40 Game of Threes

We look at 40 turbulent years of Mazda’s bedrock hatchback, the 323 and 3

WORDS BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

40 YEARS ago Mazda was teetering on the brink of oblivion, and not for the first or last time.

Having boldly put all its eggs in the eccentric rotary engine basket, the Hiroshima-based firm that survived nuclear annihilation in 1945 was by 1975 reeling from buyer backlash against the thirsty and problematic Wankel.

Sales ebbed away like oil from a seized RX2. What the nearly bankrupt Mazda needed was a saviour – a car as populist as a Toyota Corolla yet as progressive as the Volkswagen Golf. Carrying an old name in Japan (Familia) and a silly one in America (GLC for Great Little Car), that was, of course, the 323. This is its story.

1st generation 1977–1980

A RUDIMENTARY REAR-DRIVER, BUT VALUE AND RELIABILITY SHONE THROUGH In 1977 this was only the second five-door hatch of its size in Oz after the Golf, with styling as fashionable as Farah Fawcett’s flip on Charlie’s Angels. But beneath the rad tartan seats was a trad rear-drive 1300 dating back a decade. Yep, the old new-clothes-over-old-bones trick.

Still, Wheels was impressed enough for Steve Cropley to call it “…the outstanding small-car buy in Australia right now” in the August ’77 issue. Value, reliability and economy were the tonics that buyers craved and the brand finally delivered.

The original 323 was no Mk1 Golf though, as this late-build orange 48kW 1.4 cutie demonstrated. A total throwback, with scattered switchgear, cramped packaging, crude suspension and noisy powertrain, it was but a stepping stone forward to the modern era of FWD. 1980s consumers would demand nothing less.

1977 FAST FACT

The original 323 was reborn in 1990 for certain Asian markets as the MR90, and in ’93 as the Baby Boomers (hatch) and Vantrend (wagon).

2nd & 3rd generations 1980–1989

Sharing zip with the FA4, the front-drive BD-series 323 catapulted Mazda into the big league, setting class standards for driveability, quality and packaging. Its 1980 Wheels Car of the Year victory (the company’s first) even prompted a limited run with ‘The Winner’ emblazoned on the side. These were simpler times… Ours is a 55kW 1.5 swathed with the sort of mouse fur-like velour cabin trim endemic of the era. Refreshingly deep glass, thin pillars, low cowls – vision out is superb. The (unassisted) steering is numb and the manual notchy, but the performance is strong and the handling surprisingly surefooted.

The rebodied BF third-gen (and its Ford Laser ‘bubble-back’ cousin) saw out the ’80s with improved refinement, space and solidity, and spawned the much sought-after turbo all-wheeldrive hotshots developed for international rallying.

Back home, these early FWD 323s had a much deeper significance, obviously. Co-developed with Ford as the Asia/Pacific Escort replacement, it ushered in the locally built and bestselling Laser. Yet even with Blue Oval badges, Mazda was infiltrating the Aussie psyche. Is this why they feel so… er, familiar?

A LITTLE REVOLUTIONARY THAT BIRTHED THE FORD LASER

1980 FAST FACT

Ford Europe alleged the first FWD 323’s design was a copy of the 1980s FWD Escort, since Mazda was privy to the latter via WD 323 the 1980s FWD Escort, since Mazda its association with Ford Oz during the 323-based Laser’s development in the late 70s

4th & 5th generations 1989–1998

It was all-change with the fourth/fifth-gen BG/BH 323, thanks to dramatic coupe-like silhouette styling (including pop-up headlights for the first Astina) and twin-cam technology that elevated the series upmarket.

Desirable, fun and fast, the BG proved a hit in Australia, riding out the early ’90s recession as a better alternative to the expensive yet poorly equipped Euro alternatives of the time.

We drove a cracking 92kW Astina SP and its cammy oomph, quick steering and nimble handling make it a blast even today.

This is the pick of all the non-turbo 323s.

The restyled BH 323 of 1994, however, was Mazda reaching too far again, stretching resources and budgets with overcomplication, including two costly coupe-like pillarless hardtops in sedan and hatch guises, as well as a sweet-revving but pointless 2.0-lite V6 option. Oddly lumpy powered steering feels retrograde after the previous sparkling Astina SP’s.

Mazda had lost its way again. Sales stagnated, debt mounted and bankruptcy again loomed, forcing Hiroshima into the arms of major shareholder Ford.

