Road Impressions – Mazda Turbo 4x4

Special Edition

Mazda’s recent advertising campaign for the 323 Turbo 4×4 may not have met with unanimous approval, but it had a point: you do not have to pay upwards of £14,600 for an Audi quattro to enjoy the benefits of four-wheel drive and high performance.

An outlay of £11,000 with Mazda buys a sophisticated and exhilarating machine which outruns almost everything on the roads; the “Lux” version costs £11,750, while for a further £750 (plus fitting and VAT) the British importer will supply, to special order, a head-turning version with a Mazdaspeed bodykit.

In Holland, on a circuitous route to the Nürburgring, a solicitor ran downstairs from his office to ply us with questions, pointing out that we had parked behind his Jaguar Sovereign. There were rarely fewer than three people admiring the car in the paddock, where people who know about these things tend to gather; less happily, a policeman who spoke excellent English admired the carosserie while issuing a speeding ticket on the way to the track early on Sunday morning! “You wouldn’t see the radar, it was cleverly hidden. . .Is this a rally car?”

That is the trouble with the excellent German roads in the Eifel region. They are smoothly surfaced, distinguished by fast, open sweeping bends, and perfect bait for someone enjoying a car like the Mazda 323 Turbo! The 50:50 torque split in Mazda’s clever, planetary gear 4WD system transforms the usual transverse-engine, frontdrive characteristics and makes the 4 x 4 a neutral-to-oversteering car at speed, capable of settling on the loaded rear suspension and achieving seemingly impossible speeds through corners.

We have already reported on the “standard” model (MOTOR SPORT, January 1987) which has a 1597cc 16-valve engine, turbocharged by IHI to produce 148bhp at 6000rpm. It will accelerate from rest to 60mph in 7.1 seconds, fast enough to leave a Porsche 944S in its dust, and the maximum speed of 125mph (at 6250rpm) seems almost academic as the car will continue to accelerate to 6500rpm (130mph) on the autobahn.

In Tunbridge Wells, Mazda Cars (UK) Limited leaves the mechanical specification well alone, concentrating on an unusually complete body kit for the Lux version at an included price in the region of £13,000. The kits, imported from Mazdaspeed in Japan, involve fitting wider front wings, cutting and installing wider rear arches, and fitting a cowling which partially blanks the radiator (and advertises Mazdaspeed in scarlet, on silver), new front and rear bumpers: side skirts, and an extra aerodynamic device above the rear window.

The workmanship is excellent, especially the fitment of the rear arches which blend plastic and metal so successfully that it looks like a production-line finish; and surprisingly the special version is no wider than the Lux since the wheel-arch flares are deleted. The Mazdaspeed polished alloy wheels, 14in in diameter and with 6J rims, fill the arches as before, and are equipped with Dunlop’s excellent SP Sport D60 tyres, 185/60 specification.

The installation of a 148bhp engine in a medium size family 3-door hatchback weighing 1175kg is a guarantee of high performance, which Mazda has exploited further by fitting a 4.105:1 differential which runs the car at 20.0mph/1000rpm in fifth gear.

Almost by definition this is not an ideal motorway car, booming and buzzing setting in at 80mph (4000rpm in fifth) and indicating that another gear is needed fairly urgently. Neither was the fuel consumption particularly impressive, varying from 25.75mpg on European motorways to 27.81mpg in mixed driving, and a strong case could be made for fitting the 3.85:1 differential optionally.

The bonus is always there, of course, in high-gear performance. Fifth-gear acceleration matches expectations in fourth, while fourth gear is superbly responsive, taking the 4X4 from 60-80mph in 6.8 seconds. The engine is very smooth too, happily going to the 6500rpm limit in every gear.

Ideal in its compromise between ride comfort and handling, the suspension is by no means harsh at speed on poor roads. The brake system consists of discs all round, ventilated at the front, well up to the car’s performance. It takes a while to master the cable-operated gearchange, which has an ill-defined gate and a rather deliberate action.

For the buyer who has 4WD and the highest possible performance on his list of priorities, the Mazda 323 Turbo 4X4 has a great deal to offer, and at a premium price the special version is attractive and rare. Although well-built, the Mazda lacks a real pedigree and disappoints in the areas of noise levels and overall gearing; for less you can have a Ford Escort RS Turbo and £2000 change, or a BMW 320i on the road, though neither has all-wheel drive.

It would be a difficult choice, boiling down to individual requirements and the desire to own a very rare model. MLC