Looking back now, we can see that the late 1980s and early ’90s were a golden age for sport coupes. The cars were stylish, fun, and affordable, with a strong appeal to young buyers that made the segment vibrant and viable in a way that it likely will never be again. While some of the heroes of that era are now celebrated—particularly the Acura Integra Type R—most have been largely forgotten. Like the Mazda MX-3.
The MX-3 first appeared as a 1992 model, arriving less than two years after Mazda had dropped the bombshell that was the original MX-5 Miata. At the time, Mazda’s lineup already included the MX-6 coupe (the MX-6 and its mechanical sibling, the Ford Probe, are two additional sporty offerings of the era that no one thinks much about anymore). Compared to the MX-6, however, the MX-3 was significantly smaller. Its wheelbase was just 96.3 inches and overall length was 165.7 inches, which made the MX-3 roughly the size of today’s Hyundai Veloster.
Although its size was minimalist, the engineering was not—most notably in the case of the MX-3’s engine, a wee V-6 that at 1844cc was the smallest in the market. (The small displacement allowed it to evade a tax in its home market on engines 2.0 liters and larger.) While the base MX-3 had an unremarkable 1.6-liter four, the GS model’s 1.8-liter V-6 was a 60-degree, DOHC, 24-valve unit with an aluminum block and heads. Known as the K8, this engine had pent-roof combustion chambers, Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection, and what Mazda called a Variable Resonance Induction System (VRIS). The latter comprised dual resonance tubes with butterfly valves that opened and closed at different engine rpm to vary the tube length, thereby bolstering the torque curve. So even though peak torque was just 115 lb-ft at 4500 rpm, the VRIS system allowed a higher percentage of that torque to be available over a greater rev range. Horsepower was 130 at 6500 rpm and, stirred by a rod-actuated five-speed manual, the engine would happily rev to its 7000-rpm redline and beyond, to its fuel cutoff.
The chassis of damper struts up front and trapezoidal links at the rear incorporated twin-valve dampers, a rear anti-roll bar, and unidirectional Yokohama rubber. Variable power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering was standard and ABS optional. After a spirited drive of the new MX-3 through Germany’s Black Forest, Automobile pronounced the new Mazda “an overnight best-in-class contender.”
The MX-3 was part of a rush of new Mazdas that trailed in the wake of the Miata: the new FD-generation RX-7, a redesigned MX-6, and the 929 near-luxury sedan. Given the crush of new models, it’s likely Mazda’s North American sales arm didn’t have the resources to properly promote the MX-3—although we did find one fittingly period TV spot for the ’94 model. In any event, the MX-3 lasted only through the 1996 model year, and the V-6 only through ’94. The car has all but disappeared from U.S. roads, a forgotten example of a time when sport coupes were part of a lively automotive category, and one deserving of innovative engineering.