Within the ranks of the Mazda 323 lurks the GTX, a car that could be mistaken for a small economy car. But only once.

Indeed, the 323 GTX is a fooler - it's a nifty pocket rocket that can not only go but can go in any weather.

But then, why shouldn't it? Under the hood is an intercooled turbocharged double-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder engine, while under the chassis is a full-time, four-wheel drive system. And with the exception of the 323's basic platform and body, everything else is also improved for performance and handling.

One way to comprehend the changeover from a base 323 to a GTX is to compare prices. The base price for the basic 323 three-door hatchback is $6,299, while the base on the GTX is $12,999. So, right off, it's apparent the GTX is a sport of a car requiring a sport of a buyer.

For basics, the GTX has a wheelbase of 94.5 inches, overall length of 161.8 inches, width of 64.8 inches, height of 54.9 inches. It weighs in at 2,600 pounds. Despite being a four-wheel drive vehicle, it is just about the same height as the front-wheel drive version. It does, however, weigh some 500 pounds more.

Full-time four-wheel drive passenger vehicles are now being offered by many manufacturers. Obviously, one of the reasons making this type of vehicle popular, especially in the Northeast, is traction on snow and other slippery surfaces. But since most days the roads are dry, this isn't the main reason. I must admit, even after driving a number of these vehicles I am hard-pressed to figure out just what it is. Perhaps it is just the security or maybe even the novelty of driving this type of vehicle.

Driving the GTX really requires no special skills or thought. And it is doubtful if many drivers would be able to feel a difference in the reaction of the car in all normal driving situations. In snow and under other less-than- ideal road conditions, yes. Otherwise, forget it and enjoy it.

The system in the GTX utilizes a planetary gear center differential to split engine torque evenly between front and rear wheels. In addition to traction, road holding ability is improved. But, again, since there's so little difference in the feel of this car, it might not be apparent. The only time a driver does have to make a decision with the GTX would be in especially slippery conditions. Here, he or she would have to push a dash-mounted button to activate an electric differential lock.

Some of the features distinguishing the GTX are obvious by just looking. There are performance tires mounted on alloy wheels, rear spoiler and dark lower body panels. On the inside, what soon becomes apparent are the sport seats up front. The seats are firm, have high bolsters and can be adjusted in a number of ways. The driver, though, has the better of it since this seat has lumbar and side bolster adjustments.

The rest of the interior is also done up in a sporty manner . The instrument panel features rather unique electronic instrumentation that almost looks like a conventional instrument panel. The speedometer and tachometer are round with speeds permanently printed on the outer edges. Electronic bars acting similar to sweep dials indicate mph and rpm. Not at all hokey and easy to read.

Controls are standard Japanese issue and not difficult to use. The foglamp switch looks like an afterthought, though, since it is located next to the ignition lock and was accidentally activated every time the key was turned off and on.

The four-wheel-drive system may provide the traction but it is the suspension that determines the handling. The GTX uses the basic 323 suspension but has it tuned not only to accommodate the 4WD but to give the car sporty handling. The four-wheel independent suspension features Mazda's Twin Trapezoidal Link (TTL) system in the rear and MacPherson struts up front. Helping things out are 185/60R14 performan e tires on 5.5J-14 alloy wheels.

Handling is quite good, but then this should be expected in this type of car. Also, when all things are considered, the ride isn't bad at all. A little firm, but no more than any car with sport suspension.

The intercooled turbocharged double-overhead-camshaft engine is quite sophisticated. The engine only measures 1.6-liter/98-cubic-inches but pumps out an impressive 132 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 136 foot pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. (Again, to show the difference, the non-turbo, single overhead camshaft engine in other 323 models is rated at 82 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 92 foot pounds of torque at 2,500 rpm.)

Performance is impressive and doesn't let up. Just stomp on the gas and make sure the five-speed manual (the only transmission available) is in the right gear and the GTX will fly. Off-the-line acceleration is quick - 0-60 in about nine seconds - but a little different since the wheels don't spin. (The four-wheel drive system, of course.) As with all small displacement engines, regardless of horsepower, the transmission just can't be left in fifth gear and forgotten. RPMs must be kept up by frequent shifting.

Fuel mileage for the test car came to 15 miles per gallon for city driving and 22 mpg over the highway. Premium must be used. Compared to other small cars, this certainly isn't anything to brag about. Obviously, it is not the engine size but the horses that have to be fed.

As mentioned, base price for the GTX is $12,999. This price includes lots of equipment. Full price on the test car, including an overland freight charge of $265, came to $14,734. Certainly nothing bashful about this price. Three options were: air conditioning, $760; ungraded radio with cassette, $415, and power windows and door locks, $295.

The GTX is covered by a three-year, 50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty which covers every part on the vehicle, except those subject to normal wear.