Road Impressions

The New Mazda 323 1500GT

In just over a week's time you will find the much-discussed new Mazda 323 in the dealers' showrooms. It is the model tilted in particular at the Ford New Escort and I have been trying one in its hottest form, to see what merits it has. They are many. Before discussing them, let me say that from being anti-Japanese cars, I now incline to the view that they are inevitable, so that, with Datsun threatening to open a £200 million factory here, and if BL after enormous injections of our money, cannot beat them, we may as well join at least in finding out about them.

Although imports to Britain of Oriental cars are thought to be far too high, last year they amounted to 44.6% fewer than the rest of the imported cars from other countries. Now that the better Japanese cars are overcoming their one-time poor springing and indifferent braking, and with their competitive prices for very fully-equipped nicely screwed or welded together products, they will be difficult to suppress. Indeed, with Datsun, Honda, Mazda, Colt, Toyota, Subaru, Daihatsu and Suzuki all selling their wares here — there is no significance in the order in which I have listed them, except that Datsun tops Japanese British-sales and the rest are listed by the numbers of dealers who are making a profit from promoting them here — it seems that it may soon be a case of the Japs competing amongst themselves for top sales. (Toyota topped World sales in 1980.)

So what is Mazda's latest like? Some will say just another little Japabox. In that they are right. But for those who need such things (estimated in the 1,000-1,500 c.c. class at some 44% of the total British market, with the Ford Escort netting 50% of the sales in this class to date, and Mazda looking for 8,000 or more 323 sales this year) let's analyse it. On paper anyway, Mazda has a winner.

The Mazda 323 is typical of the present run of FWD small cars. It comes as a 1.1-litre and 1.3-litre, three and five-door hatchback, supplemented by a 1,490 cc. five-door Automatic and a twin-carburetter GT three-door hatchback of the same engine capacity. A 1.3 saloon will be added in three months' time. When you look at prices and standard equipment, the Mazda challenge is seen to be formidable. For example, the 3-door 1300 Mazda sells for £3,649, against the Ford Escort's £4,042 and it is very fully fitted-out, having as standard items adjustable headrests, a rear wipe/wash, a fuel-cap lock, push-button radio, tinted glass, and halogen headlamps, that as Ford extras considerably inflate the Escort's price to £4,275.31, a 323 advantage of £626.34. Buy an Escort GL and you are still without rear wipe/wash, a petrol-cap lock, those halogens, and that tinted glass, although paying £894.17 more. I am quoting Mazda's argument, as it indicates the level of Jap. competition, when comparing similar cars in the showroom or garage or at the kerbside.

It is the five-speed Mazda 323 1.5 GT we are concerned with here. It can be compared to the Escort 1.6 Ghia. Here Mazda points out that they give you rear wipe/wash, fuel-cap lock, inside hatch release, a split folding back seat (pioneered on the earlier r.w.d. 323), front and rear stone-guards, those adjustable headrests, driver's seat-tilt and tinted glass, all lacking on the top Escort, which costs £636 more, although you can adjust its driver's exterior mirror remotely. I am beginning to understand the Ford link with Mazda!

In this class Mazda claim the highest power-output, shared only by the Lancia Delta and compared to the VW Golf GLS, the Escort Ghia, the Delta, and the 1.3 Opel SR, the highest maximum speed by a hairsbreadth from the Escort, and 0-60 m.p.h. pick-up bettered only by the Ford. They point out that they use urethane, not metal, wrap-round bumpers, and things like a tool-kit, flickwiper action, underbonnet sound-damping and a dashboard fusebox, which the basic Escort lacks, and they point to Government fuel consumption figures that show the 1.1 Mazda to be thirstier only than the Escort 1100 on the urban cycle, and the Mazda 1.3 to give best only to the Escort 1300, on the 75 m.p.h. reading — and Mazdas use 2-star petrol. Toyo Kogyo remark snidely that this must be due to Ford's European-measured drag co-efficient; they reckon to beat Golf and Opel 3-door bodies on this count, with the new 323. They also claim more interior space than in a Golf, Kadett, Ritmo or Civic.

