Home » These 323s Are The Coolest Bubble Era Mazdas To Never Make It To America: Holy Grails

These 323s Are The Coolest Bubble Era Mazdas To Never Make It To America: Holy Grails


One of the more frustrating parts about being a car enthusiast in America is watching what drivers in other countries get to buy. We still have to wait to buy something like a Renault Avantime and it’s going to be a long while before I can pick up a Smart Roadster. If you’re a fan of Mazda, now is the right time to pick up a Mazda you’ve probably never heard of before. The Mazda Astina was a Japanese Bubble Era masterpiece of a fastback sedan with pop-up headlights and, later, it became a sleek early example of a four-door coupe with a dash of Porsche influence.

Last time on Holy Grails, I briefly let my wife take the wheel to tell you about her grail, the Oldsmobile LSS. This GM H-body came at a strange time for Oldsmobile. The automaker wanted to attract young professionals, but they were buying BMWs, Acura, and Lexus cars, not Oldsmobiles. As part of its effort to freshen its image, Oldsmobile unleashed the Luxury Sports Sedan. It was the top-of-the-line Eighty Eight with a sport suspension and a center console shifter. When the Oldsmobile Aurora made its debut, parts from that car trickled down into the LSS, which became its own standalone model. Amazingly, the LSS was faster in a straight line than Oldsmobile’s claimed competition, but few people ever bought them.

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This week, we’re turning away from rare cars you could buy in the United States to cars that were once forbidden fruit for Americans.

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If you’re like me, you grew up knowing about countless cars and perhaps you even drove them in your favorite video games. Then, when you became an adult you learned the hard way that our country limits the vehicles that you can bring in across the border. The Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988, better known as the “25-Year Import Rule,” is a barrier that stops most enthusiasts from picking up their dream cars until they turn 25 years old.


Many of the cars enthusiasts drool over are icons like the Nissan Skyline R34 or weird machines like the aforementioned Renault Avantime. Maybe you want a Holden Ute, a Honda Civic Type R, a Volkswagen Scirocco R, a Renault Clio V6, a Subaru Impreza 22B, a Suzuki Jimny, a BMW M5 Touring, or so many more sweet cars. Some of the vehicles on that list are now legal to import, but enthusiasts of those cars had to wait so long to have them.

Less talked about are the more normal cars that were never sold in America but are still pretty awesome. That’s where the Mazda 323 Astina falls. It’s not a thrilling supercar or a hero car from a videogame, but it is still something different.

Images Mazda 323 1994 1

A Bubble Era Phenomenon

Many of the cars enthusiasts adore come from Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s. Stocks and real estate values soared to practically incomprehensible levels driven by speculation. Japan’s industries had spent decades inventing new products and refining existing ones. By the late 1980s, people around the world were happily scooping up Honda motorcycles, driving Toyota cars, jamming out to tunes on their Sony Walkmans, and playing games on their Nintendo consoles. Japan was getting so good at electronics that reportedly, some people thought Sony and Hitachi would scoop up Intel and IBM.

Japan’s industrial stride has been called an “Economic Miracle” and it led to a spike in the country’s standard of living. Japanese people were living longer and the country’s GDP was up there or better than that of some western countries. As this happened, Japanese people were sitting on money from saving after World War II and the country’s banks got really lenient with lending. Combine Japan’s industrial success with deregulation and excess liquidity in the banking system, and there were banks taking more and more risks. Toss in reported overconfidence in Japan’s economy and speculation and you have asset values going through the roof.


Mazda 323 1989 Photos 2

As an explainer of Japan’s bubble economy notes, prices of land in Tokyo’s sought-after neighborhoods became 350 times more expensive than comparable land in Manhattan. Apparently, the land under the Tokyo Imperial Palace was rumored to be as valuable as all of the land in California.

Regardless of whether or not the rumor is correct, what is clear is that money was a bit crazy in Japan in the 1980s. For automakers, this meant designing awesome and bewildering cars like the Honda NSX, Mazda RX-7, Nissan Skyline GT-R, the Toyota Supra, and more.

