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Future models - Mazda - 323

More sports for 323

Heart of the matter: Mazda's 2.0-litre engine will soon be seen in the 323 Protege.

Mazda plans a sporty SP20 version of the updated 323 sedan

30 Apr 2002

MAZDA Australia will add an SP20 version of the Protege sedan to its 323 small car line-up when the range is facelifted in June.

The new model will join the Astina SP20, the hatchback proving an unexpected hit since its introduction in February, 2001.

Mazda has already hinted at the introduction of the SP20 Protege by releasing the 250-off limited edition Protege Sports Edition as part of the current model's runout campaign.

Mazda Australia national marketing manager Martin Benders said the motivation for the sporty sedan was the sales success of the Astina five-door hatchback.

"When we first brought the SP20 out as a third model in the Astina range we thought that would be worth 50 sales a month," he said.

"We have consistently done 150 a month and we just think there is demand there for that kind of car.

"It's a good package for where it sits, so we are sure there are people who want a sedan with that sort of package."Mr Benders forecast volume for the expanded SP20 range would rise to about 250 per month, with the Astina claiming around 55 per cent of sales. In 2001, the entire 323 range averaged 901 sales per month.

The SP20 Astina currently gets a 2.0-litre, 16-valve engine that cranks out 98kW at 6000rpm and 178Nm at 4500rpm, rides on 16-inch alloy wheels shod with low-profile tyres and has anti-lock brakes and lower, stiffer suspension.

The addition of the SP20 Protege is one of the highlights of the 323 update that is expected to be mainly cosmetic. But it could also include a rationalisation of the engine range with the possible deletion of the 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine and wider use of the 2.0 alongside the current 1.6.

But Mr Benders refused to confirm the plan: "Don't count your chickens - there are a number of options, and we want to play that card down the track," he said.

* Expect much hotter Mazda 323 sports variants when the next generation car arrives beginning late in 2003, with a Subaru WRX Impreza-rivalling turbo four-wheel drive to top the range.

It has already been announced that the next generation small car platform that the replacement for the Ford Focus and 323 - expected to be called Mazda3 - will be based on will have the capability to use four-wheel drive.

Mazda's MPS hot-rod divison is expected to unveil a turbo 4WD version of the new mid-size Mazda6 at this year's Paris show and Mr Benders hinted that a similar sort of vehicle would be introduced to top the 3 range.

"The overall strategy is to have a sport model at the top of our range, that's what zoom-zoom is about," he said.

* Mr Benders also forecast a resurgence in light car sales at the expense of the small car category.

The changes could be triggered by rising small car prices to above $20,000 for entry level models, and the arrival of several new models in the light car segment, including Mazda's own 121 replacement, expected to be called the 2.

To be offered in both 1.3 and 1.5-litre variants, the Mazda2 will be launched in Japan in July and go on sale in Australia before the end of this year.

But Mr Benders said he did not expect the sales adjustment to be dramatic.

"If you want to put numbers on it, small car is currently sitting at 130-140,000 and maybe that will come back to 120,000," he said.

"Light car got up to a high of 80,000-90,000 when the (Hyundai) Excel was rampant, but last year it was 50,000-60,000. So maybe it will go to 70-80,000 and sit there."If Mr Benders' theory is correct, it will give the 2 more pricing room to move, as Mazda certainly won't be able to compete head-to-head on a dollar basis with South Korean light car entries like the forthcoming Hyundai Getz.

"We will be looking at repositioning it a bit, because even with the current 121 it's been a while since we tried to fight them (Hyundai and co) at the beachhead - at $13,990 and $14,990. There's a lot of room between $14,990 and 20 grand so we have to find our niche in there and offer a very stylish, quality option."

MX-5 sales slump

WHILE Holden's Monaro has triggered a boom in the sports car category, Mazda's MX-5 convertible is not riding the wave, dropping from 309 sales in the first three months of 2001 to 181 in the same period this year.

Mazda Australia is considering how to respond to the situation, debating actions which include addressing pricing, styling and performance.

But Mazda Australia national marketing manager Martin Benders said nothing had been finalised and no "material changes" would be made this year.

"We go backwards and forwards on those things and we change our minds, and there are a number of issues between us and the factory and they are all on the agenda and they are all being discussed," Mr Benders said.

"Depending on the reaction, one becomes more favourable than the other."Mr Benders said the sales drop could be attributed in part to the arrival of a number of attractively priced and featured cabriolets such as the Renault Megane and Peugeot 206CC, but he also defended the MX-5's performance.

"We were punching above our weight for a while in that overall sport specialty segment," he said.

"We are still selling double (Toyota) MR2, we are still selling three times (Honda) S2000, so it's in how you look at it how well or badly we are performing. We do compete and are performing in line with (Toyota) Celica and (Honda) Integra in that segment and it's not bad for how old the car is and the fact we offer two-door, two-seat only."Meanwhile, Mazda Australia executives will discuss the possible future of the turbo MX-5SP in about one month.

"We'll do a post-mortem on it when the dealers have cleared them and say what was good about it and what wasn't so good about it," Mr Benders said.

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