Mazda shifts a gear
By Jonathan Hawley
The SP23 "warm hatch" version of the Mazda3 forms a great package, writes Jonathan Hawley.
For: Strong performance, tactile gearshift, excellent steering and road-holding, five-door practicality, keenly priced against rivals.
Against: Space-saver spare, some road noise, no cruise control.
Score: 4 stars (out of 5).
You don't have to look hard to find winners in the Australian car market last year. With a few exceptions, manufacturers and importers managed to sell record numbers of cars, backed by a wave of consumer and business confidence in the way the economy was travelling.
One of the standouts was Mazda, which managed to shift more cars than ever before with a 36 percent rise in sales over 2002. Company executives must have been very happy: the result was a vindication of a brave new world of interesting and enticing cars such as the Mazda6, Mazda2 and RX-8.
But the big surprise was the performance of the elderly and soon-to-be-superseded Mazda 323, which accounted for 40 percent of Mazda's sales last year. Aggressive pricing was part of the reason, but you can also assume the sexiness of the rest of the range may have rubbed off on what was basically a five-year-old car with many more contemporary rivals.
The 323 name is a thing of the past now the Mazda3 has arrived to replace it. So too is sub-$20,000 pricing; the 3 starts at $21,490 for the 2.0-litre Neo model, and it is up to Mazda to convince buyers that the extra roominess, style and features make it a worthwhile buy.
Topping the range is the sporty SP23 model, which -- like the rest of the line-up -- is available as either a chunky-looking five-door hatch, or a sedan with different body panels and sharper styling. Both are priced at just under $30,000, similar to other rivals from the warm-hatch brigade.
As well as having a bigger engine, the SP23 gets substantially more equipment than the Neo. Externally, there's a body kit incorporating new bumpers and side skirts, 17-inch alloy wheels and fog lights. The interior gets everything from leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearknob to climate control, power windows, six airbags and an in-dash CD stacker. The most notable omission is cruise control, which is disappointing.
The engine is a detuned version of the Mazda6's 2.3-litre four, designed to run on regular unleaded fuel rather than the premium brew of the 6. But given the 3 is smaller and lighter, it's more than enough for the job, producing 115kW of power and 203Nm of torque, and driving through either a fairly conventional five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic.
The manual version we drove certainly doesn't lack performance, even if it's not in the same league as more powerful (and expensive) turbo tearaways such as the Holden Astra Turbo or Subaru WRX.
The SP23 has a nice build-up of power through the rev range and the big-capacity engine (by small-car standards) is gutsy enough that early gearchanges and light throttle openings are enough to have it whisking through traffic.
It's the way the whole package falls together that's the best part. The engine is smooth, but with a zinging note when pushed, the gearshift as fast as you like, the clutch bites at just the right point, and the brakes are progressive and powerful enough.
Despite being front-wheel drive, there's barely a hint of torque steer or wheel tug when the front wheels are asked to power up and change direction simultaneously, and traction is such that wheelspin is never a problem, on dry roads at least.
The large wheel and tyre combination helps give plenty of grip on corners, but there's also an adjustability to the handling that is unusual in a front-driver, as the rear tyres can be made to work as hard as those up forward, and the steering itself has a nice blend of lightness and precision. The ride is quite comfortable -- this is no tightly tied-down mini muscle car. The muted engine noise is let down only by a degree of tyre roar on coarse surfaces, but this is generally a car high on refinement as well as entertainment.
Owners with little interest in how the SP23 drives are still going to find a lot to like. The rounded, aggressive styling might not be pretty, but it stands out. The interior also has a kind of relaxed elegance that looks much more upmarket than many rivals. There's a strange mixture of differently grained plastic, rectangular and round "eyeball" vents, but somehow it all works.
The centre console is based on the Mazda6 design, meaning ventilation and stereo controls share a strip readout towards the top of the dashboard. It takes a little getting used to, but switches and dials are big and easy to use.
The driving position is excellent, with height adjustment of the seat and, unusually for a Japanese car, the steering column adjusts for reach as well as rake. The glovebox is huge and there's more storage space in central cupholders and big door pockets.
The rear hatch has its own external release and opens to the height of the long bumper. It isn't a huge boot, but the distinctly curved rear glass allows stacking of larger objects. The back seats fold flat, with enough space to just fit a large mountain bike. The downside is a space-saver spare tyre.
On the whole, the SP23 is highly practical, as well as being stylish and rewarding to drive. It isn't an absolute rocket, but part of its charm is the balance of engine power, road manners, refinement and usability. It's a worthy bookend to Mazda's new range.
Nuts 'n' bolts
How much: $29,990 (manual), $32,070 (auto) plus on-road costs.
Insurance: Premium $723 (RACV, 40-year-old rating-one male driver, medium-risk suburb, $450 excess).
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km.
Engine: 2.3-litre, dual overhead camshaft, 16-valve four-cylinder, 115kW at 6500 rpm and 203Nm at 4500rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed auto. Front-wheel-drive.
Steering: Rack and pinion, 2.9 turns lock-to-lock. Turning circle 10.4m.
Brakes: Ventilated discs front, discs rear. ABS standard.
Suspension: Front -- independent MacPherson struts with stabiliser bar. Rear -- independent by multi-links with coil springs and stabiliser bar.
Wheels/tyres: 17 x 6.5-inch alloy wheels, tyres 205/50.
How heavy? 1251kg (manual).
How thirsty? 10.5 L/100km average. Regular unleaded, 55-litre tank.
Equipment: Driver airbag, CD player, remote locking, side airbags, power windows, alloy wheels, air-conditioning, ABS brakes, leather trim.
Interior notes: Major dials set in recessed, circular housings. Steering is adjustable for rake and reach. Centre console looks good, is reminiscent of Mazda6. SP23 gets leather-wrapped steering.
Toyota Corolla Sportivo -- $29,990 (3 stars out of 5)
Lots of engine power but high-revving engine is frenetic and noisy. Well-equipped for the price and plenty of fun if the driver's prepared to work hard.
Ford Focus Zetec -- $28,560 (3 stars out of 5)
Strong on style, with a well-sorted chassis giving a comfortable ride as well as handling. Let down by a flat engine that fails to provide excitement.
Holden Astra SRi -- $28,990 (3 stars out of 5)
Biggish 2.2-litre engine has grunt but not much sparkle and three-door configuration limits practicality. Strong on refinement but turbo version is more fun at the price.