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Alfa Romeo Brera V6 v Audi S3 v BMW 130i v Mazda 3 MPS

BMW’s 261bhp 130i M Sport is more desirable than ever, but are there more interesting ways to get the same power?

The most telling moment of a group test is rarely reported. It often occurs when the sun is going down and the photographer is artfully composing his final shots (or faffing, as we road testers call it), and it is simply this: which car do you want to take home? As a measure of which is the most desirable car, it’s the most honest indicator there is. The one certainty in this test is that whatever the choice, the car isn’t going to lack power. All four contenders have around 260bhp, comfortably in excess of the average fast hatch, though the way it is created and deployed is unique to each.

Just landed is the three-door version of the BMW 130i M Sport with the excellent 261bhp Valvetronic straight-six powering the rear wheels. With its flanks broken by two big doors rather than four little ones, it looks cleaner and smaller somehow, while BMW’s engineers have taken the opportunity to mildly tweak the suspension and steering. At £26,385 it’s a mere £530 less than the five-door version.

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Slightly more expensive, at £26,975, and exactly as powerful, the Audi S3 boasts the most potent version of VAG’s FSI turbocharged 2-litre in-line four and shares its 261bhp between all four wheels. Yet even with its RS4-style ‘goatee’ grille and optional pearlescent blue paint, the S3 looks rather plain beside the BMW.

Not quite as plain as the Mazda 3 MPS though, even in revised ‘Sports Aero Kit’ spec, which brings a bigger tailgate spoiler, smaller door mirrors and, crucially, lowered and stiffened Eibach suspension. Its 2.3-litre turbocharged in-line four cooks up 256bhp and 280lb ft, making it the torquiest engine here, and all that urge is fed through the front wheels only. The MPS is the most potent front-drive hatch on sale and also the least expensive car here at a mere £19,495.

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Park it next to the Alfa Romeo, though, and it is practically invisible. Like the original TT, the Brera made the leap from show car to production car largely intact, and from any angle it’s bold and distinctive. This is the range-topping 3.2 JTS V6 Q4, with four-wheel drive and a 256bhp quad-cam 3.2-litre V6 in its nose, and in this spec doesn’t come cheap – it costs £29,250.

Pre-match favourites are all very well, but the joy of group tests is that they throw up surprises and reveal strengths and weaknesses more readily and with greater definition than a solo drive can. And there were a few surprises along the way here, including a new fastest hot hatch lap at the Bedford Autodrome and a new best hot hatch 0-60 time at Millbrook.

Verdict Well, if you’re on a tight budget and all you want to do is go fast, or if you’ve got a bank job lined up, the Mazda is the car for you. The MPS offers an awful lot of performance for the money, but not a lot else. That it can actually get almost 260bhp to the road through just the front wheels effectively is extraordinary, but in the final analysis it feels like a hotted-up hire car.

In many respects, the Alfa is its opposite. Extrovert inside and out and powered by an engine that brims with character rather than raw power. The more I drove it, the more I liked it, but it really needs to make its mind up whether it’s a sports car or a very capable luxury coupe. It feels closer to the latter, despite the clunky auto, and while it’s far from perfect and costs too much, that’s true of most indulgences, isn’t it?

The Audi S3 and BMW 130i M Sport are way out in front. The Audi is more of a drivers’ car than it appears, with keen steering and a poised and adjustable chassis, and after its turns at Millbrook and Bedford there’s no questioning its pace and ability. The BMW has more spirit, a superb engine and a wonderful gearshift, and an intrinsically more demanding and engaging layout. It remains a flawed car though, the feel of its chassis occasionally vague, its ride confounded by particularly lumpen B-roads. It’s a close call. The Audi is the logical, rational choice, the winner on points, but for all its faults, the BMW is the car most of us want to take home.

Comparison

 Alfa Romeo BreraAudi S3BMW 130iMazda 3 MPS
Engine:V6In-line 4-cylIn-line 6-cylIn-line 4-cyl
Location:Front, transverseFront, transverseFront, longitudinalFront, transverse
Displacement:3195cc1984cc2996cc2261cc
Bore x stroke89 x 85.6mm82.5 x 92.8mm85 x 88mm87.5 x 94mm
Cylinder blockAluminium alloyAluminium alloyAluminium alloyAluminium alloy
Cylinder headAluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, variable valve timingAluminium alloy, dohc, 4v per cylinder, variable valve timingAluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, Double-VANOSAluminium alloy, dohc, 4v per cylinder, variable valve timing
Fuel and ignitionElectronic engine management, multipoint fuel injectionElectronic engine management, multipoint fuel injection, turboElectronic engine management, multipoint fuel injectionElectronic engine management, multipoint fuel injection, turbo
Max power256bhp @ 6300rpm261bhp @ 6000rpm261bhp @ 6650rpm256bhp @ 5500rpm
Max torque237lb ft @ 4500rpm258lb ft @ 2500-5000rpm232lb ft @ 2750rpm280lb ft @ 3000rpm
TransmissionSix-speed Qtronic automatic (six-speed manual standard), four-wheel drive, ASRSix-speed manual, four-wheel drive, electronic differential lock, ASRSix-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, DTC MacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barSix-speed manual, front-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, TCS
Front suspensionDouble wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspensionMulti-link, coil springs, dampersFour-link, coil springs, dampers anti-roll barMulti-link, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barMulti-link, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
SteeringRack and pinion, power-assistedRack and pinion, power-assistedRack and pinion, power-assistedRack and pinion, power-assisted
BrakesVented discs, 330mm front, 292mm rear, ABS, EBDVented discs, 345mm front, 310mm rear, ABS, EBD, ESP 7.5 x 18in front and rear, aluminium alloyVented discs, 330mm front, 300mm rear, ABS, CBC, ASC, DBC, DSC320mm vented discs front, 280mm solid discs rear, ABS, EBD, EBA, DSC
Wheels7.5 x 17in front and rear, aluminium alloy225/40 R18 front and rear,7.5 x 18in front and rear, aluminium alloy7 x 18in front and rear, aluminium alloy
Tyres225/50 R17 front and rear, Pirelli P-ZeroConti SportContact 2205/45 R18 fr, 225/40 rr, run-flat Goodyear Eagle NCT5215/45 R18 front and rear, Bridgestone Potenza RE050A
Kerb weight1650kg1455kg1475kg1410kg
Power-to-weight158bhp/ton183bhp/ton180bhp/ton184bhp/ton
Basic price£29,250£26,975£26,385£18,995
Price as tested£33,950£30,395£29,370£19,495
Extras fitted includeQtronic automatic gearbox, electrically adjustable seats, metallic paint, satnav, CD playerPearl effect paint, satnav, rain and light sensor pack, multi-function sports steering wheelLeather upholstery, media package, visibility package, USB/audio interfaceSports Aero Kit
Insurance Group18181717E
On saleNowNowNowNow
evo rating3/54/54/54.5/5
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