Ask any car enthusiast to name an all-wheel-drive, turbocharged Japanese rally car for the street, and you'll inevitably get the same two answers every time: Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. But long before these stars of Gran Turismo became household names, an unlikely manufacturer built a hatchback with all the same credentials as those stereotypical rally rockets.
Like the WRX and the Evo, the Mazda 323GTX was created to satisfy FIA rally homologation rules; Mazda needed to build 5000 roadgoing cars to be eligible for Group A competition. The company extensively modified its pedestrian 323, redesigning the underbody and doubling the rigidity of the side sills, widening the track, and adding all-wheel drive. It then ditched the standard 82-hp four-cylinder engine in favor of a turbocharged and intercooled sixteen-valve four. Excellent sport seats and optional digital instruments that only David Hasselhoff could love distinguished the interior.
Driving a 323GTX today reminds you just how refined modern rally replicas such as the WRX and the Evo have become. The GTX never lets you forget its econobox origins, but, then again, it weighs some 600 pounds less than a WRX or an Evo, which allows the modest 132-hp engine to push it along briskly. Period road tests reported a 0-to-60-mph time of about eight seconds, and reviewers applauded the Mazda for its balance and grip.
Although Mazda originally planned to import 2400 323GTXs per year to the United States, sales trickled to a stop in 1989 after the company sold fewer than 1200 units. The hefty price--about $13,000--certainly didn't help. At that time, you could buy a base Volkswagen GTI for just over $10,000, and the sixteen-valve GTI--which was just as quick as the GTX--still cost almost $1000 less than the Mazda.
Buying a GTX today can be tricky. Most have been heavily thrashed, but at least overall reliability is very good, typical of cars from the land of the rising sun. Gearbox and transfer case wear can be an issue and crankshafts can fail, so make sure that the car has been properly maintained and that there's no crank pulley wobble at idle (a prelude to failure). Plus, parts are becoming more difficult to come by. But if you find a decent Mazda 323GTX, you'll have a rally car for the street for far less money than it takes to buy one of the more familiar players.
WHAT TO PAYProject cars are $1000 or less. A decent 323GTX in average condition costs between $3000 and $5000. Expect to pay $6000 and up for a rare low-mileage survivor.
BODY STYLETwo-door hatchback.
PRODUCTIONU.S. production totaled only 1194 - 1039 for the 1988 model year and 155 the following year.
WATCH OUT FORRally cars tend to live in regions with rain and snow, so rust is a big issue. Also, parts are difficult to find, transfer cases and gearboxes wear out, and crankshafts are prone to fail.
Mazda Motorsportsby Connie Goudinoff, Motorbooks, $20.www.amazon.com
SPARES AND DEALERS
Corksport Mazda Performance360-260-2675www.corksport.com
Reich Racing Limited519-576-2204www.reichracing.on.ca/project323
YAHOO! AUTOS 323GTX GROUPhttp://autos.groups.yahoo.com/group/323gtx
OUR CHOICEYou can't be picky about color or spec because so few exist. That said, a clean 323GTX with no sunroof or power windows is ideal, because those options add about fifty pounds.