A potent hot hatch from the 1990s: The Mazda 323 GT-R is JDM royalty

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  • The 90s was a golden era for Japanese performance cars, and one model in particular from the Mazda stable produced modern-day hot-hatch figures.
  • The GT-R nameplate is originally associated with Nissan's (Skyline) GT-R. Mazda produced the 323 GT-R to homologate it for the World Rally Championship. 
  • It is powered by a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine with outputs of 154kW and 250Nm. 

The 1990s was a golden era for Japanese performance cars. It meant petrolheads could go to any manufacturer and choose something deceptively fast, while not breaking the bank. Nissan had the Skyline GT-R, Toyota had the Supra, and Honda had the NSX Type R - it was a great time to be a car fan. 

Japanese automakers carved out a reputation for drawing big power out of small capacity engines, and some of the examples include the Nissan Pulsar GTI-R (turbo 2.0-litre with 169kW and 280Nm), Honda Civic EK9 Type R (aspirated 1.6-litre with 138kW and 160Nm), and the Toyota Starlet Glanza V Turbo (turbo 1.3-litre with 101kW and 157Nm). 

Another one that can be added to the list is a unique hot hatch offering from the early 1990s from the Mazda stable that put down Volkswagen Golf 6 GTI numbers. Not many people know about the 323 GT-R, and that's probably because so few of them were built (only 2 500 units). It was also exclusive to the Japanese market. Also, the model was introduced at a time when Nissan's Skyline GT-R was dominating around the world. 

Mazda 323 GT-R
Mazda 323 GT-R

If it has GT-R in its name, it's fast  

The GTX was the model just below the GT-R, and even though it made less power (136kW), the latter was distinguishable by an aggressive front bumper with large spotlights, dual rear wing and a vented bonnet. The GT-R is powered by a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine with outputs of 154kW and 250Nm, while power is sent to all four wheels via a five-speed manual transmission. It weighed 1 230kg. 

Do you know of any other high-performance models from the 1990s that are worth mentioning? Please email us, or use the comments section below. 

Like all Japanese performance cars at the time, the top speed was limited to 180km/h, but by loosening a screw at the back of the instrument cluster, it could be increased to 218km/h and also make the 0-100km/h sprint in 7.2-seconds. 

Mazda produced the 323 GT-R to homologate it for the World Rally Championship, which was common practice then. 

To set the GT-R apart from the lesser GTX, Mazda gave it a vented bonnet, a new front bumper with massive Hella spot lamps, and a second rear wing. Mechanically, it also received a stiffer suspension, larger brakes and anti-roll bars, while being 30kg lighter as well. 

READ | How to avoid your vehicle's headlights from turning yellow or foggy 

Enthusiasts know the value of this particular GT-R, and to use as reference, a low mileage example sold for R645 199 (about €36 500) at an RM Sotheby's auction back in 2021. Even though the GT-R nameplate is primarily associated with the Skyline or R35, it has all the ingredients to school several later offerings. 

Many people were captivated by the RX-7 and its rotary engine; few took note of the massive potential the tiny little 323 had. Toyota has continued the all-wheel drive hot hatch with rally pedigree philosophy by launching the GR Yaris and brings across a heritage that (Japanese) automakers have long since abandoned. 

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