EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

The 1992 Toyota MR-2 is a cute little subcompact with great off-the-line power and . . .

Ooops. That`s not the Toyota logo on the hood.

Hmm???

The 1992 Mazda MX-3 is a cute little subcompact with great off-the-line power and . . .

The new-for-`92 MX-3 looks like a Toyota MR-2 twin. You could park an MX- 3 amid a host of MR-2s on a dealer lot and you would have better luck finding the proverbial needle in a haystack than you would the MX-3.

The MX-3 vindicates both Oldsmobile and Cadillac after all those below- the-rocker-panel cracks about the GM cars looking alike. The MX-3 looks like it was built from the same mold as the MR-2-from rounded body panels to rear-deck spoiler.

Of course, looking like an MR-2 isn`t all that bad, because the MR-2 is one of those fun-to-drive pocket rockets. It`s just that the Japanese are falling into the same trap GM did in coming up with sheet metal that looks awfully similar to other cars on the road. That makes it difficult to tell the $14,000 MX-3 apart from the $17,000 MR-2.

The MX-3 is aimed at the youth market and those who want a subcompact performance model. The thinking is, if the Honda CRX could be so small, yet so successful, why not a Mazda?

The new Mazda is offered in MX-3 and MX-3 GS versions, both built on a 96-inch wheelbase and 165.7 inches long overall. That compares with a 90.6- inch wheelbase and 148.5-inch length on the soon-to-be-replaced Honda CRX.

Interior room is good up front despite the tiny MX-3 dimensions. We emphasize room, not comfort. The front bucket seats are a bit too stiff for longer-than-commute travel. Seat bottoms are tilted upward at an angle that makes you feel as if you`re dangling your legs off the end of a couch. That position tires the legs after a short while.

Rear seats are for kids only, unless adults can tolerate traveling with their heads fixed firmly against the glass hatch lid. While we`re talking of the hatch, the lid is heavy, but when lifted reveals a good cargo hold with the added security of a cover.

An annoyance is rear visibility. The rear spoiler fixed to the deck lid along with the third brake light and rear-window wiper all eat into the driver`s field of vision.

Though the car is tiny and directed toward youth, there is no driver-side air bag. Anti-lock brakes are available, but as a $900 option only on the GS. So what`s the attraction of the MX-3?

We test drove the MX-3 GS, which sports a 1.8-liter, 130-h.p., 24-valve dual overhead-cam V-6 engine. Yes, a V-6 teamed with a 5-speed manual, so that Mazda can boast a 0-to-60 m.p.h. time of about 8.5 seconds while displaying a 150 m.p.h. speedometer.

Don`t expect slap-you-in-your-seat power, flames shooting from the exhaust or the smell of burning steel belts when you depart from the light quickly. The 24-valve V-6 simply means those who creep up alongside at th e stop light are in for a surprise when it turns green. By the time you`ve reached fifth gear, those with less than 130 horses to back them up in challenging an MR-2 look-alike will have to settle on looking for a Hyundai to intimidate.

The EPA rating is 23 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway with manual, 20/27 with optional automatic ($700). Our test car came with the 5-speed manual. The gas needle sure moved quickly for a car with a 23/28 rating.

The base MX-3 is powered by a 1.6-liter, 16-valve single overhead-cam four-cylinder that develops a mere 88 h.p. and whose goal in life is to deliver 29 m.p.g. city/35 m.p.g. highway with 5-speed, 25/32 with automatic.

The MX-3 features four-wheel independent suspension to reduce road harshness, front and rear anti-roll bars to reduce body lean in corners and four-wheel disc brakes.

The engine is a bit more sophisticated than the suspension. During our time with the car we made a mental note that ride and especially handling, would improve if Mazda used something larger than a 13-inch tire. When we got out and saw that the car came with 15-inch radials it was a bit of a surprise. The base MX-3 comes with 14-inch all-season radials as standard.

The MX-3 GS we drove starts at $13,800. Our car included air at $830, AM- FM stereo cassette at $450, power windows/doors and cruise control in a package for $500, plus floor mats for $70. With the $1,850 in options, the sticker was $15,650.

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