Curbside Classic: 1988 Mazda 323 – A Better Little (And Very Basic) Car

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(first posted 9/11/2014)     I’ve been around a lot of Mazda cars in my life but one of two that have left a lasting impression was a test drive in a 323 GTX sometime in the mid ’90s.  A buddy of mine was looking to replace his car and one of the local “buy here, pay here (and bring the vaseline)” dealers had a black 323 GTX sitting in plain view.  For him it checked the boxes he was looking at – black, and had room for subwoofers in the hatch.  I had always been a mild gearhead, and had read all of the old copies of auto rags in the school library so I knew exactly what we were looking at – and suggested that he let me handle the driving portion of the test drive while he determined if it had enough room for his subs.


Wow, what a car!  I can remember clearly ripping through some neighborhoods in North Lincoln, then some fun down West O – none of which amused my buddy who was more interested in speaker placement.  Of course he was kind of an idiot and ended up buying a Ford Escort GT so that was the only romp I got in the 323 GTX but ever since I’ve been trying to find one so I could push the all wheel drive button and have some ridiculous hoonage with it.

Introduced in 1985, this series of 323 was quite the popular car in my neck of the woods.  For good reason, they were cheap and thrifty on fuel – plus everyone was crazy about front wheel drive at the time.  With a curb weight in the 2,000-pound range it didn’t need a whole lot of power on tap to move which was good – most had around 65-85 horsepower which would move them.. sort of.  Even the hot-rod 323 GTX made due with just 143hp, but with only around 2,600 pounds to move it didn’t need much.

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During a whirlwind of a weekend whose story will be told another time, my brother decided to buy this car.  Which is good, because had he not – I probably would have.  When I saw the ad I knew it was a keeper – maintenance records, four speed manual and little rust advertised for about $1,000.  My brother prefers to bike to work so for him as a winter or “off day” car so this thing was perfect for him.

He’s always had this knack of finding vehicles with legendary drivetrains in great running order despite not knowing a whole lot about cars.  A ’80s F-150 with the 300 6, a 1981 Toyota pickup, and a 1985 Nissan hardbody are just some of the highlights.  When I started looking at it, this car is definitely one of the highlights and completely surprising given what it is.  And what it is, well, that’s unique in its own right – I don’t think this car has a single option.

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Getting info on the GTX is easy, but finding info on the lower end models is somewhat difficult.  From high school I know that most of this vintage had carburetors with latter models having fuel injection.  Around here, the vast majority seemed – from my scientific high school polls – had automatic transmissions that coupled with the 65-85 horsepower mills and a car full of teenagers made the accelerator pedal more of an “on/off” switch than something that was regulated.

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While those cars didn’t last, this one was maintained and seems to have aged brilliantly.  Looking at it after he bought it, I had to laugh because of the sheer lack of any option whatsoever.  Even the dash clock and passenger mirror are missing in this car, I can just hear the buyer “nope, I don’t need a stinking dash clock, that’s why I have a watch!”  It’s got a four speed manual, fuel injected motor and.. floormats? Maybe the Sierra Club stickers hint toward a different kind of previous owner, one who valued frugality and fun over the latest bling.  I can’t imagine what they replaced it with.

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Regardless, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it poking around it and if I’m being honest – I’m a little jealous!  I took it for a drive and was a bit blown away at what he got for what he paid – it drives straight and true with no shaking or hesitation during any stage of driving, and while it definitely doesn’t have any more than its rated 82 horsepower, the motor feels solid and doesn’t smell or smoke.  Sure it needs new tires, but I’d imagine that will set him back per tire about what he’ll pay for tires on his new bike.. maybe less!

Said new bike is worth about twice as much as the 323, keeping his priorities right on track.  That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with this car.  After a late night bike ride in another city he was driving back on the Interstate and had a leg cramp.  While the Mazda was just fine in the right lane behind semi trucks at about 60 miles per hour, suddenly he was stuck with a painful cramp that had his foot to the floor going downhill.  With the little motor screaming in front of him either the laws of wind resistance versus a 26 year old 82 horsepower motor favored him, or it had a hidden rev limiter – but somehow he didn’t shell the motor going into the Platte River valley.

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Regardless of outcome, I’ve got a feeling that like his 1981 Toyota pickup, this is a car whose drive train will outlive its body all the while providing thrifty transportation on the days when it’s either too nasty outside or not desirable for him to bike.  He mentioned a month ago that he put his first full tank of gas in the car… after owning it for two months.

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Hybrids and fancy new direct injected cars are great and everything, but you really can’t beat the cost of ownership of this car.