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Buying Used - Mazda BFMR 323/Ford KE Laser 4WD Turbo

Very accomplished pocket rockets that are ideal for hitting dirt tracks!

By Michael Knowling

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The combination of all-wheel-drive and turbo power is taken largely for granted these days, but back in the mid/late '80s it was very much 'all you can eat'. Sure, Audi had their mega-buck turbo AWD guns and Subaru offered its slightly odd (and slow) RX 4WD but the real star on the scene was Mazda's 323 4WD and the re-badged Ford Laser TX3.

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Released in Australia back in late 1987, the Mazda-designed 323/TX3 4WDs brought serious 'big car engineering' into the hatchback segment. Unfortunately, though, with a new retail price of over $25,000 (almost as much as Ford's top-line XF Fairmont Ghia!), only the most dedicated performance enthusiasts signed on the dotted line. Relatively modest numbers were sold and of course, the number of examples that have survived 15 year of use (and abuse) is even smaller.

But the number of cars available in the Australian second-hand market is set to surge.

In addition to the 323/TX3 4WDs sold locally, the relatively laid-back regulations for importing 15-year-old vehicles opens the gates to Japanese domestic market 323s (the Ford version was never sold in Japan). While the market price for a locally delivered 323/TX3 4WD reaches as high as AUD$9000, 'grey' Japanese import versions can be purchased and registered from around AUD$6000. Adelaide Japanese Dismantlers, for example, have an example arriving in the very near future and Yahoo Motorsport (also based in Adelaide) can import compliance-ready 323s on demand. Be warned, though, a considerable proportion of 323 4WDs have been used in competition.

The 323/TX3 4WD was born to rally.

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Like most constant four-wheel-drive vehicles of the era, the 323/TX3 is equipped with a viscous centre drive coupling to the front and rear wheels. This configuration apportions torque 50:50 front-to-rear in normal driving, but in extreme conditions sends a greater ratio of torque to the axle with the most grip. The 323/TX3's off-roading abilities are illustrated by a centre diff lock, which is switchable from inside the cabin. With the centre diff locked, torque is applied evenly front-to-rear regardless of conditions - real four-wheel-driving stuff.

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Locally-delivered 323 and TX3 4WDs - as well as certain Japanese models - feature in-cabin adjustable suspension height, where a hydraulic pump is used to raise or lower the ride height by 30mm. The suspension layout is essentially the same as more conventional mid/late '80s 323/Lasers. You'll find struts at the front and TTLs (Twin Trapezoidal Links) at the rear, but - compared to front-drive models - the track has been widened and the roll centre revised.

Handling is characteristically mild understeer, but on dirt it's quite easy to get the rear stepping out with some late braking into corners. Engage the diff lock, though, and all you get is understeer.

With excellent traction and sophisticated suspension, the 323/TX3 4WD is begging for a sporty engine - and it gets one!

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Under the bonnet is the B6 16-valve, DOHC, 1.6-litre transverse four fitted with a turbocharger, air-to-air intercooler and full engine management. The static compression ratio is quite low at just 7.8:1, but drivability is perfectly adequate and the thing really wakes up at anything more than 3000 rpm. Peak torque (186Nm) can be found at 5000 rpm and if you keep going you'll reach peak power (103kW) at 6000. Note that these power and torque figures are achieved only when running premium unleaded fuel.

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The only transmission you'll find in these 4WD hatches is a 5-speed manual, which has an unfortunate tendency to baulk when rushed. A relatively short 4.105 final drive helps overcome the weight burden of the 4WD system and, on average, these little rippers can accelerate to 100 km/h in the 9-second range. The official Mazda figure was 8.5 seconds.

Braking performance of these 1130+ kilogram hatches is up to standard using 238mm ventilated front and 222mm rear solid discs. Don't bother looking for an ABS system under the bonnet because there ain't one.

The Front-Drive Versions

In addition to the 4WD BFMR Mazda 323, a front-drive version was released locally. Ford Australia also offered a front-wheel-drive variant. Weighing around 100kg less than the 4WD and with the same 103kW output, the front-driver is around half a second quicker to 100 km/h but is said to exhibit strong torque steer and is nowhere near as stable.

Interestingly, the front-wheel-drive TX3 Turbo was reputedly assembled locally whereas the other models were imported from Japan.

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Visually, the 323 4WD is nothing special - which means it's a great sleeper. The conservative lines of the standard Mazda 323 are clearly evident, but you'll also find upper and lower rear spoilers, a sports bumpers, skirts and some telltale stickers - "DOHC Turbo" down one side of the car and "Full Time 4WD" down the other! About half way through the model's life a facelift freshened the overall look .

The Ford TX3 version has a little more prominence with its bolder colour combinations, red pin-striping, Laser-spec taillights and a unique quad headlight front-end.

Both the Mazda and Ford come with standard 14-inch alloy wheels wearing 185/60 tyres. Some Japanese versions came with only steel wheels (which were intended for replacement with rally wheels and tyres).

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Inside, the 323 and TX3 Turbos are quite comfortable and offer plenty of storage considering their size. The Mazda is more opulent with standard features such as electric windows and mirrors, sunroof, air conditioning and central locking. Air conditioning was an option in the Ford version, while power windows and a sunroof were not available. Both the Mazda and Ford share a speedo (180 km/h on imports), tacho, fuel and temp gauges.

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As mentioned, not too many AUD$25,000+ Mazda 323 or Ford TX3 4WD hatches were sold in Australia when new. But depending on condition and kilometres, second-hand examples range up to AUD$9000. That's pretty steep when you consider the price of VR4s and Liberty RS Turbos, so it's a good idea to look at Japanese import versions for around AUD$6000 on-the-road - at that price, we reckon you're onto a good thing.

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Being available in locally delivered form and as a second-hand Japanese import, the 323 4WD - and the TX3 - have no problems when it comes to parts. The only reliability issues we've heard of include noisy HLAs (Hydraulic Lash Adjusters), broken exhaust manifold studs and trashed gearboxes (like virtually any constant 4WD turbocar). Replacement gearboxes can be picked up from import wreckers for about AUD$1000.

From a modification point of view, these 4WD turbo hatches are a great platform. The usual high-flow exhaust will give improved drivability and around 10 - 15 percent more power, and the air intake can also be released to give up to around 5 percent more power. Note, though, the standard vane-type airflow meter is very restrictive.

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Feel free to shove a bit more boost into the motor, but be aware that the standard intercooler is fairly light-duty - we'd look for a bigger 'cooler for anything above 14 psi boost. This level of modification may also require a stronger clutch, but be careful - a no-slip clutch and an enthusiastic driving style will almost certainly break the gearbox. Don't be put off, though, because we've seen these cars running 12-second quarter miles using the stock 'box...

Not bad for a hatchback you can buy for AUD$6000!

Mazda BFMR 323/Ford KE Laser TX3 4WD Turbo Fast Facts...
  • Very stable and sure-footed
  • Fantastic on dirt
  • Practical and unassuming
  • Willing engine
  • Plenty of tuning potential
  • Very cheap in imported form


Adelaide Japanese Imports
+61 8 8369 1156

Yahoo Motorsport
+61 8 8345 0939 / 0416 080462

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