Junkyard Find: 1988 Mazda 323 Base Hatchback

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

Six thousand 1988 dollars were worth about $15,822 in today's money, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, just below the MSRP of the cheapest new car available here now. In 1988, American car shoppers could choose among a dozen new cars priced below that figure. Today's Junkyard Find is a rare example of Mazda's entry in the sub-six-grand field for '88, found in a self-service yard in northeastern Colorado.

junkyard find 1988 mazda 323 base hatchback

Stripped-down 1980s econoboxes with few or no options are nearly nonexistent today since their resale values tended to hit scrap-metal levels at about age 15.

This car had an MSRP of $5,999 ($15,820 in 2023 dollars), and I can't find a single extra-cost option on it.

Mazda began selling the second-generation Familia in North America in 1971, as the 1200 (with piston engine) and R100 (with Wankel engine). The fourth-generation Familia became the GLC (Great Little Car) here, first available as a 1977 model.

The fifth-generation Familia moved to a front-wheel-drive platform and debuted here as the 1981 GLC. North American GLC sales continued through 1985, and a facelifted Familia became the 323 here for 1986.

The Familia sedan became the Protegé here for the 1990 model year, while the 323 name remained on the hatchback through 1994. The final Familias sold here were the 2003 Protegés, after which the Mazda3 took over.

So, let's talk about price. The block-off plate where a right-side mirror might have lived tells us that the original buyer of this car wasn't willing to shell out any extra clams for frivolous extras.

The transmission is the 323 hatch's poverty-spec four-speed manual. The four-on-the-floor was available on new cars in the United States all the way through 1996 (in fact, three-speed manuals could be had in new cars here through 1981 and in light trucks through 1987), but was still considered suitable just for serious cheapskates by the late 1980s. Every configuration of the 1988 Mazda 323 available in the United States had a five-speed manual as standard equipment, except for the base three-door hatchback.

No power steering. No radio. No air conditioning. No cruise control. No tachometer. No rear window defogger (the defogger wires are embedded in the glass, but there's a block-off plate where the switch would have gone).

The very cheapest new 1988 car you could get in the United States was, of course, the $4,199 Yugo GV. The cheapest Hyundai Excel was just $5,295 that year. For (slightly) bigger spenders, the $5,490 Ford Festiva (a Mazda design built by Kia), $5,495 Chevrolet Sprint (Suzuki Cultus) and $5,556 Subaru Justy awaited.

Then you had a bunch of cars with prices from $5,899 through $5,999, including the Dodge/ Plymouth Colt, Dodge Omni/ Plymouth Horizon, Volkswagen Fox, and Toyota Tercel EZ. Knowing what we know now, if I had a time machine and orders to buy a new 1988 car under six grand, I'd take the Tercel EZ and its excellent build quality as my first choice, with the slightly-more-fun-to-drive 323 as a close second. Actually, I'd have insisted on $6,095 as the cutoff, putting the cheapest possible 1988 Honda Civic within my grasp.

This car made it to 195,372 miles during its life, which is pretty good for a throwaway commuter appliance bought on the cheap.

There's some rust-through in the usual areas, not so bad for a Japanese car of its era.

The keys are in the ignition, which might mean that this car was a trade-in that nobody wanted to buy. Note the row of switch block-off plates to the right of the steering column.

The Yugo, Justy, and Tercel EZ still breathed through carburetors for 1988, but even the lowliest new 323 came with electronic fuel injection at no extra cost that year. This engine was rated at 82 horsepower and 92 pound-feet.

Air conditioning would have added $760 to this car's cost (about $2,004 in 2023 dollars). An automatic transmission listed at $700 ($1,846 now). An AM/FM/cassette stereo cost $415 ($1,094 today). Power steering was $240 ($633). This car's original buyer was very disciplined about skipping options and pinching pennies.

If you wanted James Garner's choice in a new 323 SE sedan, the price started at $7,899 ($20,830 in 2023 dollars).

The 323+ hatchback gave New Brunswick Mazda shoppers a right-side mirror and a cassette deck at no extra cost.

Even the home-market ads got wailing guitars.

[Images: The Author]

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2 of 36 comments
  • William William on Jul 25, 2023

    I had one of these in 2002. I bought it for a paltry $800 and almost immediately regretted it, as the timing was wonky due to something attached to the crankshaft having a few CM of play. Mazda dealer said to replace it would be a lot more than the value of the car. Local mechanic took $300 to put a weld in the space that cleared up the timing issue until it died at the hands of my nephew a few years later doing reverse donuts in a snowy parking lot.

    I hit a deer with the thing, and insurance totaled it, but I replaced the front and driver side door glass, along with the rear view mirror and rear turn signal light (yeah, I don't know how, but he got that, too).

    Best feature of this non-air conditioned car was the crotch vent. Under the steering wheel there was a vent you could open and fresh air from outside would bathe your genitals with a breeze of fresh air.

    I don't miss it. I've had a lot better cars in my life since (2012 Mazda3 is my current). But I miss the idea of it. Cheap, and not great looking, even before the deer. But it ran, and took my abuse like a champ.

  • John Hoelscher John Hoelscher on Sep 01, 2023

    I just so happen to own a 1988 323, but it's not quite as barebones as this one. Has two mirrors, a/c, radio, and rear defrost. No power steering and no tach still. It's a surprisingly fun car to drive for 80hp.

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