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An old Mazda and rally special. The 323 GTX 4X4.

By Rigval on 02 Feb 2010

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Around 1995, or the days long before the Mazda 3 existed, a friend managed to convince his father to buy for him a newer car for him to run around to college and back. Lots of excuses were given from the supposedly unreliability of his old car to “Dad, no one want to be friends with me due to my 'unclemobile'”. So from a hand me down 1980s Nissan Pulsar pensioner's car he went into a pocket rocket rally special. His choice at the time was a 1988 Mazda 323 GTX 4x4. This car was campaigned by Mazda in the WRC during the late 1980s and it garnered them a total of 3 WRC wins. Not that many, but victories nonetheless. While almost 5-6 years old at the time it was still a chick magnet and a pretty fun car to drive.

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A brief run down of the specs would tell you that the 1600cc engine pumped out 143bhp and 187Nm of torque. This was packaged in a sub 1000kg 3 door hatchback with a 5 speed manual gearbox, all wheel drive and a lockable center diff (pic above) for 50:50 drive distribution to all wheels. Amazing technology for the 1980s and very usable during the 1990s too. However, this was hardly used on normal roads as having equal drive to all wheels would cause wind up in the transmission and eventually damaging it due to the strain. I suppose it would be good in gravel and in dirt roads where tire slip would mostly occur all of the time compared to tarmac which is usually grippy.

Back to the Mazda. It came with aftermarket shocks which made the ride rock hard. This car was on 16inch rims using 195/50 tires. This made things verging on unbearable if you sat in the rear. This rock hard ride was coupled with a single box exhaust muffler which went 'Blarrrrhhhhh' at all engine speeds, somehow most irritating at around 110km/h. Even so, I managed to sleep throughout the trip we made from Kuala Lumpur to the Kenyir Resort in Terengganu in that car. This was before there was a KL-Kuantan Highway so it took awhile. I was young at the time and extremely loud noises as well as a ride that could shake all the fillings from my teeth would not affect me. It was either youth or the fact that we only had a cassette of Celine Dion playing over and over again, due to the radio not being connected to the aerial, that anesthetized me to slumber. I doubt I'd survive another 6 hour trip in a car like that again. Then again I wonder how the three of us survived that trip in the first place.

Now if you drive this Mazda in the stock 143bhp form it was fast, but not crazy fast. It would take approximately 7.5 seconds for it to reach 100km/h and could easily cruise at 150km/h on highways for hours if the car was stock. If if were my friend's car, it could do the same provided you could stand the loud exhaust at speed as well as whether your spine, kidneys and bladder could do the same about the ride too.

We now know that the suspension was basically aftermarket but the engine was basically stock aside from the exhaust system, a waste-gate and a K&N filter. However my friend managed to source a MAZDASPEED ECU that made the check engine light glow all the time, as well as pump up everything from fuel, ignition, air and madness closer towards total insanity. I suppose this made it hit 100km/h in about 6secs. All this in a small 1600cc hatchback in 1995. Actually it was bonkers, the rock hard ride and the ridiculous exhaust noise amplified the madness to total lunacy. This car became the first of the nausea inducing cars that this good friend of mine friend will own. I believe this car was the first that made my head spin. Prior to the installation of the ECU, the car suffered from turbo lag and throttle response was not up to my standards. I was driving a 1981 Honda Civic 2nd generation with a fully blueprinted, balanced engine with a 36DCNF Weber carburettor, throttle response and pedal feel was ridiculously direct. I suppose nothing could ever compare to that even to this day. Post ECU, the Mazda's turbo spooled up almost immediately and things were explosive from the start.

And what about handling? On MAZDASPEED shocks at the rear and some other aftermarket shocks upfront it turned on a dime. This very incredible response and agility was partly down to the short wheelbase of 2400mm and its light weight. 2400 mm is considered tiny as it was a full 100mm shorter than even a Lancer Evolution I. Grip levels of the car was high due to the upgrades and then current 1995 spec rubber, not 1988 spec rubbers. I never found the actual limit of the car (as it wasn't mine to actually do so) but my friend managed to do so on a number of occasions, one of them avoiding a cow or two somewhere along the old Kuantan-KL road in the middle of the night. That incident cost him at least 1 replacement headlight and a bumper. The actual grip limits must have been very high but I believe that the threshold between slip and grip for this Mazda was small due to low profile tires and hard shocks. This combination loses out on the break-away progressiveness of the tires as there's no flex whatsoever from the setup. Thus it was scary to drive even though the car had a responsive steering which had pretty decent feedback. In the wet the hard suspension and short wheelbase made it feel skittish even with all wheel drive.

However, the large rims and tires, from the stock 185/60/14 sized to the 195/50/16 tire size caused the brakes to be extremely under servoed, making any sort of lock-up impossible even with a hard shove. It meant braking was worse than stock. It was really scary if you were doing 160km/h on the highway and someone decided to wander into your lane. This sort of thing happened to a lot of cars from the 1980s and 1990s due to small calipers and small servos that cannot compensate the higher rolling inertia and weight of the larger rims and tires. Somehow, you have to use Extra Sensory Perception or the Force to predict that the road was safe to rampage on through at speeds close or above the ton.

All in all a manic car that I was utterly afraid to actually drive extremely fast due to the above and also due to a slight lack of skill at the time (before the free driving lessons in 1996-97 from two seasoned super saloon & Proton Saga Cup drivers from the 1980s and 90s). Sometimes I wonder how my friend managed to keep himself in one piece during his tenure as owner of that machine.

Due to its collectible nature, some still exist in Malaysia and will usually change hands around the Ringgit 15,000-20,000 figure. In fact the photos showing the car is from a local buy/sell site.

Mazda, Mazda 323 GTX and 2 more...

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Rigval
Written by Rigval
Born in 1972. Married with a kid. Loves B-road drives and have driven cars from the 1950s to date.



  • 1
Pocus Feb 02 2010 01:27 PM
Wow nice article, didn't know the Mazda's tuning arm already existed then.

From the picture it looks like it share the same frame with the Ford Laser TX3. With a 1.8l turbo, the TX3 was also a pocket rocket in it's own right.

These cars of the early to mid 90's go through some of the best technical advancements in engine technology. From a mere 8 valve SOHC carburated engine to 12valves then 16valves with Twin Cam and EFI.

Too bad I was too young and too poor to enjoy these cars in flesh during those time..
  • 1
 
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