Evolutionary: For a long time, the Mazda3 was just a great little car

The Japanese automaker has released generation after generation of this tiny happy family car – here are some highlights

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A perennial favorite in the small car market, The Mazda3 brings with it a certain level of style and sophistication to what should be the entry end of the market. It’s a head-turner whether sedan or hatchback, and with a potent turbocharged powertrain and all-wheel drive available, it’s a hoot to drive. It’s best described as a great little car – fitting as it’s from a long line of theirs.

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In fact, it’s not the first time Mazda has built a compact car with turbocharging and all-wheel drive. It’s also not the first time the company has built a car with a little more style than you’d expect. Here’s a look at Mazda’s history of great little cars.

My family

Technically, the modern car is a Mazda Mazda3, which is a bit of a sip. However, the original car, which debuted in the Japanese market in time for the 1964 Olympics, was charmingly direct. It was a family car penned by Italian designer Giugiaro Gigaro: hence the Familia.

A 1975 Mazda Familia sold as the R-100 in North America
A 1975 Mazda Familia sold as the R-100 in North America Photo by Mazda

Overseas, the Familia nameplate lasted until 2003, although Canadians would know the cars by a variety of names (which we’ll get to shortly). The early cars were tiny, with small-displacement engines, and it should be noted that two-thirds of them were commercial vans. Cars were a luxury in Japan in the mid-1960s, but that was about to change.

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In the North American market, the Familia was simply the Mazda 1200 or R-100. The former referred to displacement, the latter was powered by Mazda’s groundbreaking Wankel engine. R-100s are extremely rare today, but occasionally show up in vintage races.

GLC: Great little car

Early Mazdas were successful for the same reason as many Japanese imports: they were inexpensive and economical to run. The 100hp rotary drive R-100 was interesting from a technological point of view, but it wasn’t the most efficient offering out there. When the gas crises of the 1970s hit, Mazda may have been in trouble.

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However, the aptly named Mizer helped hold down the fortress. Its fourth-generation Familia replacement, called the GLC in North America, was the hit Mazda needed. It had rear-wheel drive, a 1.3-liter engine with just 53 hp and was available as either a hatchback or station wagon.

Having driven a GLC that has been in good condition, I can say that these cars are not particularly sporty, but they are more fun than you would expect. The hatch-or-wagon layout is very practical and fuel economy was excellent. Mazda marketed the GLC as the “Great Little Car” and to many satisfied customers it was exactly what it was.

Dial 323 for rallies

The Familia range switched to a front-wheel drive layout for the next generation, known as the 323 in most markets. North America retained the GLC nickname as it was so familiar to customers. There was also a small overlap where you could buy a rear-wheel drive GLC wagon or a front-wheel drive GLC hatch.

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But, to jump a bit further, the really good stuff arrived in the next generation of cars, all of which were now called 323s to be in line with Mazda’s rest of the export markets. In particular, Mazda decided to move into Group A rallying and so required special homologation based on its short-wheelbase Familia.

The GTX was only sold for two years – 1988 and 1989 – and offered serious rally performance. Under the hood was a 1.6-liter, 132-horsepower turbocharged engine that was just begging for more boost to unlock. A five-speed manual transmission and all-wheel drive put the power to the ground, and the chassis rails had been reinforced to take more stress. Fourteen years before the WRX, a hot little Mazda was poised to kick gravel in the face of its rivals.

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A protégé of Zoom-Zoom

Taking a cue from the R-100, the 323 GTX was trendsetting and fast, but not the most rational choice. Mazda had to sell a lot of ordinary 323s to actually leave the lights on, and luckily it did. It’s also worth noting that turbocharging and all-wheel drive continued in the next generation of the 323, though not for North America.

Sedan versions of this next-generation 323 were called Protégé, the idea being that this compact had learned its lessons from comfortable mid-size family sedans. This and the later Protégés were more nimble to drive than their modest four-cylinder engines would suggest.

A 2002 Mazda Protege5 station wagon
A 2002 Mazda Protege5 station wagon Photo by Mazda

We have to pause here to talk about a vehicle you may have never seen or heard of, the Mazda Protégé Neo. A two-door glass hatchback coupe, a Mazda-like version of the mid-1990s Honda CR-X, sold primarily in Europe as the 323C. Canada got a handful of these for the 1995 model year, including just over 100 with the more powerful 1.8-liter engine and a manual transmission. A rare car to discover!

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Far more common on Canadian roads is the Protögö5, one of the pinnacle Mazdas of the early 2000s. Very practical, with four doors and a hatchback, the ProtögÖ5 was also really fun to drive and still looks stylish. The chassis could have used more power, but without the complexity of a turbocharger, the 1.8-liter four-cylinder was simply more economical to run.

The savage grows up

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Introduced for the 2004 model year, the Mazda3 replaced the protagonist and was a smash hit right from the start. With an available 2.3 liter engine and great looks, it was the car to go for if you wanted to stand out from the crowd in your Honda Civics. The hatchback seemed very popular with younger buyers.

Mazda noticed this and decided to give these customers all the Mazda3 they could handle. There had been a supercharged version of the protagonist called Mazdaspeed, but this new Mazdaspeed3 was going to be a much more riotous machine. It put out a peak horsepower of 263 and 280 lb-ft of torque, and it would spin its front tires at the slightest provocation. The first car was a bit of a sleeper, but the second generation doubled the aggression with a giant hood scoop.

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However, Mazda executives soon decided it was time to show a little more maturity. Let them Fast and Furious Stuff on the likes of the Subaru WRX, and try to elevate the Mazda brand. The Mazdaspeed3 was a car for kids and it was time to put away childish things.

2023 MazdaMazda3
2023 MazdaMazda3 Photo by Brendan McAleer

That’s not to say the company wouldn’t keep that sense of fun alive, just in a package that’s less of a hooligan. The second generation Mazda3 had a wide goofy grin for a grille; With the third-generation car, the driver would have to make his own smile.

The Mazda3 is still the kind of car that will help you do that. Even the basic equipment is satisfactory steering, and the turbocharged models charge forward on a wave of torque. That torque is now much better tamed than the old Mazdaspeed models, but it’s still impressive. Running on premium fuel, the 2.5-liter turbocharged engine produces 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. But since not every Mazda customer is looking for speed, the engine can be run on 87 octane fuel for a slight downgrade to 227 hp – and an imperceptible 10 lb-ft loss of torque.

This kind of high-torque powertrain almost feels like Mazda is trying to prepare its customers for a future Mazda3 with electric or plug-in hybrid powertrain. Such a car is certainly on the way, perhaps with the Great Little EV name.

Image by Brendan McAleer

Brendan McAleer


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