Monday 28 February 2011

Realworld Rides : '96 Mazda 323F; Journey In A Lantis

My father recently transferred a load of old VHS tapes onto DVD, and among them was a tape we had made of music from Top Of The Pops and The Chart Show. 180 minutes of prime late '80s music. I was eight when we recorded it, and every track brought back memories as I finally watched it again, but when I Say Nothing by Voice Of The Beehive came on, I was completely overcome.

I suddenly remembered my thoughts as an 8 yr old when I saw them performing on that stage, all puffball dresses, sequins and empowering guitar work. If anything, I think I was probably aroused; or as close to it as you can be at that age. It's a tune that I'll always have a fondness for, it reminds me of a time of my life where I was becoming ever more aware of the world around me.

Sometimes, though, you see something that you used to lust over, but had completely forgotten about.

Predictably, this brings me to cars. The everyday, family hatchback is usually a mundane, forgettable affair with nothing much to stylistically set it apart from the all-pervasive bland greyness the sector is famed for. Today, the Astra, Focus, Golf trifecta are all much of a muchness. The Astra is probably the swoopiest, the Focus marginally the best to drive, The Golf the one that exudes the greatest feeling of quality. None of them, I'll venture, will be particularly fondly remembered in the future.

Occasionally, though, a small hatchback suddenly turns up that instantly raises the desirability bar, before disappearing again and being replaced by something suffering the inevitable conformity you find linked with mass-appeal. In 1994 it happened, and it was a Mazda.

Now, the BG Generation of Mazda 323, had been quite interesting too five years beforehand. Sold variously as the Mazda Familia Astina or the Eunos 100, it married a shapely but conventional hatchback hull with a sleek nose and pop-up headlamps. Over here it was called the 323F, and was a damn sight more appealing than the generic Escort competition, and in Executive spec was quite lavishly equipped. Like the Honda Integra, though, It was a little too strange and gimmicky to catch on in a big way.

Later, a new generation of 323 was in production, the BH. And it was really, really boring in its bread and butter saloon and hatchback variants. But in the same way that the 323F had been infinitely more interesting than its dowdy sisters, along came the Mazda Lantis, (or again 323F to us) the car that wowed me so on its launch in '94. In place of squared off, practical lines and Elementry Car Design 101 principals it came instead with a quite extraordinarily attractive teardrop shaped body.

It was a five door fastback coupé and, unusually, was fitted with frameless doors. The side profile was dynamic with a vestigial rear overhang, a steep windscreen angle and the look of a car built with the intent of high performance. The top models in the range were jewelled with a subtle rear spoiler, beautiful five-spoke alloy wheels that really filled the arches and gave it a real sense of purpose, but all models had the same exquisite detailing that brought the design to life, not least the futuristic ellipsoidal headlamps; not retractable like before but very low-profile. As if light was piercing the surface from the inside.

I had basically forgotten all about the 323F until last Monday, when one of the guys at work mentioned that a Mazda 323 was coming in as a part exchange for £100. He didn't know a lot about it, other than that it was an N registration ('95-'96) and I assumed it would be one of the tedious old saloon models. I was wrong.

It's a 323F, GLXi. Ok, it's not the top-of-the-range, all-singing, all-dancing V6 model, but it's still a very good looking car indeed, and I had always harboured a deep fascination with this shape of 323. The car trade is a cruel mistress when it comes to values, this machine was taken in for a mere hundred quid not because there was anything inherently wrong with it, but because of the amount you'd have to spend to get it to forecourt condition. For the sake of some scratches and the acquired patina that fifteen years of family life gives, in the cold financial eyes of the establishment it was worth less than scrap value. All the more reason for me to take it out on the road to cover a few dozen more proud miles before whatever fate befalls it.

I unlocked the Mazda with one of the three identical keys. The central locking whirred all five doors open and I unlatched the frameless drivers door and lowered myself into the cabin. It was comparitively tidy with the exception of a headlining that seemed to partially consist of congealed hair-gel. Nevertheless, I took a seat and surveyed my surroundings.

First thing that struck me was just how tiny everything seemed. The entire car looked quite compact as it sat between C-Classes in the car park, but inside the car everything seemed built to 7/8th scale. The seats might have been nicely shaped and supportive, but it seems they were optimised for Japanese frames far smaller than my own. Saying that, adjusted properly I found myself with plenty of space, providing I adopted a quite purposeful, sporting driving position reminiscent of that of a Touring Car racer.

