Have you ever had the opportunity to have a fairly unrestricted drive of four performance oriented cars back to back without a car for breaking the car?
How about getting a hot lap from a legend in Australian motorsport in one of the aforementioned cars and seeing what it is capable of?
Well today I got an invite through a guy at work (thanks Chris) to a special Mazda drive day at the AHG Performance Driving Centre out near the airport. The purpose of the day was to showcase the very new Mazda3 MPS and also try to sell some of the other sports machines in the Mazda line-up.
The cars available for a drive:
I will go through the cars in order that I drove them. Note: We were under strict instructions to leave all DSC switches in the ON position in the cars that had them.
As I have driven Mazda rotaries (RX-3, R100) before and was quite looking forward to driving the RX-8. Sadly my expectations weren't met by this car.
I hopped in to the very low cabin and found it incredibly easy to get a comfortable driving position. Once I was comfortable in the very adjustable leather seat I looked out the windscreen and it struck me that visibility is a big problem. The A pillar is quite thick and because of the sweep on the windscreen the thick piller comes back close to your head emphasising the thickness even more. I then checked the mirrors and the rearward visibilty, which isn't too bad. The suicide door centre and rear pillar and both quite thick but the small side window helps 'see' through the bodywork. Driving this car on the road would require constant mirror surveillance and would cause some trepidation performing lane changes on the freeway.
I fired up the engine and gladly it sounded like a rotary, albeit a very quiet one. The wave came from the 'fat controllers' to go out onto the track. At this point it crossed my mind that I have been given the keys to a car that retails for $62,000, but the thought evaporated quite quickly moments later. Easy does it away from the line to avoid stalling the beast and some nice light throttle around the first corner. Out onto the long straight and I applied a fair bit of throttle. Being someone who has predominately driven 4 cylinder cars that rev to 6000 before they run out of breath, I found myself changing gears way too early in the RX-8. The rest of the first lap was a bit of a sighting lap and familiarisation with the car.
But the second lap was completely different, the first corner was taken with a lot more gusto and some very early throttle application onto the long straight. At the braking markers I glanced at the speedo and I was going 150 before the excellent brakes started slowing things down. The rest of the lap was spent blancing the car on throttle through a combination of tight and sweeping corners. The rear wheel drive platform is very easy to drive and changes direction quite well.
By the end of the lap I was eating up the gap with the car in front at a very quick rate. Honestly it didn't feel that quick. The Renesis rotary engine really puts out good power (177 kW @ 8,200 rpm) once you gets the revs up and does it work with zero fuss, but really in the end it is a very good car for cruising rather than having a seriously spirited drive. The excitement levels in the RX-8 are quite low and it really didn't do it for me.
I have heard many good things about the Mazda6 MPS, namely about the power from the 2.3L turbo (190 kW @ 5,500 rpm) and the AWD system. A few bad things have been written about the weight of this car and let me tell you, they aren't wrong.
Now that I knew the track I decided to go nuts straight away with the 6 MPS and really put the boot in from the first corner. The first thing I noticed was the turbo lag. You put your foot down in second gear from two-and-a-half grand and wait for the engine to catch up. Once it wakes up this thing really moves. Keeping it up on boost during gear changes is essential to keep everything moving at a rapid rate. To do this, it requires you to take needle close to the redline in every gear. The suggested brake markers were coming up fast and a quick glance had the speedo near 160. I jammed on the brakes hard and things were not slowing down quickly enough. If you have ever been to the AHG Driving Centre you know the whole area off track is a sparse covering of grass over a hell of a lot of very soft sand. The giant 'sand trap' was approaching fast and I continued to pressure the brakes and hoping this thing would slow down. The corner was here and although I hadn't slowed down anywhere near enough I tipped the 6 MPS in and hopped it would hold on. With a howl of the tyres and an attitude an America's Cup yacht would be proud of, I managed to stay on the black stuff.
