The fourth dimension

"Have you been drinking, sir?"
"Most certainly not, officer."
"And you claim it was emerald green, had four wheels, and was proceeding in a northerly direction up the A23 in Norbury?"
"Yes, yes, yes."
"And you're sure it wasn't a car?"
"Positive."
"Take him away, sarge."
But there had been no mistake. It was emerald green, was heading north up the A23 and there were definitely four wheels. But if that was a car, I was an artichoke.

OK, so I'm an artichoke. The lurid projectile in question was a Mazda MX-3. It's just that, when painted a particularly violent shade of green, it looks like nothing else on earth. Apparently it was a competition prize, one of only two finished in that hue. Despite having relinquished a similar, charcoal grey machine only a couple of weeks beforehand. I didn't initially identify its jade sister.

When first unveiled in Geneva last year, the MX-3 had a mixed reception, responses ranging from 'plug ugly' to 'different'. The flame red show car looked most ungainly. Perhaps, like the bright green monstrosity floating around south London, the florid paint job showed the car in a bad light. In a darker shade, it doesn't look quite so weird.

In an age when cars are increasingly indistinguishable, Mazda's brassy approach to design is to be admired. In this respect, the chunky MX-3 is not a first. The RX-7 remains the world's only volume production car with a rotary engine, and the nimble MX-5 with its retro appeal has, quite rightly, been a huge success.

Visually, the MX-3 stands out from the crowd thanks to a curious blend of sharp angles and voluptuous curves. It's a sort of cross between Rubik's Cube and a marshmallow. A less obvious deviation from the norm can be found under the bonnet, where, in the more potent of the two UK versions, a tiny V6 displaces just 1.8 litres.

This is where Mazda's sense of adventure grinds to a halt. Although seeking to create its own niche with this sporty looking coupé, comparisons with such as Honda's recently discontinued CRX are inevitable. The MX-3 has a fair bit more interior space than the latter (the rear seats are just about usable), but a whole lot less fizz.

Quite why the engineers settled for just 134bhp is a mystery. The four-pot CRX has 150, is markedly perkier and would make more sense if you like to traverse B-roads with a pillar-to-pillar grin. Mazda makes modest performance claims for the newcomer (126mph and 0-62mph in 8.5sec), and a stint at the wheel shows why.

The MX-3 feels utterly gutless, and that shows what appears to be a well-balanced chassis in an artifically favourable light. This is a nicely engineered motor car, well finished (although the interior plastic looks a touch too cheap) and reasonably comfortable for those perched up front. It just needs another 30 or so bhp to make it fun. At present, it is an efficient but rather dull means of transport, so the recent removal of the CRX from the market leaves Mazda with an open goal at which to shoot. It needs to hurry, too, before the revamped Nissan organisation thinks about importing the similarly-sized 100NX with its potent, two-litre 16-valver.