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1988 Mazda 323 GTX – Classic Drive

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1988 Mazda 323 GTX – Classic Drive

Hidden under Mazdas R&D center in Irvine, California, is a hidden collection of strays—everything from John Fingers ex-IMSA MX-6 to a lemon-yellow 1978 GLC with just 7000 miles on the clock. Theres also an 88 323 GTX down there, and we got some wheel time in it. The boxy 1980s Familia compact was a strong seller for Mazda—cheap, cheerful transportation. Fifth-generation cars wore the 323 nameplate in the US, and most were powered by a docile 103-hp engine. So why care about a dull 1980s econobox? Answer: Mazda also made a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive version. Long before the Subaru WRX existed, the Mazda 323 GTX was a rally-bred homologation special you could actually buy. The improvements over the base grocery-getter included stiffened side sills, a reworked underbody, a lockable center differential, widened track, all-wheel-drive, and a 132-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder. READ: Our first drive impressions on the 1991 Sentra SE-R and Nissan 240SX fastback Mazda brought the car stateside for two years, selling just 1243 examples between 1988 and 1989. Hard all-wheel-drive holeshots nuked GTX transmissions, and repairs were expensive. 25 years later, most GTXs are toast. Mazda stumbled across this particular example when a Texas dealer called to say it came in as a trade. Its a lightly-modified 70,000-mile car, not concours quality, but straight, and it fires right up. Regrettably, it doesnt have the then-optional digital dashboard. In addition to a relatively small two-spoke steering wheel, the GTX sports terrific 80s orange lettering everywhere, comfy sport seats, and a relentlessly gray interior that conjures images of a skinned Eeyore. Let the temperature come up, roll on the throttle, and with a honk and a whistle (and a long one–two shift throw), the GTX picks up its skirt and scoots. There doesnt appear to be much changed underhood other than a grubby foam air-cleaner, but seat-of-the-pants feel suggests this example makes more than the stock 132 hp. Like many turbocharged cars of the period, a bleeder valve before the wastegate actuator and a cold air intake can unlock significant power gains. Simple mods to a GTX can net an easy extra 50 hp. In a short-wheelbase car that weighs around 2600 lbs, thats plenty of oomph, and the all-wheel-drive system gets the power down effectively. This is a really fun car, despite the way aging bushings have introduced a little slack into the controls. Satisfying burbles and pops fill the air between shifts. READ:Our original first drive impressions on the Lancer Evolutions VIII As the GTX cools down before returning to its stall, a few tendrils of smoke curl from behind the headlights. A look at the engine bay shows that some oil leaked onto the exhaust manifold. Where theres smoke, theres a hot hatch, I guess. Finding a good GTX is exceedingly difficult, and prospective buyers should watch for transmission problems or wobbling crank pulleys. Other than that, its a tough, charismatic little hatch that broke ground for later cars like the WRX and the Evo. Not bad for a generic-looking Mazda.

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