EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Continuing the momentum set by the magical Miata could be a tougher act to follow than Jay Leno.

But Mazda comes close, very close, with the new MX-3 GS.

Here is identical value, but in a 2+2 performance coupe with alloy wheels, disc brakes and a V6 engine for under $14,000, give or take an option.

It is a small, sporty, well-fitting car that cuddles. Pedals are close enough for the purity of heel-and-toe shifting, and the gearbox is crisp with a short throw. Even the exhaust note has been tuned to a saucy snarl that sounds ready to chase Toyota Paseos and Honda CRXs along New Hampshire lanes.

The soul and romance of the MX-3 GS hatchback, however, falls short on what should have been its longest asset: That V6 engine.

As a first-time player in the specialty sport coupe category jammed by Geo Storms, Isuzu Impulses, Ford Escort GTs, Nissan NXs, the aforementioned CRXs, Paseos and other pocket rockets, Mazda simply could not come to market with another look-alike, sound-alike, four-cylinder 2+2.

It had to offer something nobody else was selling.

Hence the MX-3 GS, the first mini-coupe to offer a full-blooded, four-cam, 24-valve V6 engine.

Sounds impressive.

Unfortunately, as with foxholes and britches, only small engines fit into small cars. Moreover, the number of cylinders is no accurate measurement of the amount of horsepower produced by an engine. It is the displacement of those cylinders–or the total cylinder space available for combustion of the fuel-air mix, commonly measured in liters–that is the indicator of power developed.

Example: Mazda’s new 929 luxury sedan is a V6. Its cylinders are the size of coffee cans, displacing a total of 3 liters and producing almost 200 horsepower. The MX-3 GS also is a V6.But its cylinders are demitasse, displacing just 1.8 liters and producing only 130 horsepower.

There are other variables such as weight, aerodynamics,stroke, cams, valves and fuel induction that affect power and performance, but here’s the essential truth of today’s small coupes: Horsepower of the 1992 MX-3 GS with its 1.8-liter, six-cylinder engine is less than the 1992 Geo Storm GSi with its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine.

The Storm, in fact, manages to develop 10 extra horsepower from two less cylinders. So does the Nissan NX2000. And the Nissan’s 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration times are better.

Then why bother with a V6?

For Mazda, there is that marketing advantage of being the world’s smallest car to come with a V6, no matter that it happens to be the world’s smallest, mass production V6. For the buyer, the shorter block and crankshaft of a V6 means less engine vibration and quieter, smoother power than buzzier four-cylinder engines.

On the darker side, the fuel consumption of a V6 is about 15% more than comparable four-cylinder coupes.

The V6 also costs more. In this case, the GS version costs $3,800 more than the entry level MX-3. Yet that cost advantage of entry-level buying is diluted by fewer niceties. It means drum rear brakes instead of discs and less versatile tires on smaller wheels. You also get only a four-cylinder, 88-horsepower engine that will thrill no one above high school freshmen.

All variables considered, performance-sensitive sport coupe enthusiasts will find that Mazda’s V6 has a split personality.

From rest, without being too energetic with accelerator and gears, the car almost ambles. Even when pushed, nothing really happens until the tachometer is showing 4,000 rpms.

Then the mechanical adrenalin seems to kick in and this engine become a jewel. At 4,000 rpm in any gear, there’s enough torque to keep the tires biting firmly.

Drop from fifth to fourth and the exhaust braaaaaays and barks delightfully while the car slices and dodges happily through and around traffic. Back to fifth–if the engine hasn’t dropp d below 4,000 rpm–and forward progress is resumed as a fast cruise.

Despite the split personality of its engine, the rest of the MX-3 is an amalgam of ride smoothness and handling precision far from the rough edges of others of the genre.

Torque steer–the tendency of hard acceleration to shake the front wheels of front-drive cars–simply doesn’t happen in the MX-3. Brakes are the grabbiest this side of a Navy anchor, although an anti-lock system remains a $900 option.

The ride is perfectly pitched with enough feel and stability for challenging corners and sufficient absorption for crumbling side streets. Credit here goes to Mazda’s driver-friendly suspension system modeled on the 323 and including Mazda’s “twin trapezoidal link” setup. This allows rear wheels to move in the direction of the turn when cornering and provides a small measure of passive rear-steer. A 57.5-inch track and a 96.3-inch wheelbase, wider and longer than other specialty coupe norms, perfect the handling.

The looks of the MX-3 are a little of the Geo Storm, a lot of the Toyota Paseo, but whatever the influences, they have created one very handsome traveling companion.

The GS comes with a spoiler. The base MX-3 looks much homier in pressed steel wheels. Both have triple-slit grilles and feline headlights that probably shine green around salmon cans.

These days, $14,000 doesn’t buy much more than a basic interior and furnishings, short on leather and long on fuzzy fabrics. No air bags are available on the MX-3, and the restraint system is mechanized belts by Sr. Garrote.

Manual and automatic transmissions are available on both models. But cruise control is not an option.

However, it is a most pleasant interior. There’s a combination of coziness and security with sufficient front-seat head, leg and elbow room for those of Laker lengths. Seats are supportive to the point of making a body part of the car, which onlyenhances the driving experience.

The only real bother is a broad B-pillar which builds a large blind spot and blocks over-the-shoulder glances during lane changes. Also, in a car engineered towards the quick and nimble, a leather-covered steering wheel and gearshift knob would have been a pleasant, and inexpensive touch of sporting character.

To brighten the charcoals and grays that blight so many small-car interiors, Mazda has added panels of quiet but contrasting colors to doors and seats in the MX-3. The back seats remain strictly occasional accommodations, although measurably larger than the indentations of the competition.

About that competition. The MX-3 is smoother, more refined, and shows inner strength than the rest of the pack. With a slightly bigger engine, it could have been in a class of its own.

1992 Mazda MX-3 GS

The Good Spirited performer when prodded. High value with a full order of soul. Sure-footed handling. Excellent brakes.

The Bad Lazy performer until prodded. No air bag. B-pillar blindfold.

The Ugly Steering wheel in unsporting plastic.

Cost Base: $11,000 As tested: $13,800 (includes V6 engine, alloy wheels, power-assisted steering, spoiler and four-wheel disc brakes).

Engine 1.8 liters, 24-valve, V6 developing 130 horsepower.

Type Front-wheel drive, two-door, 2+2 sport coupe.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., 9.4 seconds with manual transmission. Top speed, estimated, 123 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city-highway, 22 and 28 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,541 pounds.

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