In 1989, Mazda released the seventh generation of its Familia, better known to us Americans as the 323 and the Protegé. The Mazda BG platform that made those cars also found itself underpinning the Ford Laser, Ford Escort, and the Mercury Tracer. Like other Japanese automakers during this era, Mazda was spicing up its lineup with more exciting and sporty vehicles. The BG platform was no exception, and it spawned three variations that seem to be pretty grail-worthy.

The Mazda Astina

Images Mazda 323 1989 1



When the seventh generation Familia hit the road in 1989, there were a couple of versions of it that stood out. One was the five-door fastback that Mazda emblazoned with the name Astina. Though, in other markets, the vehicle was sold as the 323F, 323 Astina, and a luxury version sold as the Eunos 100. This is the car that reader Ben C says is a grail:

I would like to nominate a car for Holy Grails which I believe was not sold in America (I think). It’s the Mazda 323 Astina, which was also known as the Familia Astina in Japan, and 323F in Europe.

Born from the Japanese Bubble Era and made from 1989 to 1994, it was essentially a 323 (Protege to Americans) but with a sleek, swoopy fastback body. Clearly Mazda had lots of money to throw around then to build two completely different bodies for what is essentially the same car underneath.

Most came with fairly mundane 1.6-litre engines with about 100 horsepower, but the most powerful version had a 1.8-litre DOHC engine with 140 horsepower (also used in the Miata). In a car that weighed just slightly over 2000 pounds, it certainly had some performance to match its sporty looks.

Mazda 323 F Gt 1989
Olivér Kovács

And just look at it! Have attached a picture for your reference, but man, a car that looks like that (pop up headlights!), can go reasonably fast (with the right engine) and still enough space to drive your family around while being relatively affordable. I don’t think we will see a car like that ever again in today’s world.

My late dad had one and it was by far the most exciting car he owned in his lifetime, hands down. It looked exactly like the one in this picture too.

Photos Mazda Familia 1989 1

As a family car, the Astina looks and sounds like a neat proposition. The wedge-shaped front end gave way to a fastback rear with some graceful rounding. Power comes from a variety of engines, ranging from a 1.5-liter four making 110 HP to a 1.8-liter four making 140 HP. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find much in the way of production numbers. However, these cars were never sold in America, so I can’t imagine you’ll find a ton of them here.

Surprisingly, I have been able to find a couple of professional reviews. Here’s a quick take from Australia’s CarsGuide:


Images Mazda Familia 1989 1

Next up, a little gem. The 1991 Astina SP Hatch with its fastback body styling and pop-up headlights: the sporty ’90s had arrived.

On the track its steering was sharp and the 323’s chassis a beautifully balanced thing, and it was blessed with a slick little five-speed manual gearbox.

Downsides? A terrible black and white carpety trim for the seats and doors, the blackest cabin man has yet created and an interior smell to remind of boozy taxi rides home in the 1990s.

I was also pretty amazed to find a review from old Top Gear. In the review below, the host explains that Mazda achieved a 40 percent improvement in torsional stiffness, which resulted in better handling. The stiffening was done by reinforcing the door sills and crossmembers. Top Gear also noted greater quality and the fact that Mazda apparently utilized a new process that gave the paint a Mercedes-like finish.

Now, I love Ben C’s nomination here. The Astina has that fantastic 1980s wedge look and seats five with a manual transmission, a stubby rear end, and the same power you’d find in a Miata. But, when researching this piece, I found two more variations worth mentioning.

Familia GT-R

Images Mazda Familia 1992 1


If those power figures aren’t enough for you, there’s the Familia GT-R. Coming from the same generation of Familia, the GT-R is based on the GT-X. Previously the top model of the Familia, the GT-X sported four-wheel-drive, viscous limited-slip differentials, and a 180 HP 1.8-liter turbo four.

In 1992, Mazda pumped up the volume when it released the Familia GT-R, a Group A Rally homologation special. The Familia GT-R starts off with the GT-X, plus a healthy power bump to 208 HP and 184 lb-ft torque. Other bits include a body kit, hood vents, wheel flares, a stiffer suspension, stiffer anti-roll bars, thicker crossmembers, and larger brakes.

