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Car reviews - Mazda - 323 - Astina/Protege range

Our Opinion

We like
Value for money, new colours, power pack
Room for improvement
Grip from 1.8-litre models' 14-inch tyres

Mazda logo25 Jun 2003

MAZDA has injected even more competition into the cut-throat small car market by dropping the price of the entry level 323 model from $20,695 to $19,990, at the same time ditching the 78kW, 1.6-litre engine in favour of the bigger and more powerful 92kW, 1.8-litre unit.

Previously the cheapest 1.8-litre model was the manual Protégé, which was priced at $26,900 - the equivalent Astina cost an extra $260.

In one fell swoop it now also undercuts top-selling key rivals in the Holden Astra and Nissan Pulsar, both of which start at $20,490 for the base four-door hatch variant. The Pulsar is only a 1.6 at this price point, although the Astra gets a 1.8-litre engine as standard.

The new 323 also trumps its Ford twin and close sales rival, the Laser, by offering a 1.8-litre model for less than the price of Ford's entry level 1.6 model.

So now Mazda has a car with which to tackle the volume-selling sub-$20,000 sector of the market, which is where Toyota's Ascent Seca hatch sits, as well as a model to entice buyers into dealerships to be upsold to the better specified, more expensive versions.

The revised range has introduced just such a model - the Protégé SP20. It is priced at $26,990 while the Astina SP20 has been reduced in price by 5.8 per cent, or $1690, to $27,490.

Like the Astina SP20, the Protégé will be available in both manual and automatic transmission form, with the auto sedans joining the range from August.

New-look 16-inch alloy wheels are a feature of all SP20 models while redesigned tail-lights can be seen on all 323 variants - incorporating two circular, chrome-ringed, clear lens elements on the hatch and a new smoked finish on the sedan.

Despite dropping the price of all 323 models, especially the entry level version, Mazda has managed to avoid the distinct lack of standard equipment that is often so telling at this price point.

Features added to the 1.8-litre models as part of the upgrade include a front passenger airbag, rear disc brakes, larger tyres - still 14-inch but up from 175/65 to 185/65 - and up-spec velour trim.

Air-conditioning is part of the base package as is remote central locking, CD player, engine immobiliser, driver's seat height adjustment and front seatbelt pretensioners.

Air-conditioning adds $1640 to the Corolla's price while on the $500 more expensive Astra it adds a further $1880.

Metallic paint will set you back $215 on Corolla and $240 on Astra, while it comes as a no-cost option on 323.

Three new colours have been added to the metallic paint chart - Titanium Grey on Astina, Garnet Red on Protégé and Starry Blue, which appeared recently on the limited edition Protégé Sports Edition, across the range.

A factory-fitted power pack is offered on the 1.8-litre models, which includes electric windows front and rear and electric mirrors, for an additional $700 over the base price.

Mazda has high expectations for the revised 323 range and is looking for sales to lift from an average of 900 units per month last year to 1250 units per month.

To date this year 323 sales have been performing above the usual levels, averaging 993 sales per month with three months in excess of 1000 units.

The entry level $19,990 1.8-litre models should make up about 20 per cent of 323 sales, with the power pack versions accounting for 40 per cent and the SP20 models 40 per cent.

Mazda also believes the small car line-up can help push the company's total sales towards 40,000 for this year.

Last year it posted a record result of 34,126 sales while to date this year the company is ahead of 2001 levels by 758 units or 5.6 per cent.

On paper there is not a lot of difference between the 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines offered in Mazda's 323 models - just 6kW and 11Nm.

But on the road the higher torque output of the 2.0-litre engine naturally makes it more flexible around town, plus 95 per cent of peak torque is available from 2000rpm.

It also feels less strained when being revved hard, which adds to the sports flavour of the SP20 models and encourages you to drive them harder.

But the SP20s have to carry around an extra 90-odd kilograms of weight courtesy of the bigger capacity engine, heavier suspension components and additional equipment, while owners will also have to deal with the engine's recommended diet of premium unleaded fuel.

As a result of the extra weight and in spite of the higher-octane fuel, there is only a slight improvement in straight-line performance by the 2.0-litre engine, although the SP's other sports upgrades push it on to a much higher level dynamically.

The more aggressive settings of the sports suspension are noticeable from the moment you drive off.

With heavier duty anti-roll bars front and rear and a front suspension tower strut brace, the SP20 sits flatter through corners and can therefore be hustled along at a much quicker pace than the standard 1.8 models.

The 16-inch wheels and tyres also improve the handling as they give the car a better purchase on the road and generate significantly more grip than the 14-inch items on the base model.

But it is affordability and value for money that are the calling cards of the new 323 range.

The $19,990 1.8 models should pose a serious challenge to sales of the top-selling Astra, Corolla and Pulsar models, providing Mazda can support the cars with a strong advertising and marketing campaign.

Meanwhile, the Protégé SP20 version establishes a new niche in the small segment, as none of its direct rivals are offered in a sports sedan variant.

The Laser SR2, Astra SRi and Corolla Levin are all hatches - and all more expensive than either Protégé or Astina SP20 models. SRi is available as a two-door only and Levin does not offer any engine improvements over the base Corolla.

Put simply, and in Mazda's words, the cars are "the most affordable 323s ever".

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