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1988 Mazda 323 GTX - Unsung Hero

EVOs and STIs may have more rally cred, but Mazda’s tough little 323 GTX deserves some recognition.

By David Pratte, Photography by David Torney

In 1985 Mazda was seduced by the siren known as rallying, resulting in the production of the turbocharged and AWD 323 GTX. Having shown real promise during the 1986 season, the Mazda was seen as a big threat in the WRC the following year. It was considered by many to be the perfect size and shape for rallying and was widely regarded as a sweet-handling car. But the GTX never quite lived up to its promise, with its engine lacking the necessary punch and the transmission being more fragile than a Fabergé egg.

Despite its short-lived and largely non-glorious rallying career, the GTX has a cult following that includes Jeffrey Sylvester, whose ’88 is one of just 1,243 examples sold in North America during the little gravel-spitter’s two-year run here (1988–89). As Jeffrey told us, “I’ve always loved the Mazda brand, and four years ago, when I came across this car on Craigslist, I knew it was the project I was looking for. The build started six months after I got the car, when the stock transmission blew and I was left looking for parts. I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to source parts, but I learned that lesson soon enough when I had to order them from all over the world.”

To give you an idea of the challenges associated with GTX ownership, Jeffrey had to source a bumper from Australia, which was then seized by U.S. Customs for more than two months. And then there was the five-month search for replacement steering knuckles, eventually sourced from that northern backwater known as Canada. But on the upside, Jeffrey did luck into a killer deal on a one-of-a-kind, carbon-fiber hood. “Ten years ago a guy in Cali made it, took pics and told 10 people he was building more. He collected $700 per person and then disappeared! Two years ago, the prototype hood, never even mounted, popped up on Craigslist. A guy in NY bought it for a BG chassis 323. When he found it didn’t fit he called me and offered it for only $300. I drove down and bought it that night!”

I’ve always loved the Mazda brand. When I came across this car on Craigslist, I knew it was the project I was looking for.

As cool as it is to own the only GTX carbon-fiber hood in the known universe, the real masterpiece is under that hood. Swapping out the 1.6-liter B6 engine in favor of the bigger and more powerful 1.8-liter BP engine is a popular move in the GTX world, but Jeff took it a step further. His ’92 JDM BPT engine got a full rebuild, stuffing the cylinders with Wiseco pistons and Eagle H-beam rods, while the head got treated to a pair of Web turbo cams, solid lifters and oversized valves. To top it off, he bolted a Garrett GT2871R to the custom manifold and had Rabe Motorsports fab up a custom 3-inch turbo-back exhaust. Rabe also handled the tuning, dialing in the Stinger 4 stand-alone EMS to the tune of 249 whp and 247 wtq at a very reasonable 14 lbs of boost. That’s what we call a nice square hp/tq ratio, which should make this GTX an absolute blast to drive.

With a drivetrain made of glass, Jeffrey has been smart enough to upgrade everything connecting the engine to the wheels, starting with a viscous center diff transmission out of a 1.8-liter JDM GTX, a viscous rear LSD out of a Miata and an ACT clutch kit. This should ensure Jeffrey can enjoy his Mazda hatchback to the fullest, something he’s been doing regularly at local autocross events hosted by the Connecticut Autocross and Rally Team. And like any serious autocrosser, Jeffrey’s also upgraded the suspension and brakes for improved pylon-dodging precision and control.

You may not see many 323 GTXs on the street or even on the Internet, and its body style may not scream “look at me!” the way the flared and big-winged STIs and EVOs of this era do, but that doesn’t mean this unsung hero of the late ’80s doesn’t deserve recognition for being the indisputably fun-to-drive turbocharged 4WD hot hatch it is. In fact, the GTX is so cool and so rare that Jeffrey’s has even won a few “sleeper” awards at car shows, where most people are astounded to learn that Mazda made a turbocharged AWD car in the ’80s.

Why We Picked It
With so few 323 GTXs left on the road, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feature one. We love the fact that this well-built example is driven in anger on the regular, a fitting life for a car designed to take on the most challenging rally stages in the world.

By David Pratte
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