The interior itself wore all the hallmarks of mid-90s Japanese automobile engineering. Basically, it's crap. At the time it probably didn't seem so bad but materials have moved on so far in fifteen years it beggars belief. The blue-toned plastic covers every surface, jarring with the black of the HVAC controls and the dashboard binnacle itself, which, incidentally is absolutely gorgeous. Four simple round dials, tach and speed on the left, fuel and temp on the right, they're beautifully clear and look like a larger version of what you might find on a sportsbike. Materials aside, the cockpit is actually quite nicely designed, it wraps around you and reminds me of a Ford Probe. It also has quite the most ridiculously deep and useful lidded door pockets I’ve ever encountered.

This seemed a bit of a coincidence, the dials and the driving position seeming so sporty, could the car be as good to drive as the dynamic styling suggested? I fired up the engine, which started on the button. The exhaust was clearly blowing somewhere but it all sounded quite healthy. There was a hint of clutch slip but first gear slotted in as if it had been buttered. Then second, third and fourth gears behaved in much the same way. This is a really lovely 'box.

I was driving gently, saving any excitement the engine was likely to offer until I got to the open road. This gave me time to become familiar with the controls, which had already foxed me slightly as the column stalks were reversed over usual European precident. Every time I tried to indicate a turn or a lane change, I switched the wipers on. Many a driver must have cursed my lack of signalling discipline but praised my ultra-shiny windscreen. Also, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to try out the audio capabilities of the Clarion cassette stereo. Half of the LCD had given up so frequency ascertainment was arbitrary, but amazingly Beds Are Burning by Midnight Oil came on, for the second time of the day. It wasn't the crispest, most Hi-Fi sound I'd heard, but was full bodied and entertaining nonetheless. I was beginning to really enjoy this car.

And now, at the part of London Road where it joins the A12 London Bound, I was able to drop back down into second and wind some revs on to join the fast moving outside lane traffic. The little 1.5 litre engine boomed and roared, but sounded willing and able. The needle arced freely through four, five, six thousand RPM, at the red line I punched another laser-quick gearchange into third and did the same again. Road noise was increasing, I was ready for another gear, I look at the speedo and, well, we hadn't actually gained any great speed. Had I carried out that process in my own car I'd be doing around a hundred; here I had made it to just about 80. No matter, it had all been rather enjoyable. I put it in fifth and settled down for the journey towards London.

At this speed it became clear that the Mazda could use a little tender loving care. There was some steering wheel wobble that came and went, and a distinct rumble from one or more wheel bearings, which I solved by turning the stereo up a bit. I also noticed that the previous owner had solved the issue of a non-working a/c system by putting a square of black insulating tape over the button and pretending it wasn’t there.

Generally the car was behaving impeccably. I, though, wasn't. A lapse of concentration saw me stuck behind a lorry with faster traffic passing me and preventing me from re-joining the 80mph flow. I would have to make my own opportunity. I chucked it back down to third, about four and a half thousand revs and surged out from behind the truck. Acceleration wasn't impressive, but it was there and soon enough I was back up to my chosen cruising velocity. Later I tried putting my foot down without a gearchange; nothing really happens apart from the exhaust note hardening a little. I'd really like to try this car in 147hp V6 guise, for its beautiful noise more than anything else.

It felt quite secure and safe at motorway speeds, a definite cut above its Escort class competitors of the day. Part of this feeling of maturity must be from the fact that it actually uses a shortened version of the G platform used by the Mazda 626. This new platform, christened C platform was also found under the Xedos 6.

Half an hour later I had the opportunity to see if the 323 had any talent away from the motorway and, if it does, just how much of a smile can a hundred quid put on your face? Well, the answer is absolutely bucketloads. That BTCC driving position lends itself to aggressive, assertive driving and gives you loads of leverage on the ‘wheel for flicking the car into bends, and it acquits itself to this sort of tomfoolery rather well. There’s also something about driving a £100 car that gives you a sort of do-or-die mentality. What I’m saying is that it encourages you to drive like a twat.

When I got to my destination I parked the Mazda among all the shiny new Benzes and patted roof fondly as I walked away. My ride home was an E250 CDi, a car generally agreed to be excellent, but as with many such cars it’s so competent as to become tedious, particularly when you’ve been driving a car from the very opposite end of the automotive spectrum. Also, I like to think that, if the Mercedes brings admiring glances (it doesn’t, really) then the Mazda received just as much “wow, I remember those” attention from backward looking past-dwellers like myself.

Also, I’ve now checked and the brunette from Voice of the beehive really was as hot as I remember.