Mazda has always offered an entry-level small car in the United States, even if its name seems to change every few years. Following the original GLC (Great Little Car) of the distant past and preceding the Protegé and Mazda 3 of more recent years, the Mazda 323 served as the brand's most affordable set of wheels from 1986-'94.
Like its modern-day successors, the Mazda 323 was always one to get the basics right. Ride and handling were fine, the interior was well-laid out, gas mileage was great (easily past 30 mpg) and reliability ranked right up there with the better-known brands. Yet even back in the 1980s, Mazda was eager to distinguish its offering from the typical Japanese econobox, going so far as to outfit certain versions of the 323 with turbochargers (the famed 323 GT and GTX models) that boosted horsepower into the then quite impressive realm of triple digits. Finally, the 323 was always notably roomy for its class -- an advantage Mazda would maintain with its successors.
In the later years, Mazda opted to emphasize its new Protegé sedan at the 323's expense, effectively demoting the latter to a base two-door hatchback model with a rather light load of horsepower and convenience features. Still, those who have no need for speed or power doodads and prefer a hatchback's utility might want to check out the 323.
Most Recent Mazda 323
There were two generations of the Mazda 323. The second-generation 323 debuted for 1990 alongside its mechanically similar new brother, the Protegé. Because Mazda chose to reserve the sedan body style, stronger engine, better brakes and most amenities for the Protegé, the 323 came only as a sparsely equipped two-door hatchback. For power, it relied on a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine producing 82 horsepower. A five-speed manual and four-speed automatic were the transmission choices; power steering and air-conditioning were the main options.
The 323 came in base and SE trim lines, with the most significant differences being folding rear seats and a cloth interior on the latter. Aside from new taillights in 1992, the 323 underwent virtually no changes throughout its lifetime.
While the Mazda 323 sprung from a basically good design and racked up a steady reliability record, its 82 hp was relatively meager and its handling ability was severely limited by the car's skinny 13-inch wheels and tires. Another potential turn-off was the car's lack of airbags. For the shopper interested in a cheap and frugal hatchback, a used 323 of this vintage is probably a fair choice. However, most people would probably be happier with more desirable small hatchbacks of the time, such as the Honda Civic.
Past Mazda 323 Models
The first-generation Mazda 323 was sold from 1986-'89 as either a two-door hatchback or a slightly larger four-door sedan. Both body styles came in base and SE trim lines, the latter offering cloth upholstery and other minor upgrades. The sedan also came in a top-of-the-line LX version with exclusive features like a tilt steering wheel, power windows and locks and cruise control. All were powered by an 82-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine mated to either a four-speed manual, five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Power steering, air-conditioning and a 40-watt stereo were optional on all models; some sedans were available with cruise control and a manual sunroof.
For many car enthusiasts, 1988 and '89 were the pinnacle years for the Mazda 323. In '88, Mazda debuted a new GT sedan. Mated to a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission, the 323 GT's 16-valve engine had dual overhead cams and a turbocharger to raise output to 132 hp. Also part of the package were four-wheel disc brakes, 14-inch alloy wheels and unique cloth seats. The GT sedan only lasted one year, but for 1989 Mazda took all its hardware, added all-wheel drive and stuffed it all into the new rally-inspired 323 GTX hatchback. These two rare, limited versions of the Mazda 323 provide the best incentives to dig deep into the past.