Mazda continues to defuse the argument that Japanese cars necessarily look alike, discounting the 626. Consider the rest of the range: MX-3 eyecatching, if underpowered; MX-6 ditto; MX-5 there’s nothing wrong with resembling a ’60s Elan; RX-7 wonderful retro treat if you can tolerate the frequent fuel stops; Xedos daft name, but two competitive and distinctive saloons, particularly in the case of the Xedos 9.
And now there’s the latest generation 323, the five-door example of which looks like nothing else on earth. It stands squat and aggressive, with an unusually low roofline. It is very, very different to the three and four-door bodies which also carry 323 badging, although at least three people who came across it during our tenure persisted in lowering the front seats to load things including small children into the back. None appeared to notice that it had rear doors. From a distance, it certainly has the appearance of a three-door sports hatch.
The 323F (Fastback) is available with a choice of two engines: an all-new, 89 bhp, 16-valve, 1.5-litre four-cylinder, which replaces the old 1.6, or, as tested here, the 146 bhp, 24v, 2.0 V6 that has previously seen service in the smaller Xedos. It is a delightful engine, impressively smooth all the way to its 6000 rpm peak, yet with a pleasing, throaty tone when pushed. All it lacks is a little lowto mid-range torque (the modest 135 lb ft peak is at 5000 rpm).
While its external appearance may be distinctive, the interior will be very familiar. All Japanese manufacturers tend to produce cabins in a similar way, and the result is inevitably user-friendly but sterile. The 323 is no exception: masses of buttonoperated standard equipment (which you would expect for £17,495) amidst a sea of 85 per cent recyclable plastic. Really, you could be in almost any modern car. It is, of course, clinically efficient. Everything is logically sited, and it all works. Of more importance, the gearchange is light but precise, the brakes progressive and strong. The principal dynamic flaw is the steering, which has been designed with parking in mind and little else. On the move, it is totally devoid of feel at any speed.
The ride is compliant in all circumstances, and the handling is just what you would expect: neutral with a hint of understeer, which builds up in conjunction with your corner entry speed.
Mazda quotes a top speed of just under 130 mph, and 0-60 mph acceleration in a shade under 9.0s. Standard equipment includes twin airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, ABS and remote central locking.
Given its standard equipment, its performance, its potential to return the best part of 30 mpg (a hard weekend’s use yielded 28) and its capacity to absorb five adults plus luggage, the 323F represents a reasonable slab of car for the money. That we should be grateful simply for its alternative looks is yet another sign of how character continues to fade ever further away from the mass production car market, with one or two honourable exceptions. S.A.