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Mazda 3 2017 review: 40-year evolution from the first 323

Mazda's ubiquitous hatches have been a common sight on our roads since the late 1970s.
EXPERT RATING
8
Many things in life can't be done twice. Being born, reading War and Peace and jumping off a decent cliff are all prime examples, but going back in time is something you can't even do once.

Many things in life can't be done twice. Being born, reading War and Peace and jumping off a decent cliff are all prime examples, but going back in time is something you can't even do once, generally speaking. 

Old cars, however, do give you the chance to both go back in time, and to do something you thought you'd only get to experience once all over again. The thriving classic-car industry proves that people are willing to spend money to drive down memory lane. I am one of these people, and so are resident CarsGuide tragics James and Richard, with each of us parking cherished relics behind our roller doors. 

But classic cars are generally exotic or iconic, whereas mainstream small hatches just tend to be used until expiration and then simply disappear from the motoring landscape. How often do you see a Ford Laser these days? As a result, few of us get to revisit the real world of mainstream  motoring past.

Given this niche to riches story, Mazda Australia is proactively building a rolling reminder of where it's come from.

Mazda is a brand currently enjoying unprecedented success in Australia, growing from a niche player alongside the volume-selling Japanese brands Toyota and Datsun in the 60s and 70s, to become the second-biggest marque in Australia at the moment. 

The key to Mazda cracking the Australian mainstream was the arrival of the first 323, back in 1977, with the small hatch hitting our shores as Australia began to open its eyes beyond large, locally built six-cylinder sedans. 

Given this niche to riches story, Mazda Australia is proactively building a rolling reminder of where it's come from, with its ever-expanding Heritage Collection of historic models. 

Currently nudging 40 examples of key production models and race cars, the local arm has also amassed a spectrum of 323 and Mazda3 examples to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first 323. 

We jumped at the chance to drive the lot, back to back, on the same day. But more than just a retro indulgence, Mazda's stroll through small-hatch history also gave us the chance to take a fond look back at the key developments that have weaved themselves into mainstream motoring over the past four decades. 
 

1980 323 five-door

  • Mazda's 1980 323 fits into the unmodified category, with its only big treat being fresh paint. Mazda's 1980 323 fits into the unmodified category, with its only big treat being fresh paint.
  • The first-generation 323 was the only model to use rear-wheel drive. The first-generation 323 was the only model to use rear-wheel drive.
  • Besides the 100cc larger 1.4-litre engine, this 1980 323 is otherwise representative of the 1977 original. Besides the 100cc larger 1.4-litre engine, this 1980 323 is otherwise representative of the 1977 original.
  • Who would have thought that such a simple name would become so iconic? Who would have thought that such a simple name would become so iconic?
  • Not an airbag in sight, or pretty much anything else. Not an airbag in sight, or pretty much anything else.

If you're scouring the classifieds (link to listing search) for a first-generation 323 at the moment, you'll know that the few surviving examples seem to have a rotary-engine transplant or carry an asking price equal to a decade-old Mazda3. 

This is because their lightweight rear-drive platform makes an excellent basis for drag racing, and any yet-to-be-modified examples make a very appealing blank canvas.

Mazda's orange example fits into the unmodified category, with its only big treat being fresh paint, and this one is particularly worthy of preservation because of the 88,663km showing on the odometer. That's less than 2500km per year!

It's actually one of the last of the first-generation models with square headlights and larger tail lights, but aside from this and a 100cc larger 1.4-litre engine, it's otherwise representative of the 1977 original. 

Mazda's brochure from the time doesn't even specify power and torque figures, but describes the kilowatt count as "plenty".

Aside from using much of the previous 808 sedan's platform and mechanical package, the first 323 was one of the original two-box hatchbacks alongside the VW Golf and Honda Civic, at a time when sedans were still the norm, even in this small segment. Hatchbacks were so new that Mazda still thought rear-wheel drive was best, so the egg-shaped 323's interior packaging was pretty cramped.

Still, the hatch shape and coil-sprung rear end were more advanced than the leaf-sprung sedan and wagon-only KE30 Toyota Corolla of the time, which is one of the key reasons why it really kicked off the Mazda brand in Australia. 

Today, the drive experience is pretty basic, with that long-travel suspension bringing plenty of body roll, and the only power assistance is for the brakes, which are pretty spongy by modern standards. The steering is surprisingly direct, but the four-speed manual, thin doors and pillars are a reminder of a simpler time. 

There are  also some funky ergonomic touches, with the wipers controlled via the indicator stalk, and the lights getting their own stalk on the left. Not the rear wiper, though, which is controlled by a separate dash switch. 

There's no tacho, which doesn't really matter as the wheezy 1.4-litre four is all about its meagre torque output. Mazda's brochure from the time doesn't even specify power and torque figures, but describes the kilowatt count as "plenty". We'd describe it as adequate.


