Motoring: The Independent Road Test: More panache than dash: Roger Bell on the Mazda five-door 323F, an aggressively good-looking rival to the Ford Escort

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Adding style is Mazda's way of competing against bigger, more conservative rivals. The company shapes its niche cars to stand out from the crowd. You may not like the aggressively racy looks of the Mazda five-door 323F but no one could deny that they attract attention. Whether they will rescue Mazda - deep in the red - remains to be seen. Japan's fourth largest car-maker has at least ensured that its latest Escort-sized contender looks nothing like an Escort. At top level, it does not sound or feel like one, either.

Mazda exaggerates, of course, in boasting that the 323F provides 'a new experience unequalled by any other' but the 2.0- litre model is certainly refined. The reason? Its svelte, 147-horsepower V6 engine is the same as that in the super- smooth Xedos 6, which makes the car something of a Japanese BMW 320.

At pounds 17,495, the 323 V6 is one of the cheapest six-cylinder cars on the market. It is not, however, one of the fastest. High performance is not the car's raison d'etre, though with a top speed of nearly 130mph, the V6 is no sluggard. The accent is more on refinement and driver satisfaction. The engine is barely audible when idling, and a 50p coin could be stood upright on the cam covers, so slight is the vibration. Being quite small for a 'six', however, the engine lacks pulling power low down.

Wide tyres and firm suspension account for the V6's tenacious roadholding. It scuttles through bends securely, and responds accurately to wristy movements of the steering wheel. To hustle a 323F is not a rewarding experience, however, and the firm suspension does not prevent the body lurching slightly when negotiating S- bends and roundabouts.

There is no bold, brash styling inside the five-door V6. Interior decor, grey on black, is ultra-conservative and the facia layout as neat and handy as it is conventional. The 323F's long wheelbase ensures decent rear legroom. But the coupe-style sloping roofline severely restricts rear headroom, and the lip of the boot, adequate rather than cavernous, is awkwardly high. The folding rear seats are asymmetrically split, improving versatility.

Comfort, safety and quality are strong suits: they have to be at this level. The multi-adjustable driver's seat supports well and the steering wheel can be moved up and down. Standard equipment includes two airbags, a powered sunroof and anti-lock brakes.

Prices for the 323F start at pounds 11,895 for the three-door automatic-only 1.5i. All models are covered by a generous three- year, 60,000-mile warranty, and service intervals have been stretched to 9,000 miles.

Specifications

Mazda 323F 2.0i GLX, pounds 17,495.

Engine: 1995cc V6, 147bhp at 6000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 9.2 seconds, top speed 130mph. Fuel consumption: 25.4mpg urban cycle, 32.5mpg at 75mph. Electric sun-roof. Dual airbags.

Comparisons

BMW 320i, pounds 18,995.

Smooth, quiet, compact 'six', high in snob appeal. Precise rear-drive handling and fair turn of speed. Only four doors so less versatile than Mazda. Less well equipped, too.

Ford Mondeo 24V, pounds 15,970.

One size up from Mazda, cheapest Ford 'six' comes as four-door saloon or five- door hatch. Smooth, eager engine. Roomy, comfortable. Much better value than Mazda, but less distinctive.

Vauxhall Cavalier 2.5 V6, pounds 15,850.

Cheapest six-cylinder saloon on the market. Roomier than Mazda 323F. Alternative five-door hatch more practical. Yowly engine goes well but lacks top-end refinement.

VW Golf VR6, from pounds 18,599.

The ultimate suave hot-hatch. Much faster than Mazda and terrific fun to drive. Conservative styling and practical packaging disguise strong appeal as driver's car.

(Photograph omitted)

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