We've heard some big promises from Mazda over the past year. Promises of a new rotary-powered RX-8, a go-getter MX-5 replacement and a return to the good looks and driving enjoyment of the early 1990s in everything from the baby 121 upwards.

The first of those promises has just been delivered in the shape of the 323 SP20. It's only one car, and it's only an update, but it proves Mazda has finally re-discovered the key to its success and wants to regain the ground it has lost, and given away.

The SP isn't a big change, but the improvements are crucial and smart. The SP20 pack puts an overdue 2-litre engine into the 323 body. There's also firmer suspension and 16-inch alloy wheels.
To celebrate the change, it is dressed up with a mild body kit, white-faced instruments, two-tone seats and leather steering wheel casing, and a leather shift knob.

For a company like Holden or Ford, the tweaked 323 would probably only qualify as a dealer-focused limited edition car to use as a short-term showroom tease. But it's worth more to Mazda than that, which is why it has picked up the SP label, a tag previously used only on the special-build cars produced by race team boss Alan Horsley. Horsley and his team had nothing to do with the SP20, but he's still happy to have it in the range at Mazda Australia.

The SP20 arrived in February when the rest of the 323 family got a mild tweak to include the corporate-look Mazda grille and new bonnet. The hidden changes have added some suspension stiffness and sharper steering, a little more sound proofing and more supportive seats.

The SP20 isn't cheap, starting at $28,045, but the car is well equipped with twin airbags, auto air-con, anti-skid brakes, a six-disc CD sound system and remote central locking and electric windows. It pitches up against a variety of rivals, from the smaller and spunkier Peugeot 206 GTi to the softer and more costly VW Golf GTi.

DRIVING

There was no way to hide in the SP test car. Even without the stonking yellow bodywork, there was a ZZOOM number plate from Mazda's latest zoom-zoom television commercials to draw attention. The bold body drew a little more attention, which added enjoyment to the drive. But most people just smiled and watched it roll by.

The most important thing is that the SP20 is really good to drive. It's not a road rocket WRX, and it isn't as rorty as the Pug GTi, but it is really good to drive and fun on a challenging piece of road. The suspension is firmer, the steering is sharper, and the 2-litre engine provides the get-up-and-go that had mostly gone from the ordinary Mazda models. Frankly, the first of the latest-design 323 and 626 cars were a disappointment. The 626 that arrived in late '97 and the 323 of late '98 were flat, dull, and their bodies were boring and bland.

Thanks to a big bag of Ford dollars, and some youthful Ford leadership in Hiroshima, Mazda has worked over the past 18 months to improve quality and put back the solid feel that had been prevalent during the 1980s. The job won't be done properly until the 323 and 626 are unveiled, but the SP20 celebrates the changes and shows that Mazda still has the right recipe for its cars.

The 2-litre engine isn't over-powerful with 98kW, but it cracks much harder than the smaller-engined 323s and is surprisingly eager to push to the red line. It has solid mid-range squirt and encourages gear changes in the slick five-speed manual box. The suspension is obviously firmer, which makes it a bit jarring on gnarled city bitumen, but it does the job well if you want some fun. It turns into corners crisply, helped by the latest steering changes, and hangs on tenaciously with almost even front-rear balance. It will push wide if you go too hard, or if the road is wet, but it is a hot-ish hatch for keen drivers. It's fun to burl down a favourite road, or even just race up the ratios, and it's been a very long time since I could say that about any 323. Even the seats, which don't look much different, add support for eager runs.

The body kit looks good, the alloy wheels dress it up well, and the cabin changes make the SP20 a car to remember. Little things, like the white-faced dials and the silver inserts in the leather wheel, make a difference. The yellow bodywork could date and there are people who don't like yellow, including Mazda Australia boss Malcolm Gough, but it makes a statement and allows for extra colours to be added later. The sound system is good, the headlights are fair, and the car is as easy to park as a regular 323 with plenty of carrying capacity.

The SP20 is fairly mild for a hot hatch, but it has the benefit of a roomy body and a reasonable price. It's bigger than the Peugeot 206, cheaper than the Golf GTi and more fun, better quality and resale than the rorty Proton Satria GTi. It's great to see the SP20 in Australia. But it should have been here long ago - or never lost in the first place.

MAZDA 323 SP20

Price: $28,045 as tested (manual)
Engine: 2-litre, four-cylinder with double-overhead camshafts and fuel injection
Power: 98kW/6000revs
Torque: 178Nm/4750revs
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed auto, front-wheel drive
Body: five-door hatch
Dimensions: length 4280mm, width 1705mm, height 1410mm, wheelbase 2610mm, tracks 1470/1470mm front/rear
Weight: 1201kg
Fuel tank: 55 litres
Fuel consumption: Average on test 8.7 litres/100km
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension: Fully independent with MacPherson struts
Brakes: Anti-skid four-wheel discs
Wheels: 16x5.5 alloy
Tyres: 195x50R16
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km

RIVALS

Mazda SP20 from $28,045
Peugeot 206 Gti from $29,990
VW Golf Gti from $40,790
Proton Satria GTi from $27,450