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Every carmaker who craves a share of the boom in small-car sales is being forced to limbo under $20k with some form of dollar-driven hero car, and the result is some very good cars at great prices.
Mazda is the latest to join the contest, using a well-equipped 323 that is a sign of the rapid revival under way at the Hiroshima carmaker.
It has plenty of all-new cars coming soon, but it's the 323 that's setting the pace today.
And it's not just a pared-down price player, either.
The engine, twin airbags, four-wheel disc brakes and airconditioning add up to everything you really need for small-car motoring today.
The windows are not automatic and there is no electric assist for the mirrors, but Mazda has listened to its customers and the car still comes with remote central locking. It's a big bonus in the shopping-centre carpark.
The latest 323 takes over from the old 1.6-litre car, and is available as either a four-door sedan or five-door hatch. In Mazda-speak, that's either a Protege or an Astina.
The engine is solid but not outstanding, with 92kW and 163Nm of power, while the mechanical package also includes fully independent suspension and power-assisted steering.
The car is hardly new, but it is actually better than it was originally. Mazda was still in its ``cost-down'' slump when the first of this 323 series hit the road. Since then, ithas actually upgraded the materials and features.
It's nothing major, but the 323 is more like an early '90s Mazda rather than the late '90s cars that made a lot of owners unhappy -- and drove many of them to rival brands.
The 323's 2002 upgrade includes a second SP20 sports model, this time a sedan (Protege) to join the hot hatch (Astina) that arrived last year.
Even so, it's the $19,990 car that is most important in 2002.
It's never going to have an easy time against the benchmark Nissan Pulsar, which created the $19,990 class, or the latest Toyota Corolla Ascent, or Holden's Astra City.
And Hyundai also has the roomy and honest Elantra available for $19,990 with its usual pack of value-added extras.
Even so, Mazda says it has just had one of its best 323 sales months of all time and puts it down to the new price fighter.
On the road
The latest 323 has three advantages over its many rivals in the $19,990 battle: it has a 1.8-litre engine, it has airconditioning, and it wears a Mazda badge.
Some of the others brands have one or two, but none has all three. And that will make a difference because a lot of older people are turning to small cars, helping fuel a huge boom in the class, and they want something that is going to hang around for a while.
The Pulsar only has a 1.6-litre engine, the Corolla and Astra both cost more with airconditioning, and the Elantra is a Hyundai.
Surprisingly, the 323 is actually older than two of the pacemakers -- the Pulsar and Astra -- which shows what you can do with a red pen and some smart planning. It might not seem like a lot, but it's enough to make it one of the best price fighters available today.
Driving the 323 hatch was genuinely enjoyable.
It is an honest car that gets along pretty well and has what you need for everyday motoring.
The build quality of the 323 is back at proper Mazda level -- good-quality cloth on the seats, some nicely matched plastics on the door panels and dash, a properly insulated boot and slightly thicker carpet.
The 323 has always been comfy, with good room in the back for its size. There is no tyre roar nor intrusive engine noise.
The motor is nothing special, but still has the torque that gives it that vital edge over the 1.6-litre opposition. It needs plenty of revving to give its best, but will lope along at around 4000 revs with no trouble _ and with good economy.
The Astina tester was light over bumps, with no kickback through the steering, and a fair bit of fun in twisties. The narrow tyres give enough grip and feedback to make driving fun.
The brakes were fine, even without anti-skid assistance, and it's good to see twin airbags as part of the protection package.
And it's easy to park.
At the end of the day, and the end of the test, we'd discovered a new pacesetter in the $19,990 class.
It's not as successful as the Pulsar, as modern as the Corolla, as tough as the Astra or as big as the Elantra, but the 323 is the car we'd choose if $20,000 was our budget.
And we'd also be happy to recommend the born-again 323 to our friends and family.