BACKROADS: 1988 was Mazda’s Year of the Turbo

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.

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14 Responses to BACKROADS: 1988 was Mazda’s Year of the Turbo

  1. Jamal says:

    I used to own a 929 Glx coupe in the old days…..Green 5 speed…I miss it.

  2. CobaltFire says:

    When shopping for my first car in late 1998 someone in our church told my mother they had a car we could have for cheap. I don’t remember exactly why they were willing to let it go; I think it was the son’s car who had moved to college and become a drug addict, or something along those lines.

    We show up after church one Sunday to take a look, and, being a car nut, I know EXACTLY what I’m looking at. It’s a slightly worn, but not beat up, 323GTX. It sounds like crap due to a cracked manifold, but otherwise perfect. My dad (parents seperated when I was two; he’s a mechanic by trade) comes to look at it and gives it a clean bill of health. They offer it to us for $1500. I about died and swore up and down I’d figure out how to pay for it.

    My mother turned it down because it was “too much like one of your father’s cars” and “it has a backseat and I don’t want you making the mistakes I did”, which included getting pregnant with me at 16 in the backseat of a car (note that I didn’t end up make her mistakes; I made some completely my own, as most us us did).

    I’m still a bit salty about this, if you can’t tell. It did, however, lead to me owning a 1988 Isuzu Impulse Turbo about two years later, which has a few stories of it’s own.

  3. Yuri says:

    There’s a cheap 626 Turbo GT 5-door on Craigslist right now. Someone save it.

  4. CelicArt says:

    Those 626 liftbacks with such perfirmance gizmos soundtrack too attractive to me because of the rarity and obscurity…would love to find one!

  5. Legacy-san says:

    On the Japanese side of things, Mazda was gearing up to compete with Toyota’s and Nissan’s multi-network dealerships in Japan. What we see as multiple models from one manufacturer were available at specific Mazda Japanese networks Eunos, Efini, Autozam as well as Ford Japan Autorama. The turbo was designed to increase fuel efficiency because as powerful as the engines were, Japanese are limited to driving 30-50 kph, which is like 20-40 mph. Ford is currently using this same turbo approach with the Eco-Boost on just about everything they currently make. Upper level Mazda models were also being positioned as luxury models, and currently Mazda is trying to set a reputation that their products are luxurious without the snob appeal of a badge.

  6. Joe Hornberger says:

    Man, that was a hell of an awesome model line-up! Why was I only 3-4 yrs. old then!!!
    And always, thanks for the Mazdalove!

  7. RX626 says:

    It is not suitable for the content of this article, but for me the Luce 13B Turbo is the most like the Mazda turbo cars of the 1980s.
    The last 13B Turbo sedan.
    I want to possess it someday.

  8. Mike McCarthy says:

    1988 Mazda MX6 gt jm1gd3138j1505583 was my first love…..(que up sleepwalking by Richie Valens) that car slaughtered hundreds of Honda’s in 2001-2003. I only sold it because I was about to lose my license from speeding tickets.

  9. James McDonald says:

    As an owner of four turbocharged 626s (two GD chassis models as shown above, and two GCs), I would like to point out that the GC chassis 626 from ’86 to ’87 was available in turbocharged form as well. They also had the auto-adjusting suspension, and these features were available on all body-styles: coupe (equivalent to the MX-6), sedan, and five-door.

  10. Kiran says:

    No mention of the HB series Cosmo Rotary Turbo? Such a shame these cars remain forgotten to this day

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