The Mazda 323 was Mazda's small four door car offering before two digits were dropped and the Mazda 3 took the reins to become one of Australia's top selling vehicles.
The car I'm reviewing today is a 1995 Mazda 323 protégé. This model comes with a 1.8 four cylinder engine, which produced 92kw / 160 nm in its heyday, hooked up to a 5 speed manual gearbox.
The exterior styling is simple, with clean curved surfaces. The multi-spoke 15-inch alloy wheels give the 323 a European feel.
Jumping inside the little Mazda, the cabin is light and airy. Small A and B pillars make for good visibility on road and there is more interior space then the size of the car would suggest. The interior is sparse compared to modern vehicles. Standard equipment includes power windows, central locking, power steering, radio / tape play (although this example was optioned with a CD player), 4 speakers and a tacho (!).
There are no stereo controls on the steering wheel, no air condition and no air bags, the 1995 323 is modestly spec'd by today's standards.
However, a lack of equipment and features can be forgiven after a short drive because this little Mazda is great fun. The hidden gem in the 323 is the 1.8 litre DOHC engine which is borrowed from the Mazda mx-5 of the same year, although it exists in a slightly detuned state in the 323. It is a rev happy little engine and does a good job of pushing the 1135 kg 323 around.
When you take off the first thing you notice is the throttle response. Even a slight blip of the accelerator will cause the tachometer to jump up the revs. It takes a short while to get used to the throttle and no doubt the need to be so delicate with the accelerator pedal will prove frustrating while travelling in traffic for anyone who has never driven the car before. This leads to a few jerky starts while getting used to the accelerator pedal. Once you find the appropriate amount of right foot force to apply there is a level of unexpected throttle precision for a small front wheel drive family sedan. It feels as if the angle of the tacho needle inversely imitates the angle of the accelerator pedal, with almost no throttle lag to dull the fun.
While the Mazda isn't going to win any races it has more than enough power to keep up with traffic, with decent torque coming in around 3,000 rpm, performance would be best described as zippy. The pedals are spaced perfectly for heel toe down shifts and a lot of the fun of this car comes from switching gears down and up and back down again before screaming into a corner. Don't expect the driver's seat to hold you in place through said corner as it is more like a high chair than a bucket seat. The 5 speed gearbox also deserves praise, the ratios pair perfectly with the engine and the gearbox encourages shifting. Like a lot of small cars the Mazda feels fast at any pace and therefore fun at legal speeds.
There is slight body roll during hard cornering and the 323 will understeer if you push it too hard. However the power steering is responsive and communicative and you will feel any trouble through the wheel before it's too late to get yourself out of it. If you behave sensibly the 323 will go exactly where you point it. The brakes are sufficient and suitable for their application in a car that will rarely leave the city.
That said the 323 can handle highway driving, sitting on 3,500 rpm at 110 km in fifth gear. This particular (Sydney) car has been up to Queensland and Down to Victoria on several occasions without a complaint.
Mazdas have a reputation for reliability and the 1995 323 is no different. In its 20 years it has never required any major mechanical repairs and it continues on despite living a relatively tough life and being a learner vehicle for two young drivers, only spending time off the road for servicing.
You may not believe it, but the 1995 Mazda 323 Protégé is a driver's car. Light weight, sparse interior and an enthusiastic little engine. Of course it is outclassed by even the cheapest modern Mazda. But for every day, worry free, fun motoring the 1995 1.8 Mazda 323 Protégé should not be over looked.