Looks can deceive . . .
It used to be that any small four-wheeldrive car was seen as a mini-Quattro; nowadays, as the Quattro’s turbo-lag has lengthened into model-lag and it remains in production only as a “current classic”, the objective has become the Lancia Delta Integrale. That is the tag Mazda would like to push for its tiny terror, the 323 Turbo 4×4, and in truth the gap between the £14,000 Mazda and the £17,000 Lancia is less than one might think.
As in the showroom, so in the world of international rallying: Lancia’s long-time domination of the World Rally Championship is finally being threatened by the Japanese. Toyota’s Celica GT-Four has become the strongest challenger, but the little Mazda 4×4 is not so far behind.
And it was to an international rally that I chose to take one of the latest 323 Turbos — not part of the WRC, but a new Historic event in Italy called the Winter Marathon, about which you may read elsewhere in this issue. What I wanted was something fast and compact, able to deal briskly with the mountain passes I should encounter and to accelerate rapidly between hairpin bends.More important, it should have four-wheel drive, for the Marathon was to be run over snow stages high in the Dolomites.
Given the dominating position of 4WD in current high-performance lore, it was surprising to look at the choices and find that it really came down to the three rally contenders if I wanted something smaller than an Audi or Sierra. In time there will be some really tempting 4×4 options such as the Renault Alpine GTA Turbo, Porsche Carrera 4, and Citroen BX GTi, but here I was with a ferry booked for late January. As we tested the Integrale last year, and will be covering the Toyota GT-4 soon, it was the Mazda’s turn to show its paces, in its revised suit of spoilers, new wheels and new gearbox.
Continental trips inevitably become harder work than planned; in this case, the photographer who had been coming to share the driving had to back out, leaving me solo, and as the new Formula One BMS-Dallara was due to be launched in Italy at the same time, our sister paper Motoring News wanted that covered too. That meant being at Varese, east of Turin, by Thursday morning; the snag being that I could not pick up the car from Mazda’s Tunbridge Wells HQ until Wednesday morning. According to the map it was all possible, but maps do not show road-works and traffic jams…
That run from Tunbridge Wells to Dover was the first time I have found the M2 free of problems, and I was able to grab a space on the 11.30 ferry. Although another section of the A26 autoroute into Calais has been opened, greatly easing the exit from the town, it was still nearly 2.30 continental time by the time I was settling in to top gear on the flat and featureless plain of the Pas de Calais and trying to remember just what the French speed limit is. It was not long before I was educated on this point by the gendarmerie, and I was grateful as I got moving again that I had made sure beforehand that I had the statutary 90.0 francs in my wallet. The bureaucratic process, conducted with a battered portable typewriter in a van on the hard shoulder, It slow enough without financial complications.
That cost me a good 30 minutes, the flics had kindly advised me that it would be quicker to reach Lyon via Paris instead of by Reims as I had planned. As always I joined the Peripherique in rush hour, and trickled around it blessing the Mazda for its light clutch. Proposals to out-do the M25 with an even longer ring-road are under discussion, though one of the alternatives is a huge tunnel crossing Paris north-south. Whichever is chosen, it can’t be too soon.
Dusk was falling as I took the Autoroute du Soleil south-east out of the capital, thinking how romantic it was to name a motorway, and how the navigation would be a damn sight easier if they stuck to numbers. So far the car seemed comfortable, though I had made rather a lot of fuel stops; Mazda says that the tank holds 11.6 gallons, but I could not squeeze that much in. To reach Turin I planned to use the Frejus tunnel, the winter alternative to my favoured Col du Mont Cenis, which put Chambery on my route, and it was there that I spent the night, stopping at 11.30pm.
Although I restarted at 6.30am, watching a beautiful sunrise illuminating the peaks one by one as I weaved through the foot hills, the Alpine section took more time than I had allowed, and I was barely in time at Varese for the unveiling of the Dallara at the test airfield of Aermacchi, the Italian equivalent of BAe.
After disposing of a rather good lunch, taken almost under the wing of Aermacchi’s latest fighter inside a huge hangar, I was off again towards Lake Como. It might have been the long lunch or the short night, but I was dangerously sleepy when I reached Como town, and parked in the shade of the lake-side war memorial designed by one of Como’s famous sons, the Futurist architect Sant’Elia. Here I was woken from my dreams of endless motorways by an excited Italian voice saying “Dad, this car’s got the steering wheel on the wrong side,” That sentiment! was to hear often.
It was early evening when I parked the Mazda in the centre of Madonna di Campiglio, the ski resort which was the base for the Winter Marathon, and instead of the snow I had allowed for, there were dry roads and green grass, the results of one of the warmest winters anyone could recall. The event was due to start on the following evening and to run overnight, so we could expect ice, an extra hazard for the Mazda which is not available with ABS.
