|Engine||1.8 L / 2.0 L|
For many years Mazda has had an excellent reputation for producing some of the best small to medium cars available and the latest range of 323 model vehicles certainly carries on this well earned tradition.
The current Mazda 323 series provides a comprehensive range of vehicles, based on three entirely different body shapes, which should appeal to a wide variety of prospective car owners. The 323 Protege Sedan should satisfy those people looking for a conservatively styled, practical car which offers excellent interior space for its class and good overall value. For those who desire a car with a more ostentatious image, the 323 Astina, available as a five door hatchback and a four door hardtop, provides strikingly individual aesthetics with a wide range of features and options to choose from.
All up there are now twelve model variations in the current 323 series: Protege sedans are available with 1.6 or 1.8 litre DOHC 16 valve engines, while Astina five door hatchbacks and Astina four door hardtops both come with a choice of 1.8 litre DOHC 16 valve or 2.0 litre V6 DOHC 24 valve engines. All variants are available with either a four speed automatic or five speed manual transmission. Prices vary considerably, beginning at $25,685 for a 1.6 litre Protege sedan with a manual transmission and climbing to $40,735 for an automatic V6 Astina 323 hardtop.
Two vehicles were provided by Mazda Australia for evaluation, a 1.8 litre Astina hatchback with an automatic transmission and a 2.0 litre manual Astina hatchback.
Features and Equipment
The V6 Astina, in particular, is equipped with an impressive array of features as standard equipment. At $31,050 for the 1.8 litre automatic Astina hatchback, power steering, central locking, power mirrors, five speaker radio cassette and power windows all come as standard items. Options available include air conditioning for an additional $1870 and a combined dual front air bag and anti-lock brake package priced at $3,390. The 1.8 litre engine powering this vehicle is a DOHC 16 valve sequentially fuel injected engine which produces good maximum power and torque figures of 92 kW (at 6000 rpm) and 160 Nm (at 4000 rpm) from a displacement of 1840 cc on regular unleaded petrol.
The 2.0 litre manual Astina hatchback tested currently retails at $38,270 and air conditioning is still a $1870 optional extra. Included in the list price are a host of creature comforts and safety related features such as: driver and passenger air bags, ABS, 16" alloy wheels, central locking, power steering, compact disc player, power mirrors, five speaker radio cassette, fog lights and a rear spoiler. The 2.0 litre engine is a V6 configuration featuring 24 valves, quad camshafts and electronically controlled sequential fuel injection to push out 104 kW or power (at 6000 rpm) and 183 Nm of torque (at 5000 rpm) using regular unleaded petrol.
To complement the engines offered in the 323 range, Mazda has reworked both the five speed manual transmission and the electronically controlled four speed automatic to improve the efficiency and smoothness of their operation.
Body and Finish
First impression of the Astina hatchbacks is of the smooth, teardrop-like styling which portrays a very glamorous and sporty image. The distinctive, modern appearance of the Astinas does turn heads in appreciation which should help to alleviate the sting produced by the initial purchase price.
The two test cars exhibited excellent finish standards and attention to detail which we have become accustomed to expect from Mazda. All body and trim components have a reassuringly solid feel which is expected to last quite well. The new body structure and use of sound damping materials do a good job of suppressing noise, vibration and harshness.
Mazda claims that 85% of plastic components in the 323 range may be easily recycled and as well have produced certain parts using recycled plastic.
Comfort and Space
The new range of 323 Astina's do offer an improvement in occupant leg room over the previous model, although due to the low swooping roof line, headroom is restricted in the rear seating positions. In addition, the way the roof wraps down can be a little claustrophobic and will make the usually simple exercise of strapping a child into a restraint in the back seat quite difficult. In contrast, the Protege sedan is quite roomy and much more suitable for family use.
The Astinas provide seating for five, although due to the limited rear headroom, the rear seats are best suited to children. The driver's seat offers a front tilt and height adjustment mechanism enabling a good range of driving positions which should please most drivers. All up the front seats provide good support and were found to be comfortable on journeys of short and long duration.
The available boot space in the Astinas is still quite small, however access has been improved by reducing the height of the lower loading lip. On a positive note, Mazda's attention to detail and use of space in areas such as jack and tool storage is welcome.
Behind the Wheel
The instrumentation and switches in the Astinas have been well arranged by the Mazda design team to allow a clear view and easy operation from the driver's cockpit. Extensive vision has been provided by the generous glass areas that wrap around the vehicle and encase the occupants.
Ample storage spaces have been provided to allow the stowage of maps and small items in door pockets, the centre console, glovebox and passenger side seatback pocket. There is also a cup holder and sunglass box.
Another new feature designed for convenience is the illuminated entry system. The interior courtesy light will come on for a short period of time after the driver's door has been unlocked or when the key has been removed from the ignition to assist entry and exit at night.
On the Road
The 1.8 litre engine mated to the automatic transmission proved to be quite a good performer as the engine was willing to spin high in the rev range where maximum power is achieved. However, the engine became rather noisy when worked hard which was disappointing. The 2.0 litre V6 Astina, on the other hand, offers exceptional smoothness and quietness throughout its operation. The V6 engine responds well from low revs right up to its redline of 7000 rpm, offering excellent performance in a very refined manner. The five speed manual transmission and hydraulically operated clutch are well suited and a delight to use.
The 1.8 litre Astina was found to be a very capable all rounder in terms of handling on varied road surfaces and provided a reassuringly stable feel at all times.
The 2.0 litre engined Astina is more of a sports orientated package. With its firmer suspension, 16" wheels and low profile tyres it has excellent cornering grip and steering accuracy although, as expected, it rides a little more harshly over bumps and road corrugations.
Four wheel discs take care of the braking on all 323's in the current range allowing virtually fade free stops and displaying predictable characteristics. The ABS system fitted to the 2.0 litre Astina provided superior stopping power and good pedal feel.
The current range of Mazda 323 vehicles is much more than just a revamp of the previous model. Mazda has made giant forward leaps in providing three distinctive all new body shapes with new refined powertrains and a very impressive array of features and options available.
The vehicles tested were very pleasant to drive, being quiet and displaying reassuringly predictable road manners, with a good blend of performance and economy.
In particular, the V6 engined Astina sets new levels of refinement, sophistication and equipment levels in the small car market, leaving most other manufacturers not even in the same ball park.
For those after a glamorously styled small car or an enjoyable driver's car the new Mazda 323's will delight. The Protege sedan offers good practicality and value, while the Astinas offer the image, luxury and satisfaction missing from many small cars.