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2003 Mazda 323 Astina SP20 review
OWNER RATING 7.4 /10
  • Fun to drive; Spacious inside comparative to segment rivals; Good fuel economy; Looks still stack up even to recent releases; Racy dash and dials
  • Limited practicality and features; Having to clarify you have the SP20 rather than the granny-favourite base 323; Needs more power; Needs a sixth gear; Limited tech compared to similar aged cars
PRICE N/A
ANCAP RATING N/A

by James Archer

The white dials with race red backlight behind the leather wrapped Nardi Torini steering wheel give this car a distinctively sporty feel when you get in. The carbon-fibre effect dash adds to the sporty feel and makes you forget you’re sitting in an early 2000s Mazda…

Before I delve too far into why I love this little black beast so much, I feel I should preface this by saying it is equipped with a few aftermarket extras: it doesn’t have the stock stereo (although I think the speakers are standard), it has a 12-inch subwoofer, and an aftermarket sports exhaust.

If you’re looking for a cheap, reliable small car but still wanting to have a bit of fun, the Mazda 323 SP20 is definitely one to consider. But before you go searching for the right one, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding this car and having to live with it. I’ve had this car for about 10 months and there are plenty of pros and cons I’ve discovered in this time. Let’s get into it.

 

Cabin and Comfort

In the front the storage is adequate for a car of its age. The centre console is admittedly small and will really only hold a pair of sunglasses, some perfume/deodorant, maybe a small packet of tissues… and not much else.

The driver and passenger door pockets make up for it somewhat but they still aren’t excessive. The glovebox, however, is a more decent size for a car in this segment and age. There is also Mazda’s common slot under the driver’s air vent on the right which is perfectly sized for your wallet and phone while you’re driving.

The cupholder location – between the gear lever and the centre dash – is in the perfect position for the driver to reach while driving as opposed to most current makes placing them beside the driver forcing them to reach around awkwardly. This front placement also minimises eyes-off-the-road time.

However, the holder closest to the driver is fractionally too large to fit a fast food drink and when taking off out of the drive-thru or from an intersection you must be hold the cup in the holder or your gear stick will get a drink. And become a gear sticky. Behind the cupholders, under the radio cluster is another deep pocket that is sufficiently proportioned.

Rear storage places are limited to small door pockets and a miniscule ashtray off the centre console. The boot size is ample even with the large subwoofer taking up about 40 per cent of the space. There is one extra pocket in the wall of the rear which is a decent size but this is used for the jack and understandably doesn’t bring it in to line with the practicality that we see in more recent models. Underfloor storage is also non-existent due to the full size spare and small tool kit (although there are small pockets for those items).

The materials used in the cabin are desirable with soft touch plastics used throughout. The top of the dash and down around the sides of the dash are pleasant to the touch as are the soft leathers used around all four doors. Also included on the doors is soft, yet somewhat abrasive cloth. Hard plastics are limited to the centre dash and radio cluster with a nice gloss silver and carbon-fibre effect surrounds used through the centre dash tower and around the gear lever base.

The rear doors open to almost 90 degrees which is great for older passengers or families with child seats however with only two tethering points in the boot, you may want to reconsider having children. I mean, if you have children…

The front doors also open wide and finding your ideal driving position is relatively easy.

 

Technology and Connectivity

I must remind myself regularly that I am driving a 14-year-old car, so discussing technology will always be underwhelming comparative to 2017 models.

The Mazda 323 SP20, however, is underwhelming even when comparing to cars of a similar age. My previous daily driver was a car also built in 2003 (without mentioning names, it was an Australian-built car that went out of production not long after), and it was equipped with more technology… in the base model.

Cruise control, fuel economy readings, fuel range and hours spent driving are all extras the Mazda lacks against some rivals released around the same time. Technology is essentially limited to a stereo, odometer and air conditioning. Even small things like wiper speed is limited. Other cars of a similar age often had three main speed settings with the addition of more variable speeds within those speed settings. This is not the case with the 323 SP20. There are very few speeds for the wipers.

 

Performance and Economy

The little 2.0L 4 cylinder engine under the bonnet of the SP20 model produces a whopping (claimed) 98kW at 6000rpm and 174Nm at 4500rpm which doesn’t sound like a lot and when you consider the car weighs 1200kg, it isn’t.

Low rev range speed is sluggish (anything less than 3000rpm), as is take off speed even with a flat foot. First gear is a definite let down with its jerky nature and you’ll do well to get out of first as soon as possible. But second gear isn’t much better. Neither is third until you push past 3000rpm. That is when this car really starts to stretch it’s legs and lives up the Mazda’s ‘Zoom Zoom’ slogan launched around the time this car was.

By then, though, everyone around you has already flown by, leaving you in their dust. It might look like a sporty car but your pride will be beaten, as will you, if you try and drag race someone off the line at the green light. Not that I would know anything about that.

Economy is passable, dependent on your driving style. Naturally economic drivers will be pleased with the more than adequate fuel economy of anywhere from 6L/100k, with less economic drivers ‘suffering’ with economy stretching as low as 9-11L/100k.

 

Ride and Handling

Over the 10 months I have owned this car, it has been used for both town driving and motorway hauls. Around town it is nippy and nimble which is helped by its size. On motorways however, it could definitely use a sixth gear as it revs constantly at around 4000 for the entire motorway stretch. An extra gear at the same ratio could help fuel economy on motorway driving with lower revs for extended periods of time.

The steering is neither light nor heavy, but it is responsive and precise; where you turn is where you go. The turning circle is acceptable and ease of parking is high, too. As a driver who prefers a stiffer ride, I find the suspension and handling to be perfect but some may find it somewhat harsh. The low profile 16-inch factory rims have a bearing on the ride comfort, yet doesn’t make it uncomfortable.

Visibility is great out both the front and rear as there are limited blind spots and large windows. The large windows don’t detract from the looks either as this car, in this writer’s opinion, still challenges current cars for attractiveness.

The sleek lines and curves draw the eyes around the front and along the sides to the smooth rear. The inoffensive shape and intelligent design of the SP20 body kit help differentiate it from the standard models while giving it a luxurious yet sporty vibe. The larger 16-inch rims fit perfectly in the wheel arches like a glove and complement the overall design.

 

Price and Features

As is common with most post-2000 Mazdas, the 323 SP20 retains its value quite well. For a decent, second-hand model, you’ll be looking anywhere from $4000 and up, depending on condition, aftermarket features and kilometres. But it is well worth spending the money.

It’s a fun little car and although it has limited practicality and features, you’ll forget all about it once you get behind the wheel and go for a cruise.



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2003 Mazda 323 Astina SP20 review Review
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