BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Mazda MX-3 is a product of Mazda at its best. The early nineties saw Mazda launching the MX-3, the RX-7 twin turbo and the evergreen MX-5. These driver's cars were cherished by their owners and are much sought-after on the used market. The MX-3 carried on where the sorely-missed original Honda CRX left off, bridging the generation gap between the little Honda and cars like the Vauxhall Tigra and Ford Puma. Available in two guises, a 1.6-litre four-cylinder and the fascinating 1.8-litre V6, the MX-3 lasted for seven years and, like the RX-7 model, has yet to be replaced. When the MX-3's successor does arrive, perhaps then history will remember the little Mazda for what it was: a sweet-handling, technologically innovative baby coupe.
Models Covered: (3 dr coupe 1.6, 1.8 petrol [1.6i, 1.8i])
Whilst the MX-3's on-paper credentials looked good, its timing was even better. Launched in 1991, the little Mazda took advantage of the decreasing GTi market. Insurance costs had given the hot hatch market a bash and the Peugeot 205 GTi had just died, whilst the 306 was two years away. Volkswagen's Golf GTi had grown old and bloated, and warm hatches just didn't appeal. The Mazda MX-3 was a perfect product of its time, offering modest performance and a smart body shape coupled with a reasonable insurance rating. Two models were launched, the self-explanatory 1.6i and 1.8i. The larger-engined MX-3 was by far the more interesting with its tiny V6, but the four-cylinder car proved more popular, reflecting the premium most people put on an affordable insurance grouping. In January 1993 side impact beams were fitted whilst in June 1993 a limited edition all-white 1.8-litre variant was launched. Only 150 examples of this model were produced. July 1994 saw a mild update, with new seats and trim. The 1.6i received a 108bhp engine, 20bhp up from its previous meagre power output, whilst the 1.8i received a driver's airbag and new alloy wheels. Strangely enough, it wasn't until October 1996 that a manual gearbox was made available on the 1.6i, perhaps reflecting Mazda's initial product differentiation between the gentle 1.6i and sporty 1.8i. In February 1997 Mazda deleted the 1.6i automatic, re-introduced it in June, and then quietly deleted the entire MX-3 range the following year.
What You Get
The two models of the MX-3 range are so different as to be almost like two different cars. The 1.6i is a sedate performer in automatic guise, although the manual car is a fair bit zippier. The 1.8i boasts a great deal more driver appeal, with wider wheels, tyres and uprated suspension. The little V6 revs smoothly and with a sporty exhaust note. The driving position is very good, although the interior is cramped. Adults will have to squeeze sideways on the rear bench where headroom is similarly restricted. Despite this, the MX-3 does have a practical side, with a large, if somewhat shallow, rear-loading bay. The view from the driver's seat is of generic Japanese plastic. Lots of it. The high-backed seats offer good support, but the long doors make reaching the seatbelts awkward. The MX-3 is fitted with possibly the world's most annoying warning chime system, informing you when a door is open, when the lights are on and so on. It also has a very meagre reserve on the fuel tank. When the light goes on you have just fifteen miles before the fuel runs out. Equipment levels are reasonably good, with even the base model boasting an electric steel sunroof, tinted glass, electric windows and central locking. The 1.8i looked more purposeful with its factory fitted rear spoiler, alloy wheels, twin exhausts and deep front spoiler. As long as you are aware that the 1.6i is not overtly sporty and the 1.8i whilst not particularly quick is fun to drive, you won't go far wrong.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The MX-3 suffers from the usual Mazda failing of insubstantial plastics qualities. This is where the MX-3 shows its age worst. In terms of driving, a well-looked after MX-3 still feels modern, but the standards of fit and finish inside are now eclipsed even by bargain Korean offerings. The 1.8i V6 should be especially carefully inspected, as it may well have led a harder life than the relatively sedate 1.6i model. Check the front tyres for wear and also check the suspension. Standard fit shock absorbers weren't too durable and soon give the car a slightly baggy feeling when cornering on a bumpy surface. The manual gearbox is on the whole good, but try engaging and pulling away in second gear to check the synchromesh isn't failing. Have a look under the car to assess the condition of the exhaust, as a replacement isn't cheap. The 1.8-litre engine is a complex unit and needs expert tender loving care. The fuel injection system is known to go haywire, running too rich and then too lean with little warning, especially if the car is run out of fuel on a regular basis. The meagre nature of the reserve tank, with just fifteen miles or so before the fuel runs dry, makes this a distinct possibility. If neglected, big bills could be around the corner. The 1.6i is a more utilitarian motor and is quite happy with big miles. Mazda have a good reputation for reliability and a properly looked-after MX-3 should be no exception.
(approx. based on 1.6 manual) The MX-3 is a reasonably cheap car to buy - and if that raises suspicion you'd be right. There has to be a catch and it's in the price of parts. A blowing exhaust system will blow around £600 from your exhausted current account. A new clutch assembly is a more reasonable £130, while a new radiator is around £220. An alternator is a slightly depressing £310, and a dead starter motor will start you looking for ways to dredge up around £135. One of those teardrop-shaped headlamps will have you crying on the shoulder of your local Mazda dealer as he gleefully relieves you of around £165.
On the Road
A tale of Jekyll and Hyde. The 1.6i is a sweet, but sedate little runner, happiest when doing the undemanding things like travelling to the shops or gentle cruising. With such a benign little car, road rage is all but impossible; the Mazda is too laid back to raise the pulse. 0-60 in 10.5 isn't slow, but it feels cruel to subject such a gentle-natured car to such a merciless thrashing. The 1.8i on the other hand is not particularly quick, but makes all the right noises. It's the sort of car that will make you feel like a back-road driving hero until that point when you're overtaken by a clapped-out Bedford Astramax on remould tyres. There's a genuinely exotic feel to the engine response, and a well-looked after example should feel tight and competent when cornering. Traction from the front tyres is excellent and performance feels a lot better than it actually is. Whilst 0-60mph in 8.5 seconds is as quick as an MGF, the MX-3 somehow feels more exciting, the tiny pistons giving the engine a delightfully light feel through the throttle.
The Mazda MX-3 is a car which sold well in the UK but has been largely forgotten, being born as it was just as the hot hatch trend waned and before today's generation of small coupes drew breath. It's no longer with us, but that shouldn't be an excuse not to track a good used one down. The 1.6i is fine if you are just sold on the MX-3's cute looks, but the 1.8i is the model to go for if you enjoy driving. It's something with a little splash of exotic engineering, something that was conjured up in a moment of marketing madness. As long as you're prepared to look after it and can forgive the dowdy interior, it's a fantastic little car. Buy the newest you can afford and you may have an outside wager on a future classic in your garage.