SERIOUS ALTERNATIVE TO OVERPRICED, UNDER-EQUIPPED SMALL EUROS OF THE TIME

1994 FACT FAST

For the fifth-gen 323 Astina V6, Mazda took design and engine inspiration from the Alpine A310 V6 built from 1971-1984.

1998–2003 6th generation

Innovation was to take a back seat again for the newly sober Mazda. Like the ’77 original, the ’98 323 was about back-tobasics survival. Its scaled-down 626 underpinnings brought space, but blandness too, prioritising value and practically over style and sass. The millennial Astina was the Corolla of 323s. Nothing exciting behind the wheel to report, but at least the BJ drove better than just about any corresponding mainstream rival of the day. And has since proved utterly reliable second-hand.

DRIVEN BY A NEED FOR CENTS AND SENSIBILITY

A FAMILIA STORY

123 Launched in 1963, the Giugiaro-penned Familia/800/1000 in sedan, wagon and sexy coupe drove Mazda’s exports, but it was the 1967 Mk2 that really stepped up globally. In two words: rotary engine.

The searing R100 was the flagship selling alongside the conventional 1200 (later becoming 1300). Subsequent rotaries like the related RX3 and larger RX2 and RX4 proved popular initially, but thirst, emissions, and durability issues forced Mazda to change tack with the purely piston-powered 323/Familia successor from ’77.

7th & 8th generations 2003–2013

The fraternal twin to the second-gen Ford Focus out of Germany, the newly christened 3 took the Mazda small car on a different path again – a fact underlined by ‘Axela’ replacing the venerable Familia name in Japan. Dearborn was killing the sacred cows.

But what a Year Zero. The BK’s handsome design, stylish cabin and sophisticated engineering (ushering in a multi-link rear end) helped the 323 replacement become a smash hit, hitting record sales in Australia. It and the rebodied BL-series from 2009 were on the ball and right on the money, just as soaring fuel prices and the emergent SUV saw seismic moves away from the traditional large sedan.

The early Neo manual hatch we sampled still passes muster today, particularly in terms of poise and control. Somehow the first 3’s enduring freshness overshadows the strangely light steering and excessive road noise issues we criticised this car for back in the day. Clearly consumers didn’t care about such things either.

Internationally, however, Mazda wasn’t out of the woods, with models like the 6 and CX-7 misfiring in the crucial US market, shaking it financially. 2008’s global economic downturn forced Ford to sell its ailing Japanese arm, pushing the newly independent but heavily bleeding Mazda back to the brink of extinction by 2010. 323 BECOMES THE 3, AND RECORD AUSTRALIAN SALES FOLLOW

2020 VISION OF 3 MPS

While Mazda insists there will be no MPS/ Mazdaspeed spun from the existing 3, we understand the company is considering a hot four-pot turbo AWD for the next-gen reskin due in 2019, returning the Japanese hatch to Golf R territory while providing a spiritual replacement for the BK (2006) and BL (2009) MPS wildcats. The latter offered a traction-scrambling 190kW and 380Nm through the front wheels only.

Circa 200kW and AWD, then, would definitely be the way forward, we suspect.

2014 9th generation

AT THE POINTY END OF THE CLASS, WITH ROOM TO STEP UP A GEAR As the brand’s first non-Ford-era small car in a decade, the box-fresh BM boasts technical synergies with the rest of the so-called SkyActiv-era range, including the CX-5, 2 supermini and CX-3. Efficiency executed in a way smarter manner.

Nowadays the 3 nips at the heels of the evergreen Golf, though it lags in refinement (too much road noise – that old Mazda bugbear) and real-world fuel economy. Still, the flagship SP25 Astina is a commanding, sporty GT hatch. What it lacks is the visual boldness and playful rortiness of the unforgettable Astina SP of 1989 that remains the sweet spot over nine generations. And time for another 3 MPS, please Hiroshima (see Fast Fact below left).

In 40 years, then, the Mazda small car has had anything but a quiet life. Back in 1977, editor Peter Robinson depicted the original 323 on the cover attacking Ford’s top-selling XC Falcon. It was a harbinger of what was to happen in the 21st Century.

Australians were once all about the ‘Big 3’ – Holden, Falcon and Chrysler’s Valiant. Now it’s the 3 that’s big.

1998 FAST FACT

The BJ-series 323, introduced in 1998, debuted the Mazdaspeed (MPS) sub-brand in the US-market in 2003, via the Protégé that used a 127kW 2.0-litre turbo.