Before the WRX was a twinkle in North America’s eye, before the Evo showed up on our doorsteps, and even before such venerable turbo-AWD predecessors as the Galant VR-4, Celica All-Trac and the Eclipse GSX, there was the little Mazda 323 GTX.
It wasn’t the first turbocharged production AWD car, but it set the stage for a flood of hoonable beasts from Japan, and it sets our hearts alight even today. We can thank that wonderful concept known as “homologation,” source of so many wonderful vehicles, for the GTX, which was based on the otherwise forgettable 6th generation Mazda Familia (323). You see, Mazda wanted to go rally racing in Group A, the limited production class, after realizing that the RX-7 just wasn’t going to cut it in the post-RWD era. Mazda sourced their lovely B6 motor from the base 323, which was already and advanced 1.6L DOHC 16V engine, and applied a small intercooled turbo to it. The result was, for the street, a healthy but detuned 132 HP in a 2,600 pound car. You see, with a little fiddling, 180 HP wasn’t that difficult to attain, and it’s safe to say that the racing version was significantly more potent than the street car.
Nonetheless, the 323 GTX was a rocket ship compared to the stock 323, hitting 62 mph in an astonishing-for-the-time 7.8 seconds – comparable to a contemporary Ford Mustang GT – and stopping with four-wheel discs. But it wasn’t straight-line performance that was the GTX’s forte – the 323 GTX put down its power to all four wheels with a lockable diff actuated by a dash switch, and topped it off with some reasonably competent stock suspension. The result was a light, short-wheelbase gravel assassin, and a formula that unfortunately has been rarely duplicated as the subsequent AWD homologation specials were based on larger, heavier sedans.
As awesome as the GTX was, there were a few quibbles. It had a mechanically-advanced ignition, anachronistic even in ’86. Transfer cases wear out – good luck finding a replacement. To get to the rotors, you need to tear down the entire wheel hub, because they’re located behind it, which is a giant pain in the ass. Finally, just like the first-generation Miata that came after it, a small proportion of the B6 motors have a flaw in the crankshaft nose, causing it to shear off unpredictably. This has likely already been addressed in any surviving GTX, but it could be a nasty surprise.
Finding one is going to be tough, as only 1,200 were sold in North America. But if you do, clean it up and savor it – not only will it be a tribute to its inspired descendents, but it’ll also be a hoot to hoon around any dirt track or snowy backroad you can get your knobby tires on.
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Need a Winter Sleigh? Ask Santa for a 323 GTX
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