Over the past two decades Mazda's front-wheel drive 323 has built itself a good reputation in New Zealand for reliable, attractively-styled and well-built transportation.
The first front-drive 323s of the early 1980s were neatly-styled cars in the angular fashion of the day.
They handled better than the equivalent Ford Laser which shared the same floorpan, most of the body panels and the mechanical running gear. They were let down only by a somewhat bland and conservative colour range.
The 323's styling got increasingly radical. The original Astina hatchback remains stylish even now. With its raked nose, pop-up headlights and high, rounded rear end - which rather compromised rear vision, especially when reversing - it carved out a styling niche all of its own.
The next generation Astina - or Lantis as Japanese market versions were known - was even more extreme in its styling, with a somewhat squashed-looking roofline and curvaceous front and rear styling.
The current 323 reverts to a more conservative look. The general look falls between a hatchback and a station wagon. It's a theme pioneered by Nissan with the accomplished 1996 Pulsar hatchback, a car we regard as superior to Nissan's current Pulsar.
Mazda's take on it is neat and carefully detailed. The Mazda looks better than Ford's Laser version.
The nose styling with the flattened-Vee-shaped grille which carves into the bumper is particularly effective.
The taillight detailing is very well done.
We've sampled the current Laser - which is scheduled to be phased out and replaced by the European Ford Focus - but hadn't driven a 323 till last week.
The test car was the new GSX 1800, a model which fits between the standard 1600cc 323 and the high-performance SP20 two litre.
The 1840cc 16-valve twin cam develops 92kW - 14kW more than the 1600 - an peak torque of 163Nm which is up 18Nm on the 1.6-litre.
Those outputs are only 6kW and 11Nm below the 2.0-litre.
Mazda says the GSX 1800 will hit 100km/h in 10.5 seconds - a second quicker than the 1600 - and has a top speed of 196km/h compared to the 1.6-litre's 179km/h.
The torque curve is flatter than either the 1600's or the 2.0-litre's.
More than 140Nm is available from around 2000rpm to just short of 6000.
That gives the car good flexibility in city running, and it will pull strongly out of corners a gear higher than the 1600 would require.
In fact that flexibility is one of the car's most appealing characteristics. In the city you don't have to change gear as often, and the car makes short work of heavy traffic.
The engine provides brisk acceleration and cruises easily at highway speeds.
The steering offers good feel, and the 323 handles well and predictably. Mild understeer is the basic characteristic, but the 323 changes direction crisply and smoothly.
Roadholding is good and the test car's Michelin tyres provided very secure grip in the appalling weather of the test period. We never once encountered a hint of front-end breakaway even during very brisk driving. Ride is fairly good, though progress over series of small bumps is somewhat jiggly.
The clutch is light and takes up smoothly and the five-speed manual gearbox (a four-sped auto is available as an option) is a delight.
Mazda manual gearboxes have always been a highlight and the one in the 323 GSX is excellent. It shifted quickly and easily, it was precise if maybe a teeny bit notchy (the test car hadn't covered many kilometres) and the synchromesh was unbeatable.
The ratios seem well matched to the engine and the lowish final drive ratio helped the car's launch off the line.
The cockpit is roomy and comfortable and the seats are supportive. There's plenty of luggage space.
The GSX is well-equipped. Standard gear includes manually-controlled air-conditioning, electrically-operated windows and exterior mirrors, a keyless-entry central door-locking system, and four-speaker, dashboard-mounted Compact Disc sound system.
The seats are cloth-upholstered, and the driver's seat is tilt and height-adjustable front and rear.
The rear seatbacks can be fold in a 60/40 split to increase cargo space. All seats have height-adjustable head restraints.
Look-good equipment includes a spoiler on the rear roof and smart 15-inch alloy wheels. The five-spoke design is handsome and bears more than a passing resemblance to the alloys fitted to Holden's storming ClubSport R8.
Safety equipment includes dual front airbags. There are anti-intrusion beams in all side doors.
A black mark against the GSX is the fact that the middle rear seatbelt is lap only.
The car doesn't have ABS anti-skid braking.
The lockable glovebox has internal illumination. The centre console, which includes lidded cupholders is nicely styled.
The new GSX 1800 is a worthy entrant in Mazda's long line of 323s. It's stylish, handles easily and nicely and has plenty of performance.
Story and photographs by Mike Stock.