Mazda 323 / Familia / Protege

Here's a quiz for you. What is the best selling Mazda in the USA? Protege. What's the equivalent in Japan? Familia. And Europe? 323, but it is a hatchback instead of sedan. So what's the hatchback version of Familia? Familia S-wagon. Its equivalent in Asia Pacific? 323 Astina. What about USA? nil. The American never like hatchbacks. 

Memorizing all these nameplates is quite a challenge, but not to the extent that memorizing all the engines available. Basically, Japanese versions have the most powerful and efficient engines, including 1498 c.c. twin-cam variable-valve timing unit good for 130 hp, 1840 c.c. dohc with 135 hp and range-topping Sport 20's 2.0-litre 170 hp. North American versions have 1.6-litre dohc 105 hp and 1.8-litre dohc 122 hp. European versions are the least powerful, including 1.5-litre 88 hp and 1.8-litre dohc 114 hp. 

No matter which version, the 323 (let's use this name representing all versions) is just an ordinary car aims at ordinary people. It won't surprise you, but it doesn't have unforgivable flaws like some European hatchbacks either (say, an Alfa 145). You know a reliable car like this is what most road users really need, but you can't help thinking about a bit more than that, say, a dynamic behaviour matching Ford Focus or Opel Astra, or a classy feel in the league of Volkswagen Golf or Seat Leon. Make it clear, desirability is what the Mazda 323 lack of. 

Some people like its styling, especially is the S-wagon (hatchback) which is loaded with all the optional body-color-matching aerodynamic kits and beautiful alloy wheels. However, the fundamental styling theme is rather conservative and bias towards the ease of production rather than sophistication. If you have an eagle-sharp sight, you'll notice the front bumper is not tightly assembled into the body, because of large design tolerance rather than fit and finish problem. The nose looks dull. Thick and black plastic side window frames look more like the products of the 80s. 

The same goes for the cabin - There is nothing wrong but also nothing impressive. All the plastics are in light grey. The generic center console is quite pretty, but the rest of the dashboard is boring. The grade of plastic material is not as poor as some rivals, such as Nissan and Opel, but the lack of design isn't easy to overcome. Space in front is quite good, at the back is just average. 

The 323's floorpan is essentially identical to the domestic and European 626, with the same wheelbase and also rides on struts up front and TTL at the rear. TTL (twin-trapezoidal links) is basically a MacPherson strut with two long lateral lower control arms. It's fully independent, but it doesn't have the passive rear-wheel steer ability as the popular torsion beam axle. In fact, the 323 handles and rides just so-so. Admittedly, most of the problems come from the steering (too light and rubbery) and gearchange (obstructive). Engines, except the European 1.3 and 1.5-litre, are up to class average but no more. 

Obviously, the 323 and its derivatives are not designed with enthusiastic driver in mind. 

The above report was last updated on 20 Mar 2000. All Rights Reserved.

Protege MP3

With 140hp from a 2-litre engine, the USA-bounded Protege MP3 is the hottest version of the 323 range this side of the 170hp Japanese S-wagon Sport. Considering its so-so power to weight ratio and 0-60mph time of 8-and-a-half seconds, it is not exactly a pocket rocket. Nor a hot hatch, because it is actually a 3-box rather than a hatch.  

First to be explained is its strange name - MP3. It implies the car has the first standard-fitted MP3 player supplied by Kenwood. The player can read CD as well as MP3 files recorded on CD-R/W. Although the audio system makes good sound, its controls are difficult to use and its panel displays flashy graphics like many after-market products.  

In fact, the car is tuned by after-market tuner Racing Beat in the USA. It fits a tower brace to the front struts, Tokico shock absorbers, stiffer springs for lower ride height, thicker anti-roll bars, 17-inch wheels with ZR low-profile tyres, stronger brakes and a quicker steering rack taken from the European 323. As a result, the company claims cornering power is up by 30% (don't know how this is measured).  

The engine received far less concerned. Minor revisions to breathing and reprogrammed the ECU results in just 10 horsepower increase from the standard Protege 2.0, although Racing Beat's exhaust does make a lovely note. Comparison with the Japanese 170hp engine found its lack of VVT and its low compression ratio of 9.1:1 (to drink 91RON fuel) account for most of the lost power. Of course, Japan's looser emission regulations and the way they measure power are also influential. 

Despite of average engine and performance, the MP3 is still fun to drive - not because of the audio, but because the tuning has transformed the car's handling. Steering is sharp and quite communicative. Gearchange is short-throw and crisp, letting you enjoy squeezing the limited power from the engine. The suspensions setup is not very stiff, allowing a smooth ride without ruining body control. Yes, it is not as rock steady as Type R, and it has slight tendency to understeer, but it is composed and fluent to handle. Because of the power shortage, you can push the car very hard in corners without worrying losing control. 

The above report was last updated on 8 Nov 2001. All Rights Reserved.


Familia (4dr) 1.5 GLX
323F (Euro 5dr) 1.8 GSi
Protege MP3
Front-engined, Fwd.
Front-engined, Fwd.
Front-engined, Fwd.
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm
4315 / 1695 / 1410 / 2610
4200 / 1695 / 1420 / 2610
4445 / 1705 / 1405 / 2610
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl.
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl.
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl.
1498 c.c.
1840 c.c.
1991 c.c.
110 hp
115 hp
140 hp
101 lbft
119 lbft
142 lbft
F: strut / R: strut + TTL (twin trapezoidal link)
185/65 R14
195/55 R15
205/45 ZR17
1115 kg
1236 kg
Top speed
0-60 mph
8.3 sec*
0-100 mph
25.3 sec*
* Tested by Car And Driver

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