Mazda’s 323 GTX was a road-legal rally car

4-wheel drive and 5-speed manual made car fun to drive on pavement or gravel roads

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323 GTX
The Mazda 323 GTX won the World Rally Championship in 1987 | Mazda photos

Although it was the first model sold with that “Zoom-Zoom” tagline, the Miata wasn’t Mazda’s first really-fun-to-drive car.

Though I’ve not driven one, the Cosmo certainly looks like a lot of fun. The RX-7 not only was fun but successful on the race track as well. And then there was the 323 GTX, the rally car for the road. Really.

Consider that when Rod Millen won the SCCA Pro Rally championship in 1988, he was driving a 323 GTX that, he noted, was 90 percent out-of-the-showroom stock. An all-out racing version of the 323 GTX also won the World Rally Championship in 1987, the first Japanese car to take that title.

“The rules are really tight in Group A,” Millen said at the time, explaining that about the only changes allowed were pistons and cam, polishing of heads, upgraded turbocharger, and installation of larger brakes, radiator and oil cooler.

Triggering this bit of nostalgia is Mazda’s corporate centennial. It didn’t begin producing motor vehicles until 1931, and then it was a 3-wheeled delivery-style vehicle; it’s first passenger car was the R360 in 1960.

As it celebrates its centennial, Mazda has been doing a series of news releases about its history. The latest recalls the Japanese automaker’s first “modern compact family hatchback,” its 323 model launched in 1977. The 323, it notes, “started a model lineage that stretches all the way to today’s Mazda3.”

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One of the high points in that lineage was the 323 GTX, sold in the U.S. market in 1988 and 1989, and for around $12,000. At the time, the GTX was one of 31 versions of the 323 that Mazda was producing, but it was by far the most fun. Zoom-Zoom, indeed.

In Japan, the car was known as the Familia Turbo

Unlike other 323 models, the GTX came with full-time 4-wheel drive, a first for Mazda. It also came with a double-overhead-cam, 16-valve, turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine that provided 132 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque. Those were the stock power figures; Millen Motorsports was able to extract 250 horsepower from the engine for racing, and offered a 190-horsepower package for the street. 

So you could make the best use of that rev-happy powerplant, the car was available only with a 5-speed manual transmission. 

Further enhancing the fun was a planetary-gear center differential dividing torque between front and rear wheels, and with a dash-mounted switch to activate an electronic diff lock.

Suspension was front struts and coils with antiroll bar with struts and twin-trapezoidal link and coils at the rear, again with antiroll hardware. Brakes were discs all around, vented up front, and the car rode on 16-inch wheels. It also has a double-deck rear spoiler.

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This was a car without bells and whistles. You couldn’t get cruise control, and if you wanted a sun roof, you got one that you had to hand-crank to open. However, it did have a tilt steering wheel and a driver’s seat with adjustable height, lumbar and lateral support. 

I got to drive a 323 GTX for a couple of days when I was the new motorsports editor at AutoWeek magazine. I remember having a blast with the car, especially on Stepladder Road, a rural Michigan roadway that, from above, resembled a stairway with 7 90-degree turns all within a 1-mile distance.

I drove back and forth and back and forth a few times, exercising my inner Rod Millen through each turn. 

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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