It’s an old trope among JNC enthusiasts in North America: we never get the good stuff like they do in Japan. From the obvious to the obscure — the Skylines, the City Turbo, the AZ-1 — the list never ends. But for those with a bit of a long memory, bright spots did exist, and not just inside your Playstation or local Tamiya-dealing hobby store. If you’re a Mazda fan, such a spot occurred in 1988.
The 80s and 90s were the halcyon days for Japanese car enthusiasts. Exotic-for-its-time technology was in, land yachts were on their way out. Besides the sleekness of pop-up headlights and wedge shapes, technical innovations like four-wheel steering or turbocharging, sometimes with twin spools, were in vogue. And let’s not forget the gadget called the CD player. While automakers all over dabbled in such innovations, it was the Japanese companies who arguably pulled it off the best. Mazda was among the ranks then, and 1988 saw some of its edgiest — or perhaps most JDM — lineups ever in the US.
Headlining the group of what Mazda called “Ultra-Performance Machines” in 1988 was the always well-known FC3S RX-7, specifically the Turbo II. At this point, the FC was three years young, with the mid-model “series 5” update imminent. Nevertheless, it was still a sophisticated and competent flagship sports car what with its twin-scroll turbocharger for the 13B rotary, passive rear-wheel steering by the Dynamic Tracking Suspension System, and Auto Adjusting Suspension with electronically-adjustable dampers.
The same year would see introduction of the convertible version of the FC as well as the 10th Anniversary commemorative model. The former featured a trick targa/full convertible top and an industry-first wind blocker, invented by none other than Koby Kobayakawa. The latter was a fully-decked-out Turbo II-based special model limited to just 1500 units, a pristine specimen of which is maintained by Mazda USA.
Next up was the MX-6 GT, the two-door coupe based on the GD 626/Capella. It may be hard to remember those pre-crossover days, but coupes used to be popular. In its day, the MX-6 was an understated looker thanks to the subtly blistered fenders and slim headlights. The design was clean and a bit futuristic in its time. Importantly, the GT was turbocharged and intercooled and, like the RX-7, featured the Auto Adjusting Suspension.
Now comes the part for the Mazda otakus: the USDM 626 itself received the high-performance treatment as well. 1988 marked the first year Mazda brought over its active four-wheel steering system, debuting on the 626. This system featured an electronically-controlled rear steering rack, in contrast to the mechanical system on the contemporary Honda Prelude 4WS.
On top of the 4WS, the 626 could also be had with the turbo powertrain and the Auto Adjusting Suspension from the MX-6 GT. The Turbo was also available on the 5-door liftback.
In other words, the 1988 626 family encompassed a turbo coupe, turbo sedan, turbo fastback, and 4WS turbo sedan. Has such a lineup ever existed in the US for any other model, much less a family sedan?
Last but not least was the compact 323. You likely know this one: the 323 GTX with full-time four wheel drive and a turbocharged DOHC inline-4. Created as a result of Mazda’s campaign in Group A rally, the Familia 4WD Turbo was actually introduced in Japan in 1985.
Export went to Europe first, but we in the US got the model in 1988 with the 323’s mid-model update. These days, the 323 GTX is sought-after among those in the know, especially if equipped with the totally tubular digital instrument panel.
However, the rarest variant might was the 323 GT. Visually, it was a sedan version of the 323 GTX. It had the same turbo drivetrain and tuned suspension to match, but eschewed the full-time four-wheel drive system. Ahead of its time, it was a fully-equipped compact FWD turbo sports sedan for the US market.
Rounding out the Mazda lineup that year was the 929 sedan and B-series pickup. So to recap, in 1988 four of the six Mazda models in the US could be bought turbocharged. Sure, there were still other high-performance and interesting variants and models in Japan unavailable to us, but the lineup described here really is quite covetable.
Furthermore, cars like the 323 GT and 626 sedan with 4WS and/or Turbo were 1988-only for our market. Good luck tracking one down. If you do, however, snatch it up and care for it well. These cars are gems from a bygone automotive era and worthy of preservation.