Motoring: Auto Biography: Up the hatch

John Fordham tries out two new runarounds, and finds they're not only practical but appealing too
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The Independent Culture
Like teenagers, there was a time when the hatchback concept didn't exist, the idea is now so ubiquitous that its absence is hard to imagine. The teenage simile extends to the notion of hatch-driving being a phase of motoring experience you're expected to pass through and evolve beyond, like adolescent sex, only with warranty agreements - before you grow up and do something that shows long-term emotional commitment, like buying an estate car.

The hatchback has taken over the modest and practical end of the auto business. An offshoot of the small car boom that followed the 1970s oil- supply crises, it could embrace a variety of lifestyles, from the AB pragmatists to upscale buyers who wanted easy parking to get near cases of knockdown Euro-vino and what-the-hell supermarket shopping they were going to jam under the back flap.

But if they started out as vans morphing into cars, and looked suitably ordinary for it, they are now morphing into coupes, and there are some very elegant small ones on the market. Hatches seem to have become attractive to auto designers, and two current versions that have spent a lot of time recently being set side to side on advertising hoardings have been the Renault Megane and the Mazda 323.

That they've been compared so starkly has been Mazda's doing. The imaginative Japanese company has adopted competitive advertising, which must be a sign that it thinks its cars are up to anything the opposition can throw at them, and, mostly, they are. Mazda had a record year in Britain in 1996 - the 323 took care of almost 10,000 of its 24,000-odd sales, and this year they're anticipating twice that.

The Renault Megane is very roomy for its size and class. Chic and elegant inside, it is well equipped, has an adjustable seating position to suit tall drivers and its ride is good, but the engine is noisier than the 323's and the gearshift slow. Renault has built the spirited-looking Megane to satisfy the desires of as wide a range of buyers as they could - offering six model choices, including coupes and saloons with a variety of power options.

With the 1.6 engine (the bread-and-butter power unit in this car), the power shortage is noticeable, though the gearbox is designed to make the most of the accelerative potential it does have. But the Megane's handling is excellent, with light but positive steering that gives drivers confidence.

The Megane is pretty, but the 323 is prettier. For sheer practicality and spaciousness the Megane has the edge, but the 323 is distinctive, handles well and has a smooth-flowing, eager power unit, anti-lock braking as standard, and the clincher might be that Mazda provide a three-year warranty - a vote of confidence in their products that last year's sales seem to indicate is getting through to the public. Two fine examples of an over-populated class.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Renault Megane 1.6 RT: pounds 12,495

Mazda 323 1.5 GXi: pounds 13,295

GOING PLACES

Renault: Dated engine slightly coarse and thrashy, 0-60mph in 11.4 secs; gearshift clunky.

Mazda: smooth, willing engine, but slightly slower performance at 0-60 in 11.6.

STAYING ALIVE/HANGING OUT

Renault: good ride, neat handling, passenger airbag and anti-lock brakes optional.

Mazda: slightly blander handler, capable ride on rough roads, passenger airbag optional, anti-lock standard.

CREATURE COMFORTS

Renault: Power steering, electric windows.

Mazda: Power steering, electric windows and mirrors, electric sunroof.

BANGS PER BUCK

Renault: stylish car, but performance average, including fuel consumption at 32mpg approx.

Mazda: one of the best warranty deals around, and fuel economy not bad at around 34mpg.

STAR QUALITY

Renault: style, handling.

Mazda: more style, back up and warranties.

TURKEY QUOTIENT

Renault: engines need a breath of fresh air.

Mazda: performance not up to appearance.

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