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Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda3 - SP23 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Presentation, practicality, performance, versatility, value
Room for improvement
Slightly pricier than 323, fussy styling

5 May 2004


MAZDA’S 323 has always been the Japanese brand’s bread and butter provider, so is its fancy 3 replacement sticking to the recipe?

The 323 original of 1977 rescued Mazda from rotary engine-related oblivion and set the template for quality, affordable small cars.

But sophistication, performance and model proliferation ensued in later models, clouding Mazda’s judgment in the aftermath of 1980s excess.

By the introduction of the bafflingly broad BA 323 range of 1994, bread and butter had turned to cake and hungry small car buyers in key markets like Japan and Europe were not eating much of it up.

Bankruptcy beckoned, major shareholder Ford stepped in and the back-to-basics BJ 323 arrived just in time in 1998 to turn things around. It was developed on a shoestring, sharing a cut-down GF 626 platform.

And although its conservatism and cost cutting was evident after the previous 323 (like the lush but loony 1994 Astina 2.0 V6 Hardtop), the BJ, in all its spacious and restrained sobriety, struck a chord.

Later, when Mazda massaged the price, packed in features and promoted it like professionals, sales records resulted.

So far the Mazda 3’s reception has been promising, despite higher entry level prices ($21,490 vs. $19,990) that top out to $29,990-plus for the sporty SP23.

And you know what? If you step inside the SP23 blindfolded and then take it for a long, spirited drive with eyes as well as mind absolutely wide open, you may be shocked at how resolutely grown up this newest of small Mazdas is. This is its overriding impression.

For the 3, taskmaster Ford switched Mazda’s small car platform to the next generation (2005) Focus “C1 Technologies” item that is shared with Volvo’s S40/V50 and a future Land Rover Freelander replacement.

This move is central to the Mazda’s refinement and composure, as it means that the MacPherson strut front suspension is combined with a version of the complex multi-link "Control Blade" suspension that does so much for the Focus’ fabulous dynamics.

Compared to its predecessor, the 3 is bigger in every dimension and rides on a longer wheelbase. There’s a 40 per cent improvement in bending rigidity and there are bigger, thicker brakes to boot.

All this is fantastic news for enthusiasts. Starting with the new electro-hydraulic steering system, from the on-set there’s a hefty weightiness that keeps keen drivers connected with what’s going on down below.

Most will love its feel and fluency, with no shock or kickback, while the turning circle is sweetly city savvy.

The 3 is a revelation if comparing it to the Toyota Corolla, Holden Astra, Renault Megane, VW Golf or Honda Civic.

But if you’re expecting Focus-like fabulous feedback, disappointment awaits. It’s just not quite as sharp. Or, rather, it’s not as knife-edged quick at lower speeds.

But notch up the pace and the Mazda marvels. When most others get messy when thrown through a very quick corner, the 3 glides through with reassuring poise, particularly for a front-wheel drive car.

Actually, the more you manhandle this Mazda, the more it responds.

Shake it awake and it’s suddenly a seriously strong and soulful steerer, bounded by a broad stance and capable chassis that translates to the driver always feeling in control.

It is also an unexpectedly refined rider, even on the SP23’s 205/50R17 wide-spec tyres, where bumps and ridges do not upset progress while larger potholes and speed humps are absorbed with fine suppleness.

And like the chassis, the 2.3-litre double-overhead camshaft 16-valve four-cylinder unit nicked from the Mazda 6 is also a sleeper. You’d be hard-pressed to guess that there’s 115kW of power (at 6500rpm) and 203Nm of torque (at 4500rpm).

Initial impressions are of languidness. But it’s not that the SP23 is slow - it’s just not as jackrabbit jumpy off the line as its sporty looks and specification might suggest.

Floor it and the S-VT device, Mazda’s variable valve timing system, draws a big breath and piles on the power, especially past 4000rpm. After that it is a sweet unit that loves a rev-range sweep past 7000rpm.

And although the SP unit is in a milder state of tune than in the 121kW Mazda 6, its official 0-100km/h figure of 8.3 seconds is 0.6 seconds better, reflecting the 3’s 150kg-odd weight advantage.

Stirring the SP along is easy when the five-speed manual gearshift is as satisfyingly weighty and positive as this.

Again, it’s not as brilliantly slick as the Focus’ unit, but there’s a real quality feel emanating from its measured feel. The same also applies to the clutch, as well as the brakes, which are well up to the task.

Parked beside a current VW Golf only hammered home how huge this so-called “small car” really is.

A long wheelbase liberates a surprising amount of space inside, ably accommodating 200cm-plus adults at the front with total ease. Rear passenger seating is not quite as lush, but there are plenty worse out there.

An excellent driving position – augmented by the handy ratchet-style seat adjuster – really adds to the driver-orientated feel of the 3, while the seats do a great job in keeping its occupants happy.

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the interior is the Mazda RX-8-like dash and instrumentation.

A big step forward in quality and design from before, it most clearly communicates Mazda’s sporty practicality ambitions. Not only are all switches and controls within easy reach, there’s real substance to them. But the piercing-red night-time illumination is not for everybody.

And Mazda does give you more. The glovebox is amazingly deep (it’ll fit 16 CDs), as is the centre bin (adding another 13 CDs), while mobile phones, drink bottles, coins and other flotsam are also catered for.

The rear seats split and fold flat to blow out the 300 litre luggage bay. There’s a low loading lip too, but points are deducted for the intrusive tail-lights. Sloppy loaders can easily smash them if they are careless.

And just a word on the hatchback’s distinctive design – most folk are for it. But this tester prefers the elegant understatement of the old 323 to the heavy handed details like the grille, rear valance and SP bumpers ... especially in light of the elegant Mazda 6.

The Mazda 3 SP23 could well be one of the most complete small cars available at any price.

It offers the quality of a VW Golf, the fine driving appeal of the Ford Focus, the stand-out style of a Renault Megane and (almost) the space efficiency of a Honda Civic hatchback – in a very Mazda-like value-for-money package.

There’s no doubt about it. Until the next generation Focus, Astra and Golf – as well as the intriguing BMW 1 Series – lob from late this year, the Mazda 3 is the best small car available for any money.

Not just bread and butter then, this 323 progeny is a main course with some delicious dessert thrown in.

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