My real purpose was to see what the 323 GT was like on the road. I found it a very eager 850 kg. Japabox, the 5-bearing, o.h.-camshaft, just-not-oversquare (77 x 80 mm.) engine of which, with cross-flow, inclined valve alloy head and dual twin-choke carburetters, develops 85 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. and maximum torque at 3,200 r.p.m. It runs at 2,750 r.p.m. at 60 m.p.h. and at 3,250 r.p.m. at an indicated 70 m.p.h. in the geared-up fifth speed, and will run smoothly at 30 m.p.h. therein, very high-gearing for a 1 1/2-litre car, yet it will pull away on a level road without changing down. Acceleration is good (0-60 m.p.h. in 10 1/2 sec.).

The 1.5 323 is much like any of the better small cars to drive. The seats are moderately comfortable, a trifle hard in the cushion, but with multiple adjustments, and as the steering-column is also adjustable, a good driving position can be achieved. The clutch is rather sudden, the gear change very smooth in the higher ratios, more baulky as you go down, but the gears are quiet, with a modicum of clutch thrust-race zizz. There is a manual choke. Noise is average for a small car, a low-key combination of engine note and tyre-sound, rather than a pronounced buzz. At times the engine, which has a 10 to 1 c.r., ran on slightly, and "pinked" like a Victorian garden on 2-star Texaco. Perhaps the GT needed 4-star but in the absence of a hand book and the publicity hand-out saying ". . . the 323 does use 2-star fuel, whereas some of our competitors drink more expensive vintages", what could I do?

Instrumentation is in the German idiom of very clear-reading dials, for fuel level, and heat, with a 110 m.p.h. speedometer (with decimal total and trip recorder) and matching tachometer red-marked at "6". The neat switch-gear is well placed and symbolled, but the rear wipe/wash was graunchy. A little lever by the driver's seat at floor level releases the hatchback, which otherwise calls for the key. Loading is easy. The electric sun-roof is a great boon. The Mazda ran for more than 270 miles before the fuel-gauge needle went on the red mark, the tank holding 9 1/4 gallons (42 litres). Its cap is beneath a flimsy lockable lid. The doors and slide-forward front seats make for rear compartment access but the roller-keeps are ineffective on a gradient.

If anything takes the edge off this very well-contrived and so fully-equipped car it is the suspension, by coil springs and struts all round. It is harsh enough to promote slight steering-wheel vibration and body panel judder on normal roads and accentuates this on rough surfaces, although rear-end kick up is not so bad as on the first of FWD Escorts. There is the impression of Mazda being constructed of lighter-gauge steel, however. The rack-and-pinion steering (3.4 turns, lock-to-lock) is "dead" about the straight-ahead position but is normally light and with nice castor-return, becoming heavier when cornering. There is no pronounced front-drive effect from the 323, either in "kangarooing" or when cornering. The servo disc/drum brakes work well. The 1.5 323 has alloy wheels shod with 175/70SR x 13 Japanese Dunlop SP4 tyres. The Koito headlamps are excellent on dip and fog beam. One key suffices and neat door handles and pips are fitted. Three open bins and door bins supplement a shallow unlockable drop cubby-hole, with small-change well. The lamps are selected conveniently by turning one of the two stalk controls, there are two little additional roof-lamps supplementing the main courtesy-switched lamp, and the front-hinged bonnet releases easily and is self-propping. The fillers, dip-stick and GS battery are fully accessible; the engine consumed no oil in 800 miles.

This Hiroshima-built 323 GT not only has the aforesaid equipment but openable rear side-windows, laminated screen, sensibly-placed fascia Jeco digital clock, rear-lamp-failure warning, a rest for one's clutch foot, and that excellent electric sun-roof, all for £4,499, which has to be accepted as highly competitive. On the fuel-consumption front I got an overall 33.6 m.p.g. of two-star (The Ford 1.6 Escort gave 36.2 m.p.g., the Escort XR-3 34.1 m.p.g.). — W.B