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Car reviews - Mazda - 323 - Protege SP20 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Engine flexibility, handling, grip
Room for improvement
Premium unleaded diet, extra weight

Mazda logo25 Jun 2003

By JUSTIN LACY

ON paper there is not a lot of difference between the 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines offered in Mazda's facelifted 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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