With sales now putting the Mazda 3 into fourth place behind the Commodore, Corolla and HiLux (VFACTS), it's no surprise to find Mazda - now Australia's top-selling vehicle importer - looking to further shore-up its 'zoom-zoom' image with a tilt at rallying.
In this weekend's round of the Australian Rally Championship (ARC) in Tasmania, Mazda will campaign a turbocharged Mazda3 MPS in the Tasmanian Tarmac Challenge. Apparently, how things go over the weekend will "help the company decide whether or not to enter the full 2009 ARC season". Victorian brother and sister rally combo Brendan Reeves and Rhianon Smyth have been given the reins of the 190kW turbocharged Mazda3 MPS in the event's Showroom category.
Let's hope things go to plan. Having another contender in the Australian Rally Championship will do the profile of the sport no harm at all, but, for Mazda enthusiasts, the announcement will not mean that we're likely to see a purpose-built AWD Mazda 3 MPS in Mazda showrooms any time soon. (It's a ripper drive but something of a handfull with all those turbo-fed kiloWatts slamming through the front hoops.)
Mazda is in discussion with CAMS over new ARC regulations and is pressing for the the introduction of a separate championship for production-based two-wheel-drive cars. An AWD Mazda 3 MPS would thus seem to be off Mazda's agenda.
Interestingly, when Mazda last competed in the ARC in 1989, it won the Championship with a Mazda 323 4WD Turbo, then under Mazda Motorsport Manager Allan Horsley. Still in the saddle - can't resist the pun - Horsley said this weekend's ARC event will give Mazda the opportunity to test the waters before potentially embarking on a full-blown rally campaign in 2009.
"Mazda needs to be convinced that the regulations CAMS is proposing will consider two-wheel-drive production cars on an equal footing with highly-modified, four-wheel-drive cars," Horsley said.
For this weekend, tarmac hostilities begin with a ceremonial start at the Burnie showgrounds on Friday night followed by two 87km competitive heats on Saturday and Sunday.