The rest of my time in the 6 MPS was spent seeing how much body roll I could get before I lost traction at either end. Getting the backend to go out was only possible with a sharp stab of the brake pedal in the middle of a corner. Getting the front to lose traction was a much easier prospect. Applying the throttle mid corner started the front end pushing ever wider round the corner. By the end of the lap the brake pedal had put in its leave application form and was packing its bags. With over 1600 kgs to pull up, this car is seriously in need of some bigger stoppers. It also requires some more work on the suspension. The body roll the 6 MPS experiences doesn't match the Zoom Zoom image it portrays.
As an aside, at the start of the driving, all the cars had pristine alloy wheels. By the end the 6 MPS easily had the most brake dust accumulation on the wheels. It looks like Mazda realise that the brakes are not up to par so they fit some really soft pads for the best braking possible, which is still not enough.
MX-5s have always been seen as a bit of a girls car and the one supplied by Mazda for us to drive did nothing to dispel that. Sadly, it was an automatic. The only nice thing I have to say about this car is that the chassis is wonderful, everything else really sucked but nothing moreso than the automatic. The auto box in this thing has horrible gear changes and when left in full auto it constantly seems to be hunting for the right gear to be in. The engine is seriously underpowered (118 kW @ 6,700 rpm) for such a great chassis.
Not much more to say about this one as I was seriously underwhelmed...
As one of the newest entrants to the rapidly growing hot hatch segment, the 3 MPS has been much anticipated. Well, that anticipation is well deserved. The 3 MPS is to put it simply, fucking awesome.
From the moment you first put your foot down you know you are in something special. The 190 kW 2.3L direct injection turbo engine (nearly the same as the 6 MPS) is so strong off the line it isn't funny. Not a hint of turbo lag to be found. My first punch of the throttle was rewarded with a very pleasing induction howl and the roar of the exhaust. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing to attention. After driving all the other cars I had a good knowledge of the track and previous drivers had said that this car has loads of grip so I pushed harder than any of the previous cars. Exiting the first corner I plunged my right foot down hard and before I could expect the turbo lag I was being shoved in the back towards the horizon. By the end of the straight I was getting near the quickest speeds I had done in the previous three cars and this was just my out lap.
The corner at the end of the long straight where I had the scare with the 6 MPS was taken with no fuss with later baraking too. Corner after corner I attacked hard and couldn't get it unstuck. My fun was quelled when half way around the first lap I had caught the auto MX-5 which I let have a fairly large head start on me. I dropped back into slwo mode to let the MX-5 get away so I could have a clear second lap. Even at low speeds this thing felt really good, It easily pulled away from 1500 revs in 3rd gear without even a chug.
Second lap, on the run down the long straight, I managed to top out at about 165 before jamming on the brakes even later than before and chucking it in to the 90 degree left faster than any front driver should be able to go. The 3 MPS just stuck and allow me to follow the line that I wanted, even allowing me to kiss the witches hat that marked the apex of the corner. At the end of the second lap I decided to run as hard as I could into the chicane made from witches hats and see what I would happen. I entered at some insane speed and just jammed the brakes hard and tipped it in, the inside rear wheel got light and the ABS kicked in to stop any lock up, I flicked the steering the other way and the car responded instantly and I drove out under full power. I was suitably impressed.
I have never driven a car, let alone a front wheel drive car, that let me do the things I asked of the 3 MPS. Sure the Dynamic Stability Control had a lot to do with the capabilities of the car but even the torque was virtually non existent. If I had $44,000 to spend on a car the Mazda3 MPS would be an easy purchase. The only thing I have my doubts about is driving this thing in the wet. The DSC would either have to curb the fun in an extreme way or you turn it off and take you life in your own non-computerised hands.
Dick Johnson was also on hand to really show us what you can do with a Mazda3 MPS. And as I already knew, it is capable of a lot. Dick had the DSC switched off and managed to drive the car way quicker than most people could ever go and did this with one arm resting on the console in a very relaxed manner.
Thanks again to Chris for the invite to the event. I had a blast and learnt a few things about these cars that I had never heard about or confirmed things I have read. Now, I wonder how you find out when these events are coming up from other manufacturers...