Since the beginning of the ad campaign, Mazda's confidence in its product offensive has proved well-founded. The Mazda6, while not the finest mainstream upper-medium car available to company car drivers (I think you still can't beat the Mondeo for drivability), made the 626 look like a pumpkin in comparison. Now, Mazda has waved its magic wand over the 323 and in its place we have a real contender in the lower-medium sector fleet battleground and inspiring the kind of turnaround in fortunes that parent company Ford loves right now.
I consider the design of the car to be one of its strong points, muscular at the front end without being too overpowering and in my eyes sharing some of the design cues with the new-look Audi A3. The Mazda's sleek lines lead to a bumper that literally rounds the car off, enclosing bootspace that is adequate rather than all-devouring.
Cabin space is more than adequate and comfort is excellent in the most testing of journeys. The steering is light without being too over-sensitive and the composure of the car in cornering is stunning, as you'd expect with a car built on the platform for the forthcoming Focus replacement.
There are a number of niggles though. Despite alterations to the seating and the steering wheel I can't see the fuel warning light – it's just a little too low down.
Another gripe is the dials positioned in deep recesses that will quickly become magnets for dust and other bits of in-car detritus.
More importantly, I have concerns about the engine beyond the 3,000rpm mark – its note sounds uncomfortably high. Max torque is 177 lb-ft at 4,000 revs. Compare this to the 1.6 diesel with 177 lb-ft at a much calmer 1,750 revs. I've tried to be as fairy-footed as possible for optimum engine performance but with 103bhp the 1.6 engine delivers the driving experience you'd expect from a 1.4. You really have to push the 1.6 to get it moving and so the test mpg rate suffers against the manufacturer's combined figure.
Company car tax bill 2004/05 (22% tax-payer): £49 per month