Car reviews - Mazda - 323 - Astina 1.6 5-dr hatch
Interior space, on-road competence, build quality
Room for improvement
Choppy low-speed ride, average performance of 1.6-litre version
6 Feb 2001
MAZDA'S 323 Astina was introduced in September 1998 and offers a useful blend of style, space and practicality in a crisp handling package.
As part of Mazda's cost-cutting rationalisation program, the entire 323 range sits on the current 626 wheelbase, sharing major engineering components. This is not bad thing because it opened up a little more room for movement in the design of the 323 range.
As a result, both passenger and luggage space have been increased.
Externally, the new Astina bears absolutely no resemblance to its predecessor and is closer in concept to the 121 Metro in terms of its more upright shape and accommodating interior. Unlike the last Astina, it is focussed on passenger comfort rather than style.
The front end incorporates Mazda's new corporate nose, which features a "smiley" grille and edge-style headlamps.
The Astina is offered with a choice of 1.6 or 1.8-litre engines, both of which can be mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
All models in the 323 range have moved downmarket to stay competitive in an increasingly cut-throat segment.
The newcomers are cheaper than their predecessors, taking into account that air-conditioning is now standard across the range.
The entry-level Astina is powered by a 1.6-litre engine that produces 78kW at 5500rpm and 145Nm at 4000rpm. It features twin-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder to maximise efficiency.
On the road, the smooth and willing powerplant provides respectable performance, although it needs a decent dose of revs to deliver its best.
While not offering an abundance of low-down torque, the engine makes up for it by remaining relatively quiet and refined even when extended to the redline.
The 1.8-litre 92kW engine offers appreciably more grunt, but this needs to be weighed up against the price penalty it attracts.
Power is relayed to the front wheels by a five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic.
The manual gearbox is light and slick to use and the clutch is similarly user-friendly. This is just as well as the relative lack of low-down torque in the 1.6 means fairly frequent gear changes are the order of the day when driving around town.
The optional four-speed automatic works quite well in most circumstances, although it has tendency to hunt between gears when negotiating twisty country roads.
Astina's all-independent suspension delivers a ride/handling balance that matches or exceeds all its rivals, barring perhaps the Holden Astra. It has smoothed and refined many of the rough edges of the previous series.
Enthusiastic drivers are well catered for by the Astina's crisp handling and sharp turn-in. The well-balanced chassis is complemented by power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering that is nicely weighted and offers a high level of feedback.
Perhaps the only criticism that can be levelled at the Astina's suspension is in relation to its low-speed ride, which tends to be slightly choppy over even minor surface irregularities.
The brakes are firm and progressive.
Mazda has adhered to its new-found conservatism in the Astina's dash layout, which is neat and uncluttered, yet uninspiring.
The instruments are clearly marked and easy to read at a glance. All the switchgear is also within easy reach of the driver.
A distinctive feature is the centre console, which is trimmed in an unusual dimpled plastic material.
The standard of fit and finish is generally good - both inside and out - although a rattle emanated from the dashboard in the test car.
The velour-trimmed seats are comfortable and supportive and there is ample head and leg room for both front and rear seat passengers.
Even though the Astina is shorter than its predecessor, it offers more luggage space than before.
The 60/40 split-fold rear seat enables the loading area to be used to full capacity. With the rear seats folded down, the hatchback offers enough room to swallow a mountain bike - with both wheels attached.
Loading heavy suitcases into the back is not too taxing as the hatch lid opens down to bumper level.
Visibility is exemplary and parking the Astina is easy.
The base model Astina comes with air-conditioning, central locking, power steering, velour seats, a four-speaker stereo, engine immobiliser and driver's airbag.
The 1.8-litre version gains alloy wheels, power windows, a passenger airbag, remote central locking, electrically adjustable mirrors, better seat trim, colour-keyed door handles and a chrome tailpipe extension.
The Mazda 323 Astina is a competent package with no glaring deficiencies. It is stylish, well-built and quite comprehensively specified.
Dynamically, it matches most of its rivals, barring perhaps the Holden Astra, which is arguably the benchmark in the category.
Its overall competence makes it one of the better choices in the $20,000-plus segment for small sedans.
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