A Fun Little Car With A Brain, A Heart And Courage

Posted: March 06, 1992

Dorothy's right. This isn't a Kansas stretch of the interstate. As a matter of fact, it doesn't even qualify as a yellow brick road.

But it is winding enough to border on the intestinal, and therefore an excellent venue for the agility trial of that latest Mazda munchkin, the MX-3. But before we get in this brand-new hatchback, let's take a look at what we'll be driving. As you can see, this most recent doctorate in pocket rocket science is one sporty little dude. The wide stance, the learing, reptilian headlights, the sculpted body's aerodynamic ascent from low nose to high rear spoiler - all bring to mind adjectives like "aggressive" and "graceful."

But while you can employ that language to describe elements of the MX-3's body design, the car in toto is finally just too short (165 inches) and too pudgy to support it. You can't apply "aggressive" and "graceful" to an abbreviated, bulbous shape that has more to do with a Colombian coffee bean than automotive history.

So, let's just say the MX-3 is a pugnaciously sporty little cutey.

Climb in. As you can see, the interior execution on this car has a lot to offer. The lines of the dashboard and door panels have a nice flow to them. The cluster of analog instruments is wonderfully compact and accessible. The side bolsters on the seats grip you snugly and help hold you in place when you whizz through turns.

There are several problems, however, most of them congential munchkinmobile afflictions. Visibility through the sharply raked hatch window is pretty grim. And there really isn't quite enough room for a long-legged driver.

When I have the MX-3's seat all the way back and am seated in an erect position with my arms extended, my wrists are beyond the rim of the steering wheel. For your body to be the correct distance from the wheel, your wrists should fall on the rim.

In order to get the right distance, I had to adjust the seatback to a more tilted attitude than I like. And adjusting the seatback with the door closed proved a pretty tight fit for my hand.

Like most small sporty cars, the MX-3 has a tiny back seat. It is also a very strange back seat. The pair of deep, ovoid depressions in the bench-type cushion are obviously intended to keep two bottoms in place during fast turns. But they look like an upholstered variation on the venerable two-hole outhouse.

Anyway, let's start her up and see what we've got. A nice, undomesticated engine note, don't you think? Obviously, we aren't dealing with the 88- horsepower four found in the $11,000 base car. What we have here is the new, 130-horsepower V-6 that comes with this more expensive ($13,800), higher- performing GS.

This 1.8-liter engine has the distinction of being the smallest production V-6 in the world. Thanks to some help from two camshafts and 24 valves, it is also a very willing, high-revving little guy.

Now, let's put the five-speed manual gearbox in low, get this little V-6 revving, and see what kind of business we can do from zero to 60 miles an hour. As you can see, she gets off the line pretty well. We'll shift around 30 and take her the rest of the way to 60 in second gear. Mmmmm. We got to 60 in less than 8.5 seconds. Pretty hasty. That puts her in about the middle of the pocket rocket pack, a wink faster than the Honda CRX Si and about a half- second behind the Nissan NX2000.

There are a couple twisties up ahead, let's see how she handles. Ahuh. She's quite agile, isn't she? And nice and flat in the turns. There's a little understeer, which is about par for a front-driver like this. The speed- sensitive power steering provides good feedback from the road, although it does feel a little heavy on center.

Fun little car, huh? Okay, okay. I'll pull over here and you can try it.

MAZDA MX-3 GS

* Base vehicle: 1.8-liter engine, five-speed manual gearbox, independent suspension, power four-wheel disc brakes, power steering, 15-inch alloy wheels, P205/55R15 performance tires, automatic seat belts, rear spoiler and front air dam, rear window wiper/washer/defroster, tilt steering, intermittent wipers, digital clock.

* Test model: air conditioning, stereo/cassette, power windows, power door locks, cruise control.

* Base price: $13,800

* Test model: $16,065 (inc. shipping)

* EPA city rating: 23

* Test mileage: 24

* Warranty: three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.

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