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The engine got its extra power by way of stronger internals including connecting rods, upgraded pistons, an upgraded IHI VJ-23 water-cooled turbocharger, an intercooler, larger injectors larger oil squirters, a larger nose crank, a larger oil cooler, sodium-filled valves, a baffled inlet manifold, and more.

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The go-fast bits were complemented in the interior where you got to sit in leather and suede seats along with the option to toss out the cupholder for a three-gauge cluster. Due to this being a homologation special, just 2,200 of them were made. On top of that Mazda made a special version of the GT-R called the GT-Ae, a more hardcore GT-R with 66 pounds shaved away, a close-ratio transmission, and the power options ripped out. You’re getting a cloth interior, no ABS, no air-conditioning, no sunroof, and no power accessories.

This one might be the coolest version of the 323 that you couldn’t get in the United States, but there’s one more out there.


Mazda Lantis


The Astina sold from 1989 to 1994, when it was replaced by the Mazda Lantis, which was also sold as Mazda 323F, Mazda Astina, and other names depending on the market. Despite Mazda selling the vehicle as a relative to the 323 (which moved to a new BH generation in 1994), it rides on the CB platform, a platform you might be familiar with if you’ve ever owned a Mazda 626.

The Lantis, or Astina, has a design reportedly credited to Ginger Ostle, a former Porsche designer known for her work on the Porsche 944. The Lantis was sold as a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback. Curiously, Mazda marketed the hatch as a “4-door coupé.”

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In fact, today, Mazda calls it a “five-door hatchback Lantis Coupe” in its own retrospective. So, now you know that Mazda was playing the coupe sedan trick long ago. Still, this is a Mazda from 1994 with a curvaceous body, frameless windows, and an interior with power everything.

Keeping with Mazda’s record of making great handling cars, the Lantis was reportedly taken to the Nürburgring where its handling was refined. On top of that, the vehicle was known for its solid safety for the day.

Base models of the Lantis came with a variety of engines, starting with a 1.5-liter four making 87 HP and ending with a KF-DE 2.0-liter V6 making 147 HP. Then there are two hot versions of the Lantis. The first is the Lantis Type R, which gets a KF-ZE 2.0-liter V6 making 170hp and 140 lb-ft torque. In addition to more firepower, the vehicle gets a limited-slip differential.

The second is the Lantis Type R Mazdaspeed, which is the Lantis Type R plus a sweet bodykit. Check out the towering wing on this unit:



As DrivingLine notes, the Lantis has even enjoyed success with grassroots racers and was even turned into a JTCC car with the Castrol JTCC Lantis. The Lantis/Astina/323F sold until 1998. Once again, I haven’t found any production numbers, but it does appear that there are few of these in America, at least.

From the sounds of it, these are fun sedans that Americans missed out on. Thankfully, every vehicle in this article is old enough to import and some of them are getting across the border. Here’s a review of a Lantis/323F from Chicago area YouTuber Zack Pradel from Shooting Cars:

In terms of finding these for sale, well, it can get a bit difficult. I found just a single Mazda Astina for sale. It’s due to roll across the USS Nagoya auction block in Japan soon. Contact an importer in the United States for further details. I did not find any Familia GT-Rs for sale, but it seems if you did find one, you could probably get one for under $20,000. I could not find any Lantis Type R Mazdaspeeds, but I did find a Lantis Type R in Japan for roughly $9,041.


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No matter which one of these cars you choose, you’ll certainly be getting a sweet car from a time when money seemed to rain in Japan and automakers were cranking out crazy enthusiast rides. Sure, none of these are legends like the Nissan Skyline, but they’re far more attainable for a regular person and at least here in America, probably even rarer. So, if you want to play around with some Mazda JDM equipment, look at these forgotten Astina Familia.

Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at mercedes@theautopian.com or drop it down in the comments!

(Images: Mazda, unless otherwise noted.)

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7 months ago

OK, we got the 323’s in Europe but you guys had the beautiful 929

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