Motoring: Almost, but not quite

Road Test: Mazda 323
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The Independent Online
Half-close your eyes, and you could be looking at an Audi A3. Similar size, similar squared-off tail with big, upright rear lights, similar lack of visual clutter: already, Mazda's new 323 hatchback is having an unexpectedly positive effect on your expectations.

The effect is unexpected because Mazda's mainstream cars have not hitherto been noted for their ability to excite. Not that recent 323s have been wilfully bland, far from it: the five-door version is futuristic-looking device, and the just-axed three-door was certainly distinctive, with its undersized wheels and curious double-decker rear window. But distinction did not lead to desire, and few found buyers. So it had to go.

In its place comes the car you see here, effectively the front half of the least interesting 323 (the four-door saloon, recently chopped from the range but now reinstated) with a new aft end. There's a choice of two 16-valve engines, a 1.3-litre or a more powerful 1.5 with twin camshafts, and two trim levels, LXi and GXi. The `i' signifies fuel injection, as ever, but as every car has injection nowadays, it does seem superfluous. That's marketing for you.

Talking of which, you will probably have noticed Mazda's poster campaign for these latest 323s. The ads use strange typefaces and equally strange assertions, likening a Volkswagen Golf to a square box but the no more curvaceous 323 to a pebble. The effect is other-worldly and rather daft, as though the result of a long night on the magic mushrooms. Still, the optional three-spoke alloy wheels look quite daring.

Unfortunately, the visual promise of the outside evaporates as soon as you sit in the Mazda. There is nothing interesting about the cabin at all, and no design-based clues as to the make of car you're about to drive. Grey plastics abound, the dials are utilitarian, and there's a pointless panel high up in the middle of the dashboard containing just a clock and the heated rear window switch. Yet the radio is banished to a slot much lower down, where its fiddly controls are hard to see, never mind use. Panel and radio should be transposed forthwith.

If your first drive is in stop-start traffic, you'll straight away encounter a trait increasingly common in Japanese cars: snatchy progress caused by over-flexible engine mountings and an anaesthetised clutch. You can't feel the drive being taken up as you raise the pedal; all you have to go on is the fact that the engine speed is dropping and the car is starting to move.

With the 1.5-litre, 90bhp engine, the 323 pulls reasonably vigorously through the gears and cruises easily, if noisily. There's a lot of road roar and body resonance at motorway speeds. Should you so desire, you can enjoy the Mazda's strong roadholding and easy, agile handling; it steers crisply (although the power-assisted system gives little in the way of feedback to the driver) and keeps the movements of its body under tight control so your passengers won't be thrown about. Surprisingly, it also rides smoothly over bumps even on the low-profile tyres that come with the alloy wheels.

Cabin space is adequate, so is boot space, and there's adequate equipment in the pounds 12,360 model, including electric front windows, a sunroof and the obligatory pair of airbags. The car is also adequately well made, has a three-year warranty, and it probably won't go wrong. What it is not, however, is the glamorous, personality-extending, lifestyle-enhancing fashion accessory the ads would like you to believe. Its demeanour and interior decor are far too meek and colourless for that.

There's a school of thought that says all cars are pretty much the same nowadays, and it's only the branding and the image arising therefrom that differentiates them. I'm pleased to say that while we may be heading in that direction, we're not there yet. This Mazda, entirely adequate but eminently forgettable, is proof that you can't build a set of "brand values" on thin air.

MAZDA 323 HATCHBACK

Specifications Price: pounds 12,360 on the road. Engine: 1,489cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 90bhp at 5,500rpm; five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed: 109mph, 0-60 in 11.6sec. Fuel consumption: 33-38mpg

Rivals

Ford Escort 1.6 LX three-door, pounds 12,930 on the road: Ford owns most of the Mazda company, but its own Escort is better designed, and better to drive.

Honda Civic 1.5 LS three-door, pounds 13,585 on the road: Best Japanese rival. Has more spirit than the Mazda and a much more welcoming cabin.

Fiat Bravo 1.6 SX, pounds 12,065: Current European Car of the Year, progressive styling, fun to drive, lumpy ride, good value.

Peugeot 306 1.6 XS, pounds 12,835 on the road: Best ride and handling blend in the size class, good-looking and good value. Facelift imminent.

Volkswagen Golf 1.6 CL five-door, pounds 12,425 on the road: No sporty three doors at this price, but CL has usual Golf substance and classless appeal.

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