The 1980s and 1990s were a wild time for Japan’s automotive industry. The “Bubble Era” produced bangers like the Acura NSX, the Suzuki Cappuccino, and the Lexus LS 400. Mazda launched its own hits like the MX-5 Miata and the RX-7 FD. The list of Japanese hits from the day would probably be endless, and one perhaps forgotten entry includes another Mazda. The Mazda MX-3 was another experiment at Mazda and it was a small car with big technology such as a passive rear-steer system and what was the smallest mass-production V6 engine you could buy in America. At 1.8 liters, it’s smaller than probably most of the fours that you can buy today.
Last time on Holy Grails, reader JCBeckman reminded us that there was a time when Chevrolet was willing to sell you a sport sedan with a 6.2-liter LS3 V8 making 415 HP paired to a six-speed Tremec TR-6060 manual transmission. The Australian import trade deal fulfilled Bob Lutz’s dreams of fun General Motors products while helping to keep a Holden plant open a little longer. With those factors in mind, the Chevrolet SS was never a strong seller and perhaps it was never intended to be. Car publications loved them, as did the few enthusiasts who picked them up. Just 12,924 examples of the Chevrolet SS exist and of those, only 2,645 were equipped with a manual transmission. It is perhaps the most underrated modern sport sedan ever sold in America.
Today’s grail continues down the path of an underrated car. It comes from that wild Bubble Era slice of time.
Many of these cars are coveted by enthusiasts today and sell for eye-watering numbers on auction sites. I’d even argue that today’s grail was overshadowed by its more popular stablemates. The Mazda MX-3 was sold alongside the slightly more expensive MX-5 Miata and the much more expensive third-generation RX-7. This car wasn’t the revival of the British roadster or a Wankel-powered wonder, but it’s still worth taking a look at.
Mazda At Its Best
It’s a story that you’ve probably heard a number of times, but the Japanese economy was riding in a huge bubble and through it, consumers got cars and motorcycles that weren’t just fun to operate, but also legitimate technological leaps forward. Automakers and motorcycle builders experimented with different technologies, and designs got so good that cars from that era still litter bedroom walls (in poster form).
I’ve had the pleasure of driving a variety of vehicles from the Bubble Era, from kei cars to Acura’s flagship NSX sports car. I’ve still yet to drive a sports car that quite feels as good as that NSX, and that includes Acura’s own new NSX. It wasn’t just Honda cranking out the gems in this era; Mazda also put out some cars during this period were so good that today they remain hotly desired.
The Miata started out as a sketch in the 1970s before Mazda brass decided to put the roadster into production. Among the design proposals for the roadster was a version that would have been closer to the Toyota MR2.
One proposal called for Mazda’s roadster to be mid-engine and rear-wheel-drive while another called for front-wheel-drive. Ultimately, an American design won out, giving the Miata a look and layout like an old British roadster. The Miata made its debut at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, wowing both reviewers and owners alike. Mazda has continued Miata tradition to this day, and I can say from personal experience it remains a thrilling drive for the price you pay.
The MX-5 alone would be a great highlight for any automaker, but this is Mazda that we’re talking about. It also produced the third-generation RX-7 starting in 1992 and I’ll let the automaker’s UK branch explain just how awesome this car is:
The third and final generation (“FD”) that arrived in 1992 was a genuine performance car. A new sequential twin turbocharger boosted output from the latest 13B engine to 239PS on the European version. Said by fans to be the best handling of all RX-7s, the 5.3sec 0-100km/h sprint and 250km/h top speed (limited) put the 1,300kg two-seater in a league with high-end sports cars – fitting for the brand that had just won at Le Mans.
Later RX-7s got even better with horsepower outputs reaching as high as 276 HP in Japan-only models. Alongside these cars was the little MX-3 and the MX-6 coupe. At a base price of $11,000 ($23,962 today), the MX-3 was a bit cheaper than a $13,800 Miata ($30,062 today) and a whole lot cheaper than a $32,900 RX-7 ($71,670 today).
