Behind its rather uninspiring title, the latest small Mazda conceals some interesting mechanicals plus performance far beyond what its bland 323 bodyshell suggests. Called the Turbo 4 x 4, it is a 1.6-litre pocket rocket boasting a twin-cam four-valve intercooled turbo unit driving a full-time four-wheel-drive system. This extra complexity side-steps the problems of pouring a lot of power through the front wheels — the torque steer of a Fiat Strada Abarth, or the wet traction problems of a Saab 9000 Turbo — and with no speed restrictions or engagement controls it is unnoticed in use. Only the excellent traction on all surfaces and the lack of any steering wheel fight under the full dose of 148 bhp might suggest that the rear wheels are doing half the work.
The fixed 50:50 front/rear drive ratio was selected as giving the optimum handling, and while I have until now preferred the 1/3-2/3 of the Ford system, I found the little hatchback to be very well-balanced indeed. Being short and compact, it can be twitched through a series of esses with the briefest of lifts of the throttle to allow it to change direction, and it feels as though it were executing perfect four-wheel drifts, helped by its specially developed Dunlop 185/60 VR14 SP Sport Super tyres which are nice and progressive when the car finally slides. MacPherson struts support each corner, with lower wishbones at the front and twin transverse links at the rear, and the track is wider than that of the front-drive 323. Those rear suspension links hint at the Group A rallying aspirations of the new car, as they are adjustable, and indeed the Turbo 4 x 4 will be sold in a basic form, minus spoilers, alloy wheels, and sun-roof, to tempt privateers into competition with it.
As a road car, the Mazda is very impressive indeed at speed; even with 115 mph showing, it has the stability of a much larger car, and will push on to a claimed 127 mph. Acceleration, though, feels less urgent than Mazda imply; a change down and a short wait is usually required before the engine is really working, and it is a bit noisy as the red line approaches, though as it produces 93bhp/litre it seems unfair to criticise too much. A 0-60 time of 8.0 sec is claimed, though it is hard to see how given the slow and imprecise gearchange; although the other controls in the conventional interior work well, the presence of the prop-shaft has forced Mazda’s engineers to endow the car with a poor cable change.
Power steering in such a small car is unusual, but it is standard on the Mazda and is a pleasant and positive speed-sensitive system. Other luxuries include an electric sunroof, alloy wheels, and Clarion radio-cassette, plus a push-button centre diff-lock.
Both its performance and its price put the Mazda Turbo 4 x 4 at the top of the Golf/Peugeot GTi sector, and the specification certainly sounds impressive. The inter-cooled turbocharger with internal water cooling boasts a by-pass valve to keep the turbine spinning when the throttle closes, while careful induction tuning and the electronic injection help to give a good spread of torque peaking at 5000rpm with 143 lb-ft. With a basic recipe of five seats and a hatch, plus the added ingredient of twice the power and traction of lesser family boxes, the price of £11,750 falls between the rapid hatchbacks and the 4WD saloons; unfortunately the current appeal of all-wheel-drive is rather offset by tasteless decals shouting “FULL TIME 4WD” down one flank and “DOHC TURBO” down the other. In Rallye guise the price drops to £10,999, though Mazda do not profess to know what proportion will be the plain wrapper version. — G.C.