The smallest mass-produced V-6 would hardly seem to be something to brag about, something like having the smallest head in the senior class, except that the 1.8-liter V6 in the 1992-1994 Mazda MX-3 GS was such a gem. And a small diamond is worth more than a big chunk of quartz.
Focusing on the engine, however, is to ignore the MX-3 as a whole, though the V6 did distinguish the Mazda MX-3 from a rush of mini-coupes–including the Nissan NX, Toyota Paseo, Honda CRX and Hyundai Scoupe–that appeared in the early nineties.
Like most of its competitors, the Mazda MX-3 was a front driver with a tightly drawn 2+2 body over fully independent suspension. Economy in operation as well as original purchase price was seen as important to buyers, who Mazda saw as “up-and-comers”–“young professionals with the education and economic wherewithal to make the move up the corporate ladder” for whom “budget constraints force…to be pragmatic–at least for now.” The MX-3 was a car to build a customer base, attracting “young first-time sporty car buyers” who would later buy other, more expensive Mazdas. The MX-3 was also intended to bolster Mazda’s “sporty, fun-to-drive image.”
Zooming, in other words, before Zoom-Zoom.
So the Mazda MX-3 was not, as it might appear, a coupe alternative to the Miata, which was a true and proper sports car. There was too much front-wheel drive effect that came through in driving. Though taken for what it was, the MX-3 was indeed fun to drive, a nifty little corner carver that loves to hustle down a back road.
The Mazda MX-3 came in two versions, base and GS, depending on whether it was powered by the 1600cc in-line four or the little V-6. The 16-valve sohc I-4 produced 88 horsepower and, with the five-speed manual transmission, was the economy champ with EPA mileage estimates at 29 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. A beefier five-speed manual transmission was standard with the GS and a four-speed overdrive automatic with a lock-up torque converter optional with either engine. With the manual transmission, the V-6-equipped GS was rated at 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. Both engines used regular fuel.
The GS was definitely the sportier MX-3, thanks largely to the little V-6. It was a dohc engine with heads and block of aluminum alloy. The block was split at the crank centerline and was very rigid, which, along with the 60 degree Vee, made the engine smooth and vibration free.
For a broader torque curve, the intake tract included a pair of solenoid-controlled butterfly valves to vary its effective volume, which explains the aluminum “appendix” on the intake manifold. But even still, the 115 lb-ft torque peak didn’t come in until 4500 rpm, and the 130-horse power peak was up at 6500 rpm. To get any acceleration then, the engine had to spin up to its 7000 rpm redline rather frequently.
Fortunately it revved eagerly, even if the effect was a bit dramatic. The engine used side-feed fuel injectors, which Mazda touted as quieter and providing better throttle response, and a “Linearic” air flow meter for the fuel injection.
Suspension was by struts front and rear and the Mazda MX-3 had 15-inch alloy wheels mounted with 205/55R15 tires. The MX-3 GS also had four-wheel disc brakes (the base had a disc-drum setup). Steering was power-assisted rack-and-pinion.
The Mazda MX-3 GS was easily distinguished from its four-cylinder sibling by front and rear spoilers, and the GS also had a rear wiper/washer not available on the base model. The Mazda MX-3 wasn’t universally admired for its looks; some called it “insect-like” from the front.
The back seat would fit real live adults, though not with a lot of room to sprawl about. And some doubted the wisdom of the miniature V-6 versus a larger, more powerful four. Yet the Mazda MX-3 GS zipped through the quarter mile in 16.8 seconds and no one criticized it as being too smooth.
Mazda’s mission, however, was to be first on the list of a select group of buyers, rather than second or third on a larger group’s list. The distinct qualities of the MX-3, especially the GS, should have put Mazda right where it wanted to be. First offered in the 1992 model year, the MX-3 was sold in base and GS trim through 1994, and in 1995 with the base four as the only engine choice in its final year.
When Mazda dropped the MX-3 from its North America product line, it wasn’t replaced. It seemed like a good idea at the time and it was genuinely fun to drive. It’s just that the Mazda MX-3 proved that while some things are best when small–microchips, mortgages, velociraptors–a little V-6 in a sporty coupe just isn’t one of them.