A Compact Sports Coupe
In 1991, Mazda continued its successes with the MX-5 by releasing a sibling named the MX-3. This wasn’t a rear-wheel-drive sporty roadster. Instead, it was a front-wheel-drive economy sports coupe with seating for up to four and targeted at competition like the Geo Storm, the Toyota Paseo, and the Nissan NX2000. The MX-3 wouldn’t wow the press and customers by being an affordable sports car like a Miata or by being a rotary halo car like the RX-7. Instead, this car would be cheap with some neat technology.
When the car launched in September 1991 as a 1992, the MX-3 rode on Mazda’s EC platform, which shared some bits with the BG platform that underpinned the Mazda 323. The MX-3 featured funky jellybean styling and a nice interior, but it would be under the hood and under the body where things got interesting. At launch, the base engine was a 1.6-liter four making 88 HP. This would later get a bump to 106 HP.
However, the crown jewel of the MX-3 would be its optional V6 engine. Here in America, we got the engine with the GS trim level. That engine is notable for its displacement: just 1.8-liters. At the time, it was the smallest mass-market V6 engine in production available in America. This is the car that reader MEK says is a grail that they regret not buying:
For your Holy Grail column, I submit for your consideration, the 1994 Mazda MX-3 GS with the tiny V6. I always wanted one of these when I was in college but (obviously) couldn’t afford. One of the cars I truly regret not buying when I had the chance. One of those great Japanese oddballs, now mostly forgotten, from back when money was flowing down the streets of Tokyo and they could try all kinds of cool stuff.
That picture doesn’t really do the engine justice, just take a look at its block! Sadly, the seller in this eBay listing didn’t use a banana for scale:
The K8 engine was a 60-degree, dual overhead cam, 24-valve powerplant with an aluminum block and heads. This wee little lad also featured what Mazda called Variable Resonance Induction System, which allowed more torque to be available throughout the rev range. How this worked is with dual resonance tubes that used butterfly valves that opened and closed at different engine speeds, thereby varying tube length. In other words, this engine may have had just 115 lb-ft at 4500 rpm, but the engine tried its best to produce as much torque as it could throughout the band.
This engine was also one that you had to drive hard to wrangle most of its power. Horsepower was rated at 130 at 6500 rpm. So to get the most out of your little MX-3, you’d have to race it all of the way to its 7,000 rpm redline. I should also note that despite being a six, this engine wasn’t even the most powerful in its class. The Geo Storm GSi’s 1.8-liter four made 140 HP while the Nissan NX2000 had a 2.0-liter four making 140 HP. The V6 isn’t the smallest V6 ever made, either. Mitsubishi had a 1.6-liter V6 in production at the same time, though you couldn’t buy it in America.
Another fun fact about this engine is that it was developed to fall under taxes that were levied on 2.0-liter and larger engines in Japan.
A Los Angeles Times review of the MX-3 admits that Mazda’s biggest selling point with this engine is that it is indeed a V6 put into the body of a car that would normally fit just a four. This appears to be reflected in a Mazda engineering paper about the engine:
These days, people are not as concerned with material wealth as they are with spiritual wealth. As for automobiles, there is a growing demand for a vehicle which can be deeply satisfying to drive and is environmentally safe (low emission and high fuel economy). V6 engines are becoming popular for their smooth and quiet characteristics. However, in the “family-use” and “compact-speciality” car classes, conventional V6 engines can not meet the lightweight, compact and pleasant drive requirements. Newly developed K-series engines are small, matching stylish and compact vehicles and appeals to the customer’s sensitivity and is pleasant to drive. The K-series comprise 2.5-litre V6DOHC(KL), 2.0-litre V6DOHC(KF) and 1.8-litre V6DOHC(K8) engines.
Give that paper a read, it’s some great stuff! I’d also say that having the sound of a V6 in something this small is also pretty awesome. I mean, just listen to this engine sing:
Another trick up Mazda’s sleeve was its characteristic twin-trapezoidal link rear suspension which utilizes twin-valve dampers and a rear anti-roll bar. This results in some degree of passive rear steering and when paired with variable power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, made for good turn-in. Automobile Magazine once called the Mazda MX-3 “an overnight best-in-class contender.”
A Forgotten Mazda
Equipping your MX-3 with the V6 here in America meant bumping up the price to $13,800 ($30,062 today), or about the same price that you could get a Miata for. Here’s what other reviewers had to say, from Consumer Guide:
Consumer Guide said the tiny V-6 was “quiet and eager” but didn’t produce much power below 3000 rpm. The editors thought it worked best with the five-speed. Fuel economy wasn’t impressive—they saw 21.2 mpg with the stick and only 20 mpg with the automatic.
CG praised “agile handling talents and quick steering response,” and liked the clear gauges and easy-to-use controls. The driving position was “low and snug—compared by some to sitting in a bathtub.” Road and wind noise were plentiful on the highway.
In the November 1991 issue of Car and Driver, an MX-3 GS won a comparison test against the Storm GSi and NX2000. The “faultless handling” and “whipped-cream V-6” were praised.
In other words, it seems that while the Mazda may have been slightly slower than its competition, some reviewers felt that the whole package was better than the competition. It’s estimated that these are rare cars today, but production numbers haven’t been published. The V6 was available in the United States between 1992 and 1994 and the car itself ended sales in America in 1996 without getting a sequel. I’ve reached out to Mazda for production information.
What I can say is that these cars are forgotten enough that when you Google “Mazda MX-3,” you have to put your query in quotes or else you’ll get pretty much nothing but results for the Mazda MX-30 crossover. Now for the bad news. While I’ve found a bunch of these for sale and all of them were under $5,000, all of them were in a pretty sorry state. Though, that’s what I’d expect from a cheap Mazda that didn’t have the fame of its contemporaries. I can’t even remember when was the last time I’ve seen one of these on the road. Maybe it was years ago?
If you’ve owned one of these, I’d love to hear about what it was like! And if you have one in good shape, give it a pat on its hood tonight for looking so good after all of these years.
Do you know of a ‘Holy Grail’ car or motorcycle out there? Do you drive or ride a Holy Grail? Give me your elevator pitch in the comments or at email@example.com!
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I have a 1993 Mazda Mx3 SE. It has 128,000 miles. It is supposedly specially tuned since it is an SE. I can accelerate just as fast as my 2012 Mazda 3i which I 156hp. Top speed is much faster than the internet claims. I can provide pics of it if wanted but Mazda may want it for their north American museum.
Great write-up about a great car Mercedes! I always liked the MX-3, and yes, I wanted one when they were new, due in part to the novelty of that tiny V6. There was one at the last Japanese Classic Car Show in Long Beach, California http://japaneseclassiccarshow.com last fall, in red I think. It was downright charming: small and obviously a product of its time, but not overtly dated. Though snug, the interior looked like a pleasant place to spend some quality time.
I still want one… if a decent one crossed my path at not more than $5K, I’m not sure I’d be able to restrain myself.
Side note: I rented a Ford Probe once a zillion years ago, and I thought that it drove and looked not bad at all.
Overall I liked the Mazda V6 design, and worked on enough Probes to say that they were mechanically pretty durable. The biggest drawback with them (back then) was the cost of certain critical replacement parts. For instance, the distributors would go bad on them (something oil leak related, IIRC) and new ones were like triple the price of one you’d get for any Ford V6. Same with O2 sensors….
Never saw one of these blow up or need major service (i.e. headgaskets, etc..)
I just wish they offered the Mazda V6 + AWD to contend with the DSM triplets….Imagine the cool looking 2nd gen Ford Probe GT/GTS body with AWD. I would have bought one back then.
Side note: it was funny when the Ford parts counter would hand you a box that said Ford/Motorcraft…and inside of THAT box was another box that said Mazda all over it haha
I think this also happened for a few parts on Mercury Villagers as well, but saying Nissan instead of Mazda.
