Whilst sorting through some old magazines recently, I came across a copy of Autocar & Motor from October 1990. The front cover showed an artist’s sketch of what was headlined “Next Summer’s Hottest New Coupe”, continuing “£15,000 V6 pocket rocket from the people who gave us the MX-5”. Exciting stuff.
As the lead article in that week’s News section, Autocar & Motor breathlessly trailed the arrival of the hotly anticipated Mazda MX-3. Due to be unveiled at the Geneva show in spring 1991, the new front wheel drive coupê was primarily pitched to challenge the Honda CRX, and boasted an unusual 1.8-litre, 24-valve twin cam V6, rather optimistically expected to be good for 170bhp. Could this advantage unseat the CRX and even potentially attract customers away from the Toyota MR2 and Volkswagen Corrado? Local importers, Mazda Cars (UK), were quoted as saying “it will be here next year and we’ll be pushing it hard over the summer”. Given the success of the MX-5 which was already established as a firm favourite by late 1990, you have to wonder what went wrong. From the perspective of 30 years, instead of being fondly remembered as a small sportscar that made a big impression, the MX-3 has been pretty much forgotten. That said, even fewer people now remember its larger MX-6 stablemate but that’s a story for another day.
On paper, the V6 powered MX-3 was a tempting proposition. The underlying architecture shared much with the Mazda BG platform; the contemporary Familia/323. The 323 family of cars were perfectly adequate things to drive in the guise of a workaday saloon, better in the form of the pop-up headlamp endowed 323F, and better still when presented as the turbocharged four-wheel drive 323 GTX. Mazda had long been capable of surprising the market with innovatively engineered machines as evidenced in the Wankel powered Cosmo and RX-7. However, I’ve always considered their more everyday products to be more interesting than they first appear, but I suppose the problem is they should have appeared to be more interesting in the first place. I’ve owned and driven a few different models but apart from the ubiquitous MX-5, Mazda have never really made a big impression on the European market. The MX-5 was a good car but found huge success largely because it was essentially unchallenged in its sector. It had a clear, unique selling point. When Mazdas were pitched against the big players in more fiercely fought categories, they were often overlooked and inferior cars frequently and unjustly prevailed. Given a choice between the much derided fifth generation Ford Escort or the sharper and more responsive BG Mazda 323, the answer from the car buying public at the time was generally, “neither thanks, I’ll have a Vauxhall Astra”. Idiots.
Mazda persevere with producing slightly left of mainstream cars today but remain a supporting act as far as the sales charts are concerned. If you need a reason to like the company ethos, you should not only be reminded of their stubborn obsession with rotary, but also recall they still have faith in the good old internal combustion engine. Their high compression Skyactiv gasoline motors rage against the dying of the light. Whereas other manufacturers are all about the EV, Mazda remain committed to an all-new inline-six for 2022. Looking to the inevitable future, they currently only offer a single fully electrified product but have patented a hybrid system for future models that uses a rotary engine to power the batteries which will drive hub motors. It seems that Mazda will only really embrace electric when they’ve figured it out on their own terms. They seem increasingly set on following their own path, whether or not it makes sense to the outside world; which brings us neatly back to 1991 and the arrival of the MX-3.
Back in its homeland, Mazda launched the MX-3 with a 1.6-litre inline 4-cylinder and the aforementioned range-topping 1.8-litre V6. For reasons of Japanese marketing they also introduced a cost-reduced 1.5-litre variant under their “youthful” Autozam brand, and if that wasn’t enough, there was a more aspirational Eunos Presso version too. This all went down well enough in the Japanese home market but trying to sell a non-premium, compact small-capacity V6 coupé with limited room for passengers was always going to be a tougher sell in Europe. The MX-3 was quite a niche offering in a market where a locally produced hot hatch was more practical and did most things better, except maybe the subjective topic of aesthetics. This was a problem for the MX-3; it wasn’t just competing against other small coupés, it was in competition with more conventional European favourites such as the Golf GTi. Back in Japan, local car tax regulations were based on exterior dimensions and engine capacity, and European imports were expensive. Whilst the advantages of a domestically produced compact car with a small capacity V6 may have been obvious in Hiroshima, those attributes were lesser prized in Hertfordshire or Hannover. However, the real elephant in the room was the power output of that V6. Whereas Autocar & Motor may have reported hopes of 170bhp, the reality was a mere 130 horses… It’s a mystery as to why it was seemingly so over-hyped just months before launch, but given that disappointment, outside of Japan the MX-3 was the answer to a question that nobody was asking.
Some of the competition.
Now, you may have read the above and wondered why I have completely written off the appeal of the 1.6 4-cylinder. The Honda CRX found enough buyers and that was similarly equipped, but whilst the Honda boasted a VTEC of around 150bhp, the 1600cc Mazda could only muster an anemic 106bhp. The market for slow small coupés wasn’t defined until GM launched the Tigra in 1994 and Ford followed in 1997 with the Puma, both of which sold boatloads just whilst the MX-3 was being cancelled. If the 1.6-litre variant of the MX-3 had arrived later it may have been compared more favourably, particularly with the tepid Opel, but against the CRX it just looked a bit rubbish. But there was a bigger problem still. In the UK during 1991, a CRX Coupé could be had for around £11,650 with the VTEC variant available at £13,900. By comparison, the Mazda looked steep at £13,449 for the 1.6 and a full £15,449 for the V6.
It’s a shame the MX-3 was uncompetitively priced as on paper there was a lot to recommend it. The range topper would sprint to 60mph in about 8.5 seconds and race on to 126mph. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as sporting as originally expected but it wasn’t that bad when judged in isolation. The engine was a member of the Mazda K-Series family, not to be confused with the Rover unit of the same name. The Mazda motor was a belt driven DOHC of all-aluminium construction with a balanced forged steel crankshaft and lightweight conrods. It boasted a Variable Resonance Induction System that optimized volumetric efficiency at any given rpm to provide improved power and torque across the rev range. The K8 variant as used in the MX-3 was amongst the smallest production V6 engines ever produced and is therefore quite interesting regardless. The redline was set at 7,000rpm with a 7,800rpm limiter to stop it all exploding. In its ultimate JDM incarnation it was coaxed to 144bhp with 115 lb/ft of torque, a useful upgrade over the export 130bhp but shortsighted of Mazda not to offer it more widely. Chassis wise, the MX-3 may not have been a genuine lightweight at 1,100 kgs but it was nimble. The rear suspension used Mazda’s Twin Trapezoidal Link system which delivered passive rear wheel steering, greatly enhancing turn-in and responsiveness. It’s just unfortunate it remained front wheel drive but I doubt that mattered to many prospective buyers as front wheel drive is just something that is widely accepted in the same manner as social injustice, death and taxes.
I’m not sure whether my conclusion is that the MX-3 wasn’t good enough, or that it was simply hobbled with an uncompetitive list price; but it’s probably a bit of both. Regardless, for something that promised so much, the MX-3 missed the mark. Perhaps it makes more sense today as an affordable youngtimer, if you can actually find one. DVLA data shows 246 currently taxed for road use in the UK, but there are surprisingly around three times that number being stored on SORN. Somebody obviously still loves them.