Enormous Fun

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Mazda Turbo 4×4

It seems hardly a month goes by without some manufacturer launching a car into the `hot hatch’ segment of the market and the strides made during the past two or three years have been remarkable. Having driven all the variants of Mazda’s current 323 range, it seemed to me to be an unlikely basis for a really fast car, for the models are competent and bland and driving even the 1.6i is short on excitement, like kissing an aunt.

In performance terms, though, the Turbo 4×4 is an astonishing vehicle. It’s enormous fun to drive and changes direction more precisely than any car I’ve driven for over a year. It arrived at Standard Muse one wet Friday in late October, so it was a case of driving through the City, clearing London, down the A3 and then onto my favourite cross-country route to the South Coast.

The rain was bucketing down and there were autumn leaves and standing water all over the country section of my drive. They were conditions under which I’d normally take things very gently in an unfamiliar car, except that after a very few miles the Mazda had become like an old, and trusted, friend. It took no time at all to instil complete confidence and I was soon exploring the remarkable road holding qualities and grip of this little car.

What Mazda has done is to take the B-Type engine of the 323 1.6i and give it a dohc head with four valves per cylinder, electronic ignition and a water-cooled turbocharger (an IHI RHB 5 unit). The result is 148 bhp at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb ft torque at 5,000 rpm. Though maximum torque is fairly high up the rev range, the engine is free-revving and the gear ratios are well-chosen, so one soon slips into the habit of driving with the tachometer in the last segment of the dial.

The pleasure one gets from driving in this way is modified somewhat by frequent calls at filling stations. I averaged 20.3 mpg which translates to a range of 235 miles.

Mazda’s 4WD system is permanently engaged, with a 50/50 torque split and a mechanical epicyclic central differential which can be locked by pressing a button on the dashboard. For competition purposes, a limited slip differential at the rear is available. The five-speed gearbox is cable operated and before I drove the car, I’d heard that it was a weak point. True it was not like slicing through butter and was a little notchy, but it was certainly crisper than that on any Ford 4×4 car I’ve driven. I wonder whether it’s more of a case of getting the linkage adjustment absolutely right, and my being lucky with the test car.

There are vacuum servo-assisted disc brakes all round (ventilated 10.2 in discs at the front, 9.7 in solid discs at the rear) and these impart a great deal of feel to the driver. Steering is by rack and pinion with engine-speed sensing hydraulic power assistance and the system is not only really precise but it keeps the driver well informed.

Mazda is offering this car in two versions, the Rallye and the Lux. The test car was the Lux version and it comes with alloy wheels, an electric sunroof, colour-keyed spoiler and mirrors and a radio/cassette player. The snag is that it costs £11,750 which is a lot of money for a small hatchback.

The cheaper Rallye version (£10,999) is aimed at the Group A clubman and comes without any frills.

True, there are extremely good bucket seats complete with lateral and lumbar adjustment, but the rest of the equipment is spartan and out of keeping with both the name ‘Lux’ and the price tag. No matter what one’s feelings are about central locking and electric windows and mirrors (personally I’m wary of them for they can mean more things to go expensively wrong) still one does expect them on a £12,000 hatchback. Further, in this version, the standard 323 instrument layout reveals shortcomings, the rear foglight switch and its warning light, for example, are obscured by the steering wheel and one has to take one’s hand off the wheel to operate the rear screen wiper. Since in the wet the rear screen quickly becomes opaque, an intermittent wipe would have been welcome.

There is no turbo gauge on the dashboard, just a little symbol which lights up, which seems a little unnecessary, not to say distracting.

The turbo installation itself is a very competent one, progressive in action, and there is very little lag. Even pressing on hard in the wet, the car takes off without drama, and covers the ground to 60 mph in 7.9 on the way to its 120 mph maximum. These are not remarkable figures for this class of car, and neither are the incremental gear times, but in cross-country motoring the driver feels more able to use the power than in some cars for it is so surefooted and stable. The worse the driving conditions become, the greater the Mazda’s edge.

The engine’s fairly noisy in the upper range but not obtrusively so and besides I can never object to the sound of honest work. The ride is firm but comfortable and the engine is sufficiently flexible to be relaxing when driving on a motorway in fifth.

Though the packaging has shortcomings when price is taken into consideration, there is compensation in that the car imparts a great deal of confidence and pleasure to the driver. The combination of brakes, steering, stability, grip, and exceptional turn-in qualities add up to a delightful personality.

It’s a car which must appeal primarily, though, to the rallyman for in the Lux version the price tells against it when compared to performance cars of similar size which are offered now by so many manufacturers. ML