…come to think of it… it would be a fun game to play to see which of the Big 3 had the most V6 options during what year. Kinda like what year did GM offer the most V8s.
For Ford my vote is probably 1995?
2.5L Duratec (Contour/Mystake)
3.0L Mercury Villager
3.8L Thurderbird Super Coupe (Supercharged)
4.0L Cologne (Pushrod)
(End stream of consciousness)
I had a 1992 RS, with the 5 speed and smaller 4 cylinder. It was the first car I bought with my own money, for 800$ from two suburban redneck brothers. Only the passenger seat automatic seatbelt worked correctly. Within the first week of owning it, a rear corner shock broke and froze and the shock tower it mounted to was mostly rust, so the mechanic had to rebuild that. About a month later the flex pipe between the downpipe and the exhaust header rusted out, so I was cruising in a hot rod! It was the first car I ever did successful modifications and repairs to as well! I installed a new steering wheel so that I could pass inspection (no horn), and I spliced in new wires to the brake lights. The interior was not nice, and I spent a long time imagining a life in which I had the money to treat the car right and fix up its foibles. Truly a perfect driving machine. Was like driving around in a rollerskate.
The car’s name was Jenna Mae. I miss her every day, even when I’m driving Will the Forte (2017 kia forte)
I had a 1993 GS (5-speed with the V6) as my first car in 2004. I did all of the typical teenager mods (blue underglow neons, two 12″ subs in the trunk, fart can muffler, etc) and loved that car. I had plans to swap in the JDM KL-ZE V6 engine (200hp bolt-in swap for the most part), but a girl on her phone hit me in an intersection and totalled the car.
Mazda’s K series of engines are phenomenal. Why the K8 is fun, the KLDE and KLZE from the Probe and MX6 are gems of an engine.
They were cool but when it came time to put my money down for my first new car I went 1992 Civic Si hatchback. Honda reliability, 125hp, SOHC VTEC, clam shell rear hatch. The Civic was an all around better car than the Mazda and all of the comparison cars mention for similar money (I think a paid $12k for it but that was many dead brain cells ago).
The real Mazda unicorn is the 323GTX. I got to test drive one but couldn’t afford it at the time being just a year removed from high school. It was crazy back then, a high school kid could walk into a dealership ask to test drive a car and they would literally toss the keys and tell me “just don’t wreck it”. Now they want to pull your credit before they even consider thinking about considering if they should allow you the honor.
I made pretty much the same decision for my first new car after driving both
I shopped both the si and mx3 in 93, ended up in a base integra. No regrets on the choice, I’m still sad it got totalled by a drunk red light runner.
I love these, though I was (am?) against FWD. It may not be as good as the competition, but it was better looking IMO. The Storm was nice, The CRX was a bit dated even then, the NX2000 just no.. But styling wise the MX3 looks good from all angles.
I have a 37k Mile 1993 V6 in red just like the picture. Should be up on Cars & bids or Bring a trailer this summer. Keep and eye out
The ones in the first video have that high-pitched 12-cylinder wail at the top end.
Not mentioned in the article was also stories I heard was that engine wasn’t very good from a durability/reliability perspective.
And given it was such a small V6, it was disappointing that the rev limit was the same as many 4 cylinder engines of the same or larger displacement.
If you wanted an MX3 as a daily driver, then the 4 cyl one was a much better choice.
And from a power perspective, the Nissan NX2000 was better.
And for handling, the Civic CRX was the better choice.
I remember looking at these and comparing them when they were new.
Yes, the V6 certainly had the novelty factor and I have no quibble with it being a “holy grail”. But the NX was a better car. Had more power, torque, a higher redline, and I believe it shared the Torsen limited slip differential with the SE-R.
The NX and MX3 and Toyota Paseo (which didn’t really have a performance version like the other two) were tiny cars, even by standards of the day. Article says room for four, and I am sure the back seat was a bit of a selling point. Contrast to nowadays, my 2.5 ton SUV isn’t big enough for me family of three, I need a 3 ton SUV, what car should I buy?
There was a guy in the town I grew up in that was obsessed with both these and the Corvair, and always had 5-6 of each at any given time. I would slow down and drool every single time I drove past his house, and he had 3 kids at my high school all of whom drove either a MX-3 or Corvair as well. I would love to find an MX-3 in good shape, but yeah like you said. They are pretty much unobtainium at this point.
I had a 1993 base 4 cylinder manual MX-3 as my first car in 2006. It had 200k miles and only cost me $800, but otherwise it was in perfect condition. Being an idiot 16 year old, I immediately totaled it one week after buying it…
One of my best friends’ families bought a V6 GS w/ 5spd brand new. He loved driving it, but I only got to ride in it 4 or 5 times and never got to drive it. I was in high school at the time, and having never been in anything hotter to that point, it was a riot. Sadly, he totaled it on the way home from the after-prom party when he fell asleep while driving. His parents replaced it with an XJ Cherokee, and that was the end of my experience with the beautiful MX-3.
A guy I hooked up with occasionally as a freshman in college had one of these, a red one with a 4cyl and an auto. So not exciting, but super cute to look at. One time I heard he was driving into Washington DC and I got him to take me and my friend with him as we didn’t have cars. We had to cram into the impossibly small back seat but it was worth it.
Let’s also not forget the Canada-only name for this car: the MX-3 Precidia, with the name stenciled on the small bit of glass underneath the rear wing.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen one on the street, but I did almost buy one several years ago, and probably should have, since it was in better shape than any of the others I’ve seen for sale since the few times I’ve looked.
I had 3 Honda CRXs in the mid-nineties (an 86 mk1 16i16, an 89 16i16 and a 89 JDM Si) and I was cross shopping MX3s. I liked the idea of a V6, but it made no more power than the 1.6 fours in my Hondas, and significantly less power than the VTEC 1.6 fours.
Nice cars, but not quite nice enough for me to buy one.
I was intrigued by these but bought the Miata instead. If only the V6 had been 2.2 or 2.4 liters, it would have been the hot hatch everyone wanted it to be.
I almost always saw them running poorly, like smoking or stuttering to a stop on the side of the road. the first time I realized it was a tiny 6 though, I was kind of amazed.
I have not owned one, but my best friend in college had one, so I spent a lot of time in it. I had a truck, so on several occasions I drove his for a few days while he had my truck. It was a fun car. The engine was extremely smooth, and seemed torquey to me. The 5 speed was amazing, and it drove like it was on rails.
I always wondered why this engine never made it into the MX-5, maybe with a power bump.
The year is 2004. It’s a beautiful mid-spring afternoon, in a high school parking lot, like many other high school parking lots in the mid-Atlantic region. Classes have just let out for the day. The sleepy peace of the afternoon is only broken by the shrill caterwauling of some angry electronic beast, but like most days, no one pays it much mind.
My buddy Liam, assigned to the parking spot next to me, waves in a casually unconcerned way as he pops the hood of his screaming MX-3. The factory-installed alarm system has an unidentified electrical issue which causes it to trigger every time he unlocks the car with his (also original factory) key. He disconnects the battery and the screaming ceases. He reconnects the battery, the car bellows out one final brief, plaintive wail, and then complains no more. He performed this ritual yesterday. He will almost certainly perform it tomorrow.
Almost twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you what classes I took, who I ate lunch with, or what my GPA was that junior year of high school, but I remember the exact pitch and tone of what a Mazda MX-3 alarm system siren sounds like to this day.
The highschool parking lot was always an interesting mix of vehicles. I come from a small town in a rural area in the greater rust belt, so there were a lot of jalopies that barely ran. Mine included. Winter would see some kids arriving by snowmobile. I drove a tractor in on my last day. Ah, nostalgia.