Mazda MX-03

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Grand touring machines are some of the most specialized on the planet. 

It may not seem like it, but as a distinct class of vehicle, the European carmakers have always defined what a grand tourer should be.

In modern times, offerings from Europe are as diverse as the Aston Martin DB9, Renault Avantime, Volkswagen XL1, and Bentley Continental GT. But, at some time or another, nearly every carmaker has produced models that could be considered grand tourers.

What makes a GT? Let's take the examples above: they're all stylish coupes that put driver comfort above all else, they're long-geared, (relatively) softly sprung, and are most at home—despite what the marketing may say—on the highway.

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I think that the driving conditions in Europe directly contribute to my opinion that, nine times out of 10, a European grand tourer is better than its non-European counterpart. But it never stops other automakers from trying.

Presented at the Frankfurt and Tokyo Motor Shows in 1985—and the Chicago Auto Show in 1986—the Mazda MX-03 comes from an alternate future where the world's grand tourers come from Japan.

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In fact, if you were to read these specs without looking at the photographs, there's nothing that would lead you to guess it is a Mazda. 

  • Coupe body with 2+2 seating
  • 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) in less than five seconds
  • Top speed of more than 300 km/h (186 mph)
  • Four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering
  • Disc brakes with ABS and an automatic transmission
  • Driver-focused interior, including a heads-up display 

Actually, its closest cousin these days would be a BMW 6-Series, the 650i xDrive Coupe—the specs are nearly identical.

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Obviously, the exterior styling is Japanese to the point of looking like it was copied from the G1 Transformers toy line. Inside, there's no wood trim like you'd find in a more traditional grand tourer—its only connection to the outside world is a colour selection and button layout that were lifted from a Ricoh fax machine.

And, in a nod to its concept car roots, its control surfaces—gear shift and steering wheel—have more in common with the Spectravideo QuickShot than anything that's ever come from Nardi, Sparco, or Momo.

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Mazda fans have been waiting for the moment in this story when I confirm that, yes, it had a rotary engine. Three rotors, 1.962-litres, turbochargers, and an output of 320 horsepower.

I love a rotary engine as much as the next guy, but you have to admit that it's not the best choice for a grand tourer…you know, with the tendency to overheat, leak oil, and fail prematurely. For the jet-set crowd, a large and lazy V6 or V8 engine is best.

The MX-03 is a working prototype—yes, it moves—but is best remembered as a charming relic of the year when the Billboard Hot 100 was topped by singles from Wham!, Madonna, Foreigner, Chaka Kahn, Hall & Oates, Dire Straits, Tears for Fears, and a-ha.

Revolutionary? Not really. But there are other grand tourers from Japan, of course; some of which are loved even today.

But that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading