Bodykit, interior ergonomics, engine characteristics, handling
Room for improvement
Centre rear safety omissions, fan operation, lack of refinement, small boot
By TERRY MARTIN 25/04/2001
YOU could consider the SP20 as just another unappealing badge engineering exercise from Mazda and its Ford taskmaster.
Or, for the first time since the Blue Oval took control of the Japanese concern in 1996, you could view it as one of the first signs that the 'whitegoods on wheels' era for Mazda is coming to an end.
Despite the fact that Ford has its own version of the car, the Laser SR2, the SP20 returns the 323 Astina to a level of appearance and performance not seen since the beautiful BA Astina V6 was taken from us late in 1998.
The SP20 takes the general 323/Laser facelift, which includes a sculpted bonnet and new front lamp clusters, and turns the five-door hatch into a head-turner with an attitudinal front bumper, black mesh grille, side skirts, a low and high-mounted rear spoiler, chrome tailpipe extension and 16-inch alloy wheels.
The glaring yellow paint option helps, too.
Importantly, the SP20 has uprated performance to match, courtesy of a 626-related 2.0-litre DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine that delivers 98kW of power at 6000rpm and 178Nm of torque at 4500rpm.
Mazda is also claiming significant improvements in handling and refinement, thanks to braces bolted onto the chassis, bigger-diameter front and rear stabiliser bars and a liberal dose of more absorbent sound-deadening materials.
Pricing has closed in on $30,000 for the standard five-speed manual, however, the package includes dual airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and EBD, automatic air-conditioning, a six-stacker CD stereo, leather-bound steering wheel and gear shifter, remote central locking and electric windows.
A four-speed automatic version is also available.
The interior takes on a sporting tone with the restrained and quite stylish use of mock carbon-fibre and aluminium trim inserts, chrome scuff plates on the front door sills and white-faced instrument dials, the latter remaining every bit as legible as the gauges found on the rest of Mazda's model range.
It would, perhaps, have been too much to ask for something other than white faces and fake metal. But the core ingredients of a 323 cockpit remain: clean, simplistic, functional and modern.
As ever, large lettering is adopted for all levers, switches and meters ahead of the driver, and the plethora of plastic (the norm with modern-era mass-produced transport) is broken up with contrasting trims and fabrics, and dimple embossing on the doorhandles, console and dash.
The one sore point that persists relates to the fan speed dial. Though it might have been downsized to make finding it sight-unseen a simple task, the dial is too small for large, stubby fingers.
The driver is treated to excellent comfort and support from the new two-tone cloth bucket seat, good forward visibility - aided here by seat cushion/steering wheel height adjustment and a high seating point to begin with - and a beaut three-spoke Nardi steering wheel.
Best news of all, though - and something not always provided in such an image-conscious class - is the thoroughly entertaining drive.
While it's not a great all-rounder like the benchmark Holden Astra, the SP20 offers plenty for the enthusiastic driver, not the least of which is sprightly engine performance and extremely adept manners on the road.
Requiring premium unleaded to deliver its best, the 2.0-litre engine revs smoothly and strongly to its 6500rpm redline, producing plenty of punch and an excellent mid-range rev response.
Sure, inline fours have a habit of struggling when revs are low and gears high. But where other small-capacity engines are still struggling around the 3000rpm, the SP20 is marching onward and upward.
It works in fine concert with the positive but relatively long-throw manual gearshift, which together with a light clutch action gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.
Pulling the car up from speed is likewise done with aplomb, the brakes offering excellent feel and resistance to fade. And good ABS performance, too.
Notwithstanding the strong stop-go characteristics, it's in the handling stakes where the front-drive SP20 impresses most.
The current generation 323 has impressed us before with its dynamic abilities. In SP20 guise, it goes up another notch.
The low-profile tyres sharpen the already direct steering even further, all the while providing an excellent level of grip during tight corners. And for steering feel and suppression of kickback through the tiller, the SP20 is first-rate.
Where a lack of refinement and abundance of firmness in the ride quality can be distracting on the standard 323 models, this here sports variant has the gall to continue the trend (despite the new sound-deadening inserts) - and get away with it.
If you're hooked on the looks, you probably won't mind factors such as tyre roar, suspension noise and gravel ping in the wheel arches. The purists call it a 'connection'. We call it tiresome.
Of course we like the flat, firm, well-controlled ride. We like it a lot. But more refinement and better absorption of small road imperfections would round off an otherwise excellent package.
Other aspects? Well, the rest is all Astina. A shallow, narrow cargo compartment easily extended with the dual-fold 60/40-split rear bench; room found for a full-size alloy spare but only mediocre provision of rear legroom and shoulder room; great storage facilities, including map pockets in all doors, but child seat anchorage points eat into luggage space when employed.
Most disappointing is the omission of a head restraint and three-point seatbelt for the centre-rear occupant. It's an unpleasant practice in any new vehicle but glaringly so in a car worth close to $30,000.
Yet, in essence, the SP20 is another competent product from the Japanese manufacturer - and one to savour while waiting for more exciting product to come, not least of which will be Mazda's RX-8 high-performance coupe.