 6 before, and as I went around turn four, I realized the guy in the RX-8 behind me was starting to fall further and further behind. Oh yes, this car is a rocket! Using the same engine as the MPS 3, the 6 doesn’t suffer from the same torque steer, there is no boost limiting in first and second and as far as handling goes, with the AWD setup in place, the MPS 6 is one hell of a car.
Nonetheless, despite its awesome power and great handling, nothing excites me about the MPS 6, it just looks so plain, with a small MPS badge on the rear and unique wheels, you’d be hard pressed spotting one in traffic. I have been told that its subtleness is one of its selling points, and I guess if you’re after a road rocket that looks like an everyday Mazda6, the MPS 6 is a strong contender for the price. I walked out of the MPS 6 and glanced over at the RX8.
It was time, RX8 time. I knew I had made the right choice keeping this for last, the RX8 is easily the best sports car in the Mazda lineup, with an unbelievably well balanced chassis the RX8 was the king for the day.
Cornering in the RX8 felt nearly as good as the MX5 and with enough grunt to power out smoothly, the RX8 left a permanent smile on my face. The gearbox is the highlight though, quite possibly one of the best six-speed manuals available from the Japanese, the RX8 felt as though it could read my mind, gear changes were smooth, hill toeing and double clutching down was a breeze and the whole setup worked in harmony to provide a fantastic driving experience.
The biggest criticism of the RX8 has always been lack of power, the old turbo-charged 13B engines in the RX7s managed to put out ridiculous amounts of power, but given the emission laws in Japan, the RX8 was left naturally aspirated, although, as Dick Johnson told me later, there are countless aftermarket turbo kits available for the RX8.
The RX8 is not a slow car, driven properly in and out of corners it can out handle cars with 2x the power around a track. If you’re thinking at buying one, do yourself a favour and pick the manual, the auto is painfully slow.
Hours had passed and my feet were starting to get a little sore, it was time the cars came back and the king of the mountain showed us how it’s really done. Dick Johnson is a legend, I know we previously posted this unfortunate photo of him on the site, but that was just a joke, and I wasn’t all that keen to bring it up as he prepared to drive me around the track (although I did anyway, but we’ll leave that story for another time).
Dick Johnson hotlap
I have been in countless fast cars in my life, cars with 4x the power of the RX8 that Dick was going to drive me around in. With that mind, I wasn’t expecting all that much from DJ, not even considering the car, I mean let’s be fair here, he is getting a little old isn’t he?
We sat in the car for a few minutes and he went over a few things and we talked about his 650 horsepower supercharged Ford Falcon that he had sitting at the front, I asked him if he would trade in his Falcon for the RX8 but he reluctantly shook his head and joked about putting HSVs to shame.
The call came in “you are clear to go dick”. Here we go. I didn’t know if I should keep on talking or if I should let DJ concentrate. After turn two, DJ looked at me and started talking about the RX8’s handling abilities; about 45 seconds went past before I could even open my mouth to breath. I was pushing myself as far back into the passenger seat as humanely possible, my internal organs were still left at turn one and I was wondering how on earth DJ was looking at me while driving the car at 180km/hr around a corner… My god, DJ can drive!
By the time we reached the Dick Johnson straight, I regained my vocal ability and I whispered in a voice only fit for squirrels and fluffy rodents, “holy shi..” before I could even finish my sentence, turn one approached and DJ hit the brakes, as he turned the steering wheel with what seemed like his pinky finger he looked over to see if I was still breathing.
Turn two came around and I admired DJs foot work to avoid looking at what appeared to be certain death. But alas without even the slightest tyre screech the RX8 went around corner after corner and my heart rate increased exponentially.
After what seemed like 20 seconds, we pulled back into the pits and I was trying really hard to keep myself from smiling like an eight year old school boy who had just met his childhood idol, but emotions are hard to control after being driven around at maximum pace. My face resembled a picture-dictionary definition of satisfaction.
After stumbling out of the car, I quietly sat down on a bench close by to regain consciousness, it takes someone like DJ to remind you that despite how good of a driver you might think you are, you are nothing compared to a champion driver such as DJ.
The day left me with a clear dislike for the MPS 3 but a very positive impression of not only the RX8 but the MX-5 as well as the MPS 6. There is a reason Mazda are so popular in Australia, they are one of the few Japanese car companies that have some soul and great racing credentials.
Mazda offer this course to all new Mazda MPS 3/6, RX8 and MX5 owners free of charge. As they say, there is no point selling you a fast car if you can’t drive it!
A big thanks to Mazda for inviting me along for the day, and an even bigger thanks to Dick Johnson for the world’s best five minute weight reduction class.