1984 323 five-door hatch

  • Front-wheel drive was one of the biggest changes applied for the second generation 323. Front-wheel drive was one of the biggest changes applied for the second generation 323.
  • The BD 323 is lower and more dynamic than the model it replaced. The BD 323 is lower and more dynamic than the model it replaced.
  • The 323 Super Deluxe was the only BD variant to pair the bigger engine with a five-speed manual and a five-door hatch body. The 323 Super Deluxe was the only BD variant to pair the bigger engine with a five-speed manual and a five-door hatch body.
  • The 1.3 and 1.5-litre engines were new for the BD-generation 323. The 1.3 and 1.5-litre engines were new for the BD-generation 323.
  • This was the first 323 to be co-developed with Ford. This was the first 323 to be co-developed with Ford.
  • The boxier shape made for a more spacious body. The boxier shape made for a more spacious body.

Once an even more common sight on our roads but also now almost extinct (link to listing search) is the second-generation BD 323. Australia knows it better as the first-generation Ford Laser, which shared most things with the 323 aside from badging and different lights. 

This generation brought modern thinking when it touched down in 1980,  with its front-wheel-drive layout and boxier, more spacious body. It was the first 323 to be co-developed with Ford, which was a relationship that would continue beyond the end of 323 in 2003 and into the first and second-generation Mazda3s. 

The BD is lower and more dynamic than the model it replaced, but also pretty conservatively styled. Mazda's second from the top-spec Super Deluxe example is actually a 1984 model, and with just  77,139km on the clock it's still very fresh. That's also less than 2500km a year. 

The 1.3 and 1.5-litre engines were new for the BD-generation, and the Super Deluxe was the only variant to pair the bigger engine with a five-speed manual and a five-door hatch body

The longer legs of the five speed makes it much better for highway cruising, but with just 53kW and 109.8Nm (don't forget the 0.8) it doesn't appreciate any uphill gradient. It also still doesn't have fuel injection or power steering, and a less direct steering ratio than the first 323 doesn't help its driver appeal. Which we'd also describe as adequate.


1991 323 Astina SP

  • The first-generation Astina still has a striking appearance, despite being 26-years old. The first-generation Astina still has a striking appearance, despite being 26-years old.
  • Refinement and handling were significantly improved for the fourth generation 323. Refinement and handling were significantly improved for the fourth generation 323.
  • The rear lamps from the first Astina were also used on the Aston Martin DB7. The rear lamps from the first Astina were also used on the Aston Martin DB7.
  • The Astina SP's twin-cam 1.8-litre engine with multi-point fuel injection is so much smoother and more tractable than the models before it. The Astina SP's twin-cam 1.8-litre engine with multi-point fuel injection is so much smoother and more tractable than the models before it.
  • This was the first use of the Astina name. This was the first use of the Astina name.
  • Mazda's Astina SP is the first in the group to be equipped with power steering. Mazda's Astina SP is the first in the group to be equipped with power steering.

Mazda is yet to add a third-generation BF 323 to its collection, but this fourth-generation BG is an example of Mazda dividing its strategy between hatch and sedan bodystyles for the '90s. 

For Australia, the hatch added the Astina name when it arrived in 1989, and moved upmarket from the sedan with unique styling, more equipment and a bigger engine. 

Mazda's 1991 example from the Heritage Collection  is the top-spec Astina SP, which is a real surprise package for a 26-year-old car.

Even with 266,045km on the clock - a more realistic 10,000km/year - its twin-cam 1.8-litre engine with multi-point fuel injection is so much smoother and more tractable than the models before it. With a still-healthy 92kW/155Nm, its performance could be described as capable by modern standards. 

It's also the first of this group to be equipped with power steering. Refinement and handling are significantly improved over the 1984 model, and those pop up headlights give it real personality for a five-door hatch. On the topic of lights, you might also be surprised to learn that the rear lamps from this car were also used on the Aston Martin DB7. 


1996 323 Astina V6 hatch

  • The Astina reached new heights for the fifth-generation BH 323 in 1994, with a four-door hardtop bodystyle added to bring the Australian-market 323 body count to three. The Astina reached new heights for the fifth-generation BH 323 in 1994, with a four-door hardtop bodystyle added to bring the Australian-market 323 body count to three.
  • Both second-generation Astina models were styled by the hands of former Porsche staff. Both second-generation Astina models were styled by the hands of former Porsche staff.
  • One of the standout shapes of the 90s. One of the standout shapes of the 90s.
  • Under the bonnet of this top-spec example is a 2.0-litre V6 engine, the only time a six cylinder was offered in the 323 line-up. Under the bonnet of this top-spec example is a 2.0-litre V6 engine, the only time a six cylinder was offered in the 323 line-up.
  • This was known as the "eternal flame" logo. This was known as the "eternal flame" logo.
  • The second-gen Astina is the first of this group to come with airbags, but there are just two. The second-gen Astina is the first of this group to come with airbags, but there are just two.

