Before the WRX and Evo, there was the Mazda 323 GTX
Turbocharged, rally-inspired hatchbacks are now par for the course in both domestic and import showrooms, but there was once a time when these forced-induction econoboxes were built in limited numbers, and in many cases solely to satisfy homologation requirements in various global racing series. We’re talking, of course, about the late 1980s and early ’90s—truly the glory years for the “race on fjord-day, sell on Monday” crowd that clustered around the World Rally Championship’s global calendar.
From this dusty swirl of cutthroat competition was born the Mazda 323 GTX, by far the rarest flavor of the Japanese brand’s plucky two-door 323 hatchback (called the Familia in Japan). Imported to the United States for the 1988 and ’89 model years, the 323 GTX combined turbos, all-wheel drive, and a race-ready chassis into a rally package like Mazda had never produced. And yet, people forgot the GTX in the intervening decades since it was last offered for sale. That’s a shame—this hot hatch’s rarity, performance cred, and period styling would make a quirky and rewarding addition to any collection.
The catch? Finding one is tough, as only 1243 examples ever made it across the Pacific to settle in American garages, and many of them were treated… vigorously.
During the GTX’s development in the early ’80s, motorsports was already a core competency for Mazda, but high-profile achievements like winning Le Mans overshadowed several of the automaker’s other racing efforts, including its successful Group A entry into the World Rally Championship. At the center of those achievements? The 323 GTX, of course.
Although Japan and Europe had gotten a taste of the production GTX as early as 1985, it wasn’t until the ‘88 model year that the B6-powered four-cylinder turbo hatch appeared in the U.S. Featuring a forced induction version of the 1.6-liter unit that would eventually go on to power the first-generation Miata, the GTX offered 132 horsepower and 136 lb-ft of torque, or roughly 120 ponies fewer than what was available in rally spec.
Many owners, however, soon figured out that the path to an easy 50 hp or more was inexpensive and easy to implement. The open secret was ECU tuning and of course increasing air flow and boost, presaging the pocket-rocket explosion of JDM turbo cars by more than a decade in America.
The Mazda 323 GTX’s all-wheel drive system also featured a standard lockable planetary center differential (with a 50:50 torque split accessible via a push-button on the dash), matched with a five-speed manual gearbox. The GTX rode on a wider track compared to the base 323, and it also came with a stiffened body and suspension system that was rugged enough to withstand a decent amount of stage rally abuse. Inside, the car had an optional digital dash to go with its Recaro bucket seats, as well as a full range of power convenience features including a sunroof.
Jeff Zurschmeide, who spent years rallying from the right seat and wrenching on a number of 323 GTX cars in competition, tells Hagerty: “It’s an absolute hoot to drive. We had a street GTX and a rally GTX, but since we were in a Production AWD class we just had exhaust mods, a cold air intake, and a built suspension. The stock drivetrain doesn’t give you a lot of torque, but once boost builds it’s easy to keep speeds up. We would often match the stage times of more powerful cars of the era because the short wheelbase was so eager to turn – unless we had to deal with long, uphill runs.”
Former Mazda 323 GTX owner and fellow rally enthusiast Jimmy Pelizzari agrees. “They are a lot of fun, especially in winter conditions,” he says. ” These cars are such a joy to whip around a tight, twisty road. You have to remember, though, that you are driving a fragile, rare, and complicated car from the beginning of a generation of all-wheel-drive turbo four-cylinders. When you’re driving you always need to be delicate with the transmission. Always consider the transmission.”
The nuts and bolts
The transmission’s fragility is the most frustrating deficiency with the car, and it isn’t happy with repeated hard launches, or extra power.
“It’s honestly garbage,” Pelizzari says. “When Subaru guys say that their five-speeds are glass, they don’t know what glass is.” Zurschmeide concurs, adding that the full-time four-wheel drive design of the gearbox makes it a bear to remove and replace. “It took us 12 hours one time to install a spare from a wrecked car, and at least four hours of that time was pulling the front axles out of the old transmission. In the end, I built ‘new’ axles out of used parts to deal with the problem.”
The brake rotors are also a problem. Due Mazda’s the unusual decision to install them behind the wheel hub, they’re difficult and expensive to service. “It’s better to just go with the common Ford Escort / Mazda Miata brake swap,” Pelizzari says.
Still, both Zurschmeide and Pelizzari conclude that the engines are bulletproof in stock form, and remain robust past their factory output as long as modifications are made with care. “I don’t think the engine really needs anything to wake it up, but it’s definitely more of a ‘warm hatch’ than a ‘hot hatch,’” Zurschmeide says with a laugh. “Think like a first-gen VW Rabbit GTI, only with less torque.” Pelizarri says that a boost controller is always a good addition to the 323 GTX, but once you’re near the 200 horsepower mark it starts to get dicey for the transmission.
As with many limited-production performance cars, driving the GTX in modern traffic isn’t an issue, but sourcing the specialized parts required to keep it running can be tough. Once again, transmissions are the primary sticking point, with most available replacements already gobbled up by rally teams or collectors in the decades between now the 323 GTX’s heyday. Locating someone with the know-how to rebuild one of these unique gearboxes is also difficult—Pelizzari recommends walking away from any potential project that lacks a functional transmission.
Fortunately, the rest of the Mazda’s package, including its engine, body, and interior components, aren’t any more difficult to wrangle than any of the Mazda’s other cars of the same era.
“There’s a solid Facebook group that you can go to for assistance and expertise—I call it the 323 GTX Self-Help Group,” Pelizzari says. “It’s a great resource, but you won’t find much in the brick-and-mortar shop world in terms of anyone who still wrenches on these cars. If your car’s in good shape, and you don’t abuse it, you probably won’t run into any significant problems.”
“If you can’t find the advice you are looking for online, you could also always talk to a former rally mechanic like me,” Zurschmeide adds. Lucky for him, he’s wise enough to not hand out his home phone number to serve as the Mazda 323 GTX Support Hotline.
Affordable performance… up front
If you can find an extant 323 GTX, the good news is that it won’t cost much to pick up. Although exact values are extremely difficult to nail down because of how rarely these cars change hands, we estimate a value range of $3000–$9800. It’s worth noting, however, that a concours-quality GTX is virtually unheard of, and almost all of the cars out there are modified to some extent and are pricey to maintain. Then again, if you have the resources, connections, and inclination, we can’t think of a cooler winter beater than one of these with a set of rally lights and some mud flaps.