In Campiglio the dusty, salty Mazda aroused only slightly less interest than the Cisitalias and Lancia Aurelias in the Marathon. After telling each other that the steering was on the wrong side, onlookers would work through a series of questions: Is it Japanese? It’s a 16-valve turbo? Is it an integrale? (correct answer: yes; integrale is the Italian term for full-time 4WD) Twin cams? How many bhp? How fast? And are you from Germany? Why so many French and Italians imagine that a RHD car comes from Germany always puzzles me, so I retaliated by saying “No, Scotland”, and retiring.
The Marathon route ran over a 530km loop across some extremely demanding passes which the 323 gobbled up. Its little four-cylinder engine, only 1597cc, uses a water-cooled IHI turbo with an intercooler to extract 148 bhp, and the supercharging is arranged to broaden the torque at the low end, the weak area of many 16-valve engines. Mazda also uses a surge-tank in the intake manifold which reflects pressure waves into the inlet ports to improve vapourisation, but that is not the sort of thing one can detect from behind the wheel.
More tangible is the torque characteristic which can turn out 90% of the 143 lb ft at just 2500 rpm. That does not mean that the 323 has the instant pull of a big engine at these revs, since a turbo system responds to load, not engine speed, and there is always a small wait before output meets demand. It is important to keep it turning at better than 3500 rpm if the potential good response is to be quickly on hand.
Throttle response is helped by a valve which by-passes overpressure back to the inlet side of the turbo when the throttle is closed, and when stamping on the accelerator after a bend there is little hanging about before both the big needles begin to move and the green boost light comes on. This willingness was ideal amongst the unending S-bends and hairpins of the Tonale and Mendola passes, where second and third offered just the punch that was needed to keep up with the rally.
I have mentioned that ABS is not available on the 323 but after an hour or so of chasing the Marathon I began to find that brakes were not available either. Granted, fast driving down Alpine passes is about the worst abuse a road car’s brakes ever get, but I cannot see why an all-disc layout should fade so badly when the fronts are ventilated. If it were mine I would consider fitting special pads. As it was, high-voltage anticipation and early down-changes got us through the first mountain section, and the brakes recovered on the flatter ground where the half-way breakfast was served at 1.30am.
There was less problem with the brakes over the second mountain loop; perhaps I was driving more slowly in the weary early hours. By now the tractive power of the 4WD was being tested by a good deal of ice, combined with swathes of loose gravel along the edges of narrow mountain-side shelves, but the car gripped well, and the constant cornering was eased by the speed-related power-assistance which felt about right in weight, though it might be sharper. The lock is very good for a 4WD car.
With the rally over, the competitors went to bed, but I had to get pictures back to Motoring News for Monday morning, and thus had to set off with only a brief rest. This time I tried the northern autobahn route, leaving Italy by the dual-carriageway San Bernardino pass and crossing Austria, Germany and Belgium.
It was on the Aichelberg viaduct on the autobahn between Munich and Stuttgart that the little Mazda confirmed its promise. Much of this road is two-lane, and it twists and dives through the valleys in a way that no British motorway does. Tight bend signs are not common on major highways like this, but here they mean what they say: the road falls steeply away to left and right between walls of armco, often with no hard shoulder where the road is suspended above the tree-covered slopes of the hills which rise up all around. Even the 130 mph Mercedes slow substantially here; the spot is notorious for accidents where drivers who have misjudged the bend either understeer across both lanes or try to compensate by cutting the corner and collide with other traffic.
I arrived at the right time: there was little other traffic, and I was able to pick smooth and careful lines which used both lanes. Keeping the turbo hard at work in third and fourth, I pushed the car very hard through this big dipper of a road, and was rewarded with excellent stability; the pressure of the seat bolster against my side told its own story of what even modest 185/60 widths of Dunlop SP Sport rubber can do, and the chassis maintained the same steady degree of slip-angle for as long as the wheel was turned.
Mazda uses a variation on the Macpherson strut theme: though the fronts connect to normal A-arms, the rear wheels are positioned by a slim trailing arm and paired transverse links which minimise camber changes and leave room for the rear differential. It seems to work and has been patented.
We streaked through the downhill part, straightened up for the viaduct itself, and then bounded up the twisting rise which carries the autobahn over the next hills, surging past not just lorries, but big saloons which were beginning to flag at 85 mph or so on these gradients. Not so the Mazda, whose turbo was hissing under the bonnet, the little green light coming and going, pushing the speedometer needle back up to 110 mph as the motorway regained its level.
In some ways I was more impressed by the Mazda over that stretch than I had been on the tight mountain roads, because of the substantially higher speed, a harder test which can find the gaps in a car’s armour. Understeer, as might be expected, was predominant, but was easily controlled through the wheel or by lifting off the throttle slightly. Conversely, increasing the throttle and lessening the amount of lock would balance everything nicely for the second half of the corner — just as the car had behaved on the full-lock twists of the Dolomites. Good marks for consistency.
One of the weak points of the early Turbo 4×4 was the gear change. There has been some improvement here with the substitution of the 626 box, giving a lighter shift with more obvious gear positions, but the overall shift quality is only adequate for a turbo car in which matching the revs is so critical. There is no short-cut about the clutch — it must be fully depressed for the full length of time, and on high-power shifts there can be quite a pause, since it is vital to relax the accelerator between ratios during hard acceleration to prevent the revs soaring. Hurry it, and it will gnash its teeth; the answer is to be relaxed over the shifts and let the engine show itself in the gears. The results are surprising: just under 8 seconds to break 60 mph.
Certainly there had been one very surprised Maserati driver on the autostrada west of Turin. As we left adjacent tollbooths, his 425 slightly ahead, we both realised that there was only one clear lane, and that was ahead of me. He looked across at the Mazda, obviously according it no importance, and put his foot down. Though I was content to let him go first, it seemed a fine opportunity to compare these two blown cars, one a twin-turbo V6 bearing one of the greatest of racing names; the other a slightly overdressed upstart from the East. I put my foot down too. I could see the Maserati’s nose bob slightly as he took second and glanced in the mirror, doing a perfect double-take to see the Mazda just as close as before. The tail sat down hard as both turbos went to work to leave this anonymous family car behind, and I lost some ground as I reached the red line of this relatively low-geared car and made the slow change to third. Yet his shift was not as slick as it should have been, knowing the lovely quality of the Maserati’s box, and the gap closed again as we snapped through fourth and into the gear where it would really tell. Perhaps as well for the Mazda’s honour, we caught up some traffic and had to ease off, but I could see his silhouette peering in the mirror trying to establish what sort of hatchback could exactly match his luxury coupe to 110 mph.
There are few complaints to be made of the simple interior. With the adjustable wheel at a comfortable height parts of both tachometer and speedometer are as usual covered up; the temperature and fuel gauges are in the centre and easily seen. Switches for the rear wash/wipe are also behind the wheel, but the worst feature is the well hidden rear fog light switch, which cannot be found when needed, and whose warning light is completely invisible. There are enough idiots cruising the motorways with these lights on without adding to this problem.
Another question: why is the radio squeezed behind the gear lever? It is very awkward to operate here. Some small storage slots and door pockets look after sunglasses and the like, but don’t be tempted to use the flat top of the dash for stowage: the lip is so shallow that the mildest of bends sends a cascade of pens, maps, toll money and memo recorder into the footwells.
Heating and ventilation uses the standard Japanese twin-slider control layout with a four-speed fan, and there is excellent fresh air flow from the outer vents, though in all-or-nothing quantities.
There used to be a basic version of the 323 Turbo called “Rallye”, a no-frills car aimed at the rally competitor who was going to strip the car in any case. That is no longer listed. Instead, £14,000 buys the 4×4 complete with power steering (which is standard even at the bottom of the 323 range), electric sunroof, central locking, power windows, electric mirrors, Memo leather steering wheel, alloy wheels and the spoilers which mark it out from its blander stablemates.
Long hours droning along motorways are the hardest test of a car’s fittings and furnishings, harder than country roads merely because of the lack of movement or of distractions, and despite the exciting sections through various mountain chains, the bulk of my journey inevitaby was spent on the motorway. One of our photographers runs an early 323 Turbo as part of the Standard House fleet, and I had been warned to expect this one to feel harsh, noisy and tiring at speed. In the event it did not fulfill these depressing prophesies; Mazda has gone to some effort to suppress noise, including urethane foam in the pillars and roof, PVC felt in the lower body, and glass wool under the bonnet, and while it is hardly Jaguar-quiet, it is quite acceptable with the Clarion radio turned up a little.
Similarly the seats passed the test: they are of the usual sports type, with those high sides which are invaluable for urgent driving but which make them awkward to kneel on to reach into the back. An adjustable lumbar support is included, but I should have liked to see, or feel, a Ionger cushion with more support under the thigh. Good pedal positioning allows for heel-and-toe, and there is a clutch foot rest, an unusual inclusion in what is basically a family hatchback, though it seems to me to be less vital than the clutch pedal itself.
If one accepts that much of the Delta Integrale’s extra cost goes towards its extra bhp (185 currently, 200 in the new 16v), then the Mazda bears comparison with it. It lacks the outright solidity of the the wide-tracked Lancia’s grip on the world, and runs that bit wider in cornering, but it has reserves of grip which eclipse 2WD equivalents even as good as the dearer Golf GTi.
If only the Mazda had more inspiring looks; the new styling kit is more successful than the old, but the car’s lines are basically very bland, and the striping on its flanks is a desperate attempt to attract attention. However, some customers prefer anonymity, in which case the Mazda wins.
Over my 1800-mile trip, the 323 returned about 24 mpg; with normal care, 30 is quite feasible, which would improve the 200 miles I found myself managing between fuel stops. I handed the car back with a high regard for its abilities if not its looks; it is unique amongst performance hatches in having 4WD at this price, and looks like keeping that attribute for some time. GC