The Astina treatment reached new heights for the fifth-generation BH 323 in 1994, with a four-door hardtop bodystyle added to bring the Australian-market 323 body count to three. Not only was the Astina lineup expanded, but the addition of the hardtop effectively meant there were now two 323 sedans. 

You'd never mistaken the two, however, as both Astinas were styled by the hands of former Porsche staff and represented a real high point for 1990s car design.  

The updated 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine was also joined by a V6 option for the first and last time in small Mazda history, but its benefit was really limited to a more impressive cylinder count. The MX-6 and Eunos-shared 2.0-litre unit revs with sewing-machine smoothness, but makes just 12kW and 23Nm more than the much simpler and cheaper four-cylinder alternative, and totals just 104kW/183Nm. From a V6!

Mazda's hatch from the collection is actually a 1996 model, and is in excellent condition considering its 222,159km odometer reading. It's the first of this group to come with airbags, but there are just two, and no ABS. It also feels heavier than you'd expect, and it's surprising to see that it misses out on a leather steering wheel for a top-of-the-range model. On the plus side, it still looks beautiful.


2001 323 Astina SP20 hatch

  • With those huge driving lights, big wheels and yellow paint, the SP20 looked a little bit like a rally car. With those huge driving lights, big wheels and yellow paint, the SP20 looked a little bit like a rally car.
  • Styling was more conservative for the BJ 323, but the SP20 does look striking in yellow. Styling was more conservative for the BJ 323, but the SP20 does look striking in yellow.
  • Its chassis is stiffer, the body feels more solid, yet the whole package feels lighter and more nimble than the Astina before it. Its chassis is stiffer, the body feels more solid, yet the whole package feels lighter and more nimble than the Astina before it.
  • A 2.0-litre is the base engine these days, but the 98kW/174Nm SP20 was still pretty pokey for its day. A 2.0-litre is the base engine these days, but the 98kW/174Nm SP20 was still pretty pokey for its day.
  • The SP20 acted as Mazda's hot hatch of the early 2000s. The SP20 acted as Mazda's hot hatch of the early 2000s.
  • The sportier interior is complimented by the white face dials and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The sportier interior is complimented by the white face dials and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The sixth-generation BJ 323 was clearly more conservative when it first hit the market in 1998, with the Astina reverting to just being a five-door version of the regular sedan and the whole lineup becoming a bit more straight-laced. 

The 2001 facelift brought something of a return to form with the 2.0-litre SP20, which was easily the most exciting version in years.

With those huge driving lights, big wheels and yellow paint, it looked a little bit like a rally car, but what it really meant is that Mazda could still make an interesting road-going model. 

A 2.0-litre is the base engine these days, but the 98kW/174Nm SP20 was still pretty pokey for its day, and Mazda's 121,805km example doesn't disappoint today.  

Its chassis is stiffer, the body feels more solid, yet the whole package feels lighter and more nimble than the Astina before it, with the weakest link being the four-speed auto, which is slow and doughy by modern standards. 

It is the earliest model in the collection to be fitted with ABS, though. Yes, ABS still wasn't a given when Y2k clicked over. 


2005 Mazda3 Maxx hatch

  • Retaining the choice between five-door hatch and sedan bodystyles, the first-generation Mazda3's mechanicals and platform were still largely shared with the second-generation Ford Focus. Retaining the choice between five-door hatch and sedan bodystyles, the first-generation Mazda3's mechanicals and platform were still largely shared with the second-generation Ford Focus.
  • A year and a half after the first Mazda6 arrived, the BK Mazda3 followed the same formula as its larger sibling by featuring completely unique bodywork and interiors from its Ford sibling. A year and a half after the first Mazda6 arrived, the BK Mazda3 followed the same formula as its larger sibling by featuring completely unique bodywork and interiors from its Ford sibling.
  • The first Mazda3 brought the new MZR engine family. The first Mazda3 brought the new MZR engine family.
  • It still stacks up as a good drive today, with sharp, sure-footed handling. It still stacks up as a good drive today, with sharp, sure-footed handling.
  • There's also no sign of a reversing camera, sensors or Bluetooth, and the multimedia interface was just a radio, six CD stacker, with a 3.5mm audio jack. There's also no sign of a reversing camera, sensors or Bluetooth, and the multimedia interface was just a radio, six CD stacker, with a 3.5mm audio jack.

The personality renaissance hinted at with the BJ SP20 stepped up several notches with the introduction of the first Mazda3 (and the demise of the 323 nameplate) in early 2004. A year and a half after the first Mazda6 arrived, the BK Mazda3 followed the same formula as its larger sibling by featuring completely unique bodywork and interiors from its Ford sibling, for the first time since the 1980 323. 

Retaining the choice between five-door hatch and sedan bodystyles, the mechanicals and platform were still largely shared with the second-generation Ford Focus (and to a lesser extent the second-generation Volvo S40/V50), but all three relatives were aesthetically unique. 

In the case of the Mazda, Australia took a real shine to its combination of appealing design with uncompromised practicality, plus the brand's reputation for reliability. This kicked off the sales momentum that we're still seeing in the Mazda3 today, with its current best-seller status among private buyers some three generations later. 

Despite being 12 years old, Mazda's 2005 example has travelled just 12,135km - a PB in this group of just over 1000km per annum. But even with its still-crisp freshness, it's a reminder of how far cars have come in the past decade. 

It still stacks up as a good drive today, with sharp, sure-footed handling

It is the earliest of this collection to come with side and curtain airbags, but stability control was still optional and the auto is still a four speed. 

There's also no sign of a reversing camera, sensors or Bluetooth, and the multimedia interface was just a radio, 6 CD stacker, with a 3.5mm audio jack for the iPod we all had at the time.  

It still stacks up as a good drive today, with sharp, sure-footed handling, and the computer-controlled auto is significantly more intuitive and responsive than its slushy predecessors. The only real date stamp is the relative lack of feel from the early electric power steering. 

If you can find one with stability control fitted, these make for a great value and sensible but satisfying first car buy , even today. 

 
2017 Mazda3 SP25 Astina hatch

  • After the first-generation CX-5 and third-generation Mazda6, the BM Mazda3 was the third in Mazda's arsenal to use the full SkyActiv suite. After the first-generation CX-5 and third-generation Mazda6, the BM Mazda3 was the third in Mazda's arsenal to use the full SkyActiv suite.
  • The Mazda3 still isn't the quietest car in its class, but is more refined, composed and powerful than its predecessors. The Mazda3 still isn't the quietest car in its class, but is more refined, composed and powerful than its predecessors.
  • Mazda has made some beaut little cars over the years, but frankly we're glad they don't make them like they used to. Mazda has made some beaut little cars over the years, but frankly we're glad they don't make them like they used to.
  • The integrity of the third-generation Mazda3's design was preserved with the mid-life facelift it was treated to in July 2016. The integrity of the third-generation Mazda3's design was preserved with the mid-life facelift it was treated to in July 2016.
  • The current Astina comes equipped with every must-have feature in modern motoring aside from Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The current Astina comes equipped with every must-have feature in modern motoring aside from Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

The Mazda3's upwards trajectory skyrocketed with the Nagare-styled second-generation BL model that arrived in 2009, which ultimately became Australia's best-selling car in 2011 and 2012. So it left big shoes to fill for the current third-generation model when it arrived in February 2014. 

After the first-generation CX-5 and third-generation Mazda6, the BM Mazda3 was the third in Mazda's arsenal to use the full suite of SkyActiv platform and mechanical efficiency tech.

It also brought the small-car range into line with the Kodo design era. 

The integrity of its design was preserved with the mid-life facelift it was treated to in July 2016. 

Subtle visual tweaks modestly cloak technology advances like AEB becoming standard across the range, the subtle but significant G-Vectoring Control and a raft of chassis tweaks to improve comfort and refinement. 

Mazda has made some beaut little cars over the years.

Mazda's Heritage Collection currently skips the second-generation Mazda3 (aside from tarmac rally prepped MPS versions), but we had the chance to revisit the current hatch in top-spec SP25 Astina guise alongside the first Mazda3 and earlier 323s. 

As you'd expect, it's got more of everything compared to the earlier models, and comes equipped with every must-have feature in modern motoring aside from Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. 

It's also still not the quietest car in its class, but is more refined, composed, powerful, as well as being more practical than ever. It's also more efficient, with even the Astina's big 2.5-litre engine carrying an official combined fuel consumption figure of 8.1L/100km. In our experience, the original 323 would use more like 9L/100km, despite making around a third of the power of the current model and weighing around 500kg less. 

Mazda has made some beaut little cars over the years, but frankly I'm glad they don't make them like they used to.

Which is your favourite small car in Mazda's history? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Pricing Guides

$21,990
Based on 288 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$16,777
Highest Price
$30,922

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
Maxx 2.0L, ULP, 6 SP MAN $16,999 – 20,990 2017 MAZDA 3 2017 Maxx Pricing and Specs
Neo 2.0L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $16,990 – 21,990 2017 MAZDA 3 2017 Neo Pricing and Specs
SP25 2.5L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $21,000 – 23,990 2017 MAZDA 3 2017 SP25 Pricing and Specs
SP25 Astina 2.5L, ULP, 6 SP MAN $24,975 – 30,922 2017 MAZDA 3 2017 SP25 Astina Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
8
Malcolm Flynn
CarsGuide Editor

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