Fast Blasts

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW IN SNACK-SIZE BITES

- Scott Newman

01 MAZDA 3 G25

Superb to drive, but to own?

I HONESTLY THOUGHT Mazda had stuffed up the new 3. First impressions were of goopy electric steering, a firm ride, wooden brakes and an over-the-shoulder blind spot you could hide a cruise ship in thanks to the enormous C-pillar. There were certainly positives: a beautiful interior (though one that lacks illumination at night), much improved noise levels, every gizmo under the sun, but whither the fizzy, fun to drive Mazda 3? Turns out itís still there and better than ever, but you need to do some digging. At speed the ride improves, the steering lightens and those brakes, which feel so dead around town, are firm underfoot when given a decent push. Our test car was the G25 Astina with a 139kW/252Nm 2.5-litre atmo four: itís not fast, but itís fast enough, the six-speed auto making the most of the available grunt with an outstandingly responsive Sport mode. The true magic of the new 3, however, is in its chassis. In terms of driving enjoyment, it has all but the very best hot hatches beaten. Itís fluid and responsive, precise and accurate, adjustable and controllable, clearly the work of engineers that love to drive hard. Do small car buyers want a car thatís far more enjoyable on a twisty road than in the city? Not sure, but we sure donít mind.

SPECS: 2.5 I4; 139kW @ 6000rpm; 252Nm @ 4000rpm; FWD; 1380kg; $37,990

- Scott Newman

02 FORD FOCUS ST-LINE

Warm wagon previews next-gen

IN SOME WAYS, youíre looking at Fordís next generation of ST performance tech. Not literally, of course. The Focus ST-Line wagon stretches 4668mm in length, or 290mm longer than the hatch, on the same wheelbase. But it features unique rear multi-link suspension arrangement rumoured for the incoming Focus ST. What does this mean? Tackle bumpy corners and it stays planted, absorbing whatís thrown at it. Grip from Michelin Pilot Sport 3s is also good enough to expose a lack of seat bolstering. From here, though, the rest feels under baked. The problem is that front-end. It shifts weight on the nose to find turn-in well enough, but while the steering is direct, itís far from ready for a full-house ST. It needs more feedback, more feel and a better sense of the front tyres at all speeds. We get it, itís warm wagon. And the powertrain feels just so. That three-pot, shared with the Fiesta ST, moves with some enthusiasm from 3000 to 5000rpm and its eight-speed gearbox dispatches shifts swiftly. But it doesnít even bother trying to growl, even artificially. The Focus ST will need a big step up in response, power, shift feel and front-end point from this showing, leaving Hyundaiís i30 N-Line as the hottest pick of the warm hatches at this moment.

SPECS: 1.5 I3T; 134kW @ 6000rpm; 240Nm @ 1750rpm; FWD; 1388kg; $30,900

- Louis Cordony

03 AUDI Q8 55TSI

Can a plush SUV tempt limo die-hards?

AT A SMIDGE under $140K as tested, this Q8 is almost $100,000 cheaper than its equivalent in the Audi A8 range. The car we tested was fitted with optional adaptive air suspension and rear wheel steering as the primary elements that changed its characteristics, but even the black exterior accents are a cost option. Its turbo V6 grants a 0-100km/h dash in a relatively spritely 5.9 seconds. Spritely for 2145kg. Unfortunately, the Q8 feels slower than it is, and accelerating too quickly feels against the big SUVís wishes. Its weight is hard to ignore, even in its Dynamic drive mode, and the V6 could, dare we say it, do with some diesel torque. Once up to speed, the 55 TFSI feels more than powerful enough, and becomes a comfortable cruiser capable of soaking up even rather rough bumps. The air suspension option is a must, and the four-wheel steering makes the rather large Q8 feel almost nimble. A twisty road will undo that, where weight and the limits of the Q8ís grip becomes apparent. With that in mind, itís hard to imagine anyone buying the Q8 as a car to go driving in for the sake of it. Its cabin is spacious and packed with features, making it an excellent get-around for a few people. Thereís a new haptic touch screen on the rather sleek dash, which looks great until you turn off the screens and you can see your fingerprints smeared across the black panels.

SPECS: 3.0 V6T; 250kW @ 5500rpm; 500Nm @ 2900rpm; AWD; 2265kg; $128